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From Muslim layman to Lutheran youth minister

Salim Kaderbhai is now serving a north suburgan Twin Cities ELCA congregation

A 27-year-old native of Tanzania who, until five years ago was a devout Muslim, has become a dedicated Christian and now serves as director of youth ministry at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Mounds View, Minnesota.
Salim Kaderbhai, who came to Minnesota in 1998 from his home in the foothills of Mount Kiliman-jaro to study computer science at Concordia College in Moorhead, says he “absolutely” enjoys the work he is doing now.
And, after recently completing a three-week course at Wartburg Seminary and gaining certification in youth and family ministry, he now hopes to start working part-time in January on a master of divinity program at Luther Seminary, specializing in those areas.
The conversion process he went through involved an extremely difficult struggle, and a key figure in his acceptance of the Christian faith was a very unlikely sort of person.
During his sophomore year at Concordia, Salim says he experienced a great emptiness, a lack of any sense of purpose in his life. He sank into severe clinical depression and started drinking a lot, but every time he tried to find answers in his traditional faith, “it didn’t make sense any more.”
After that year, Salim and four other Muslims attending Concordia, including his younger brother, went to Detroit on one of their customary summer money-raising jobs — selling educational books door to door.
One afternoon Salim pulled his car over to the side of the road and fell asleep. When he awoke, as he describes it, he was in a cold sweat and his subconscious was telling him to “go find a church.”
Instead he sped to the home where he and his four companions had rented quarters in the basement and sank onto the couch in the living room, sobbing as he tried to understand what was happening.
The young woman from whom they were renting rooms, a single mother who had gone through a divorce, happened to come home from her work as an airline flight attendant and sat down beside him, trying to comfort him.
“I’ve seen God working in your life all summer long,” she told Salim. “He’s finally calling you to be a Christian.”
The woman, April Line, took a plaque from her mantelpiece on which the words from Philippians 4:13 were inscribed and gave it to Salim. The inscription said, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
After April left, Salim continued crying for about an hour but finally said, “God, I’m tired of wrestling with you, I give up.” Reflecting on that experience, he says, “I have been a Christian ever since that day. I finally understood what God’s grace means.”
His best explanation of what happened that day, Salim says, is that what he had heard all his life about the Christian faith became truth to him and the Holy Spirit took over. Many friends had been praying for him over the years, he believes; and on that day, in his emotional distress, God, who had indirectly touched him through all these people, finally stepped in and claimed his life.
That April Line was the final agent in the conversion process is somewhat ironic. She was a very enthusiastic Christian who started the day with a loud ‘Hallelujah!’ shout, thanking God for another day to serve him, and singing Gospel songs in the shower at the top of her lungs.
“We roommates thought this woman was a little crazy,” Salim recalls.
All was not smooth sailing over the next two years, as Salim contemplated the implications of his conversion, including his relationship with his family members. They remain devout Muslims and he continues to love them deeply. He also struggled with the question of what God was calling him to do with his life.
He finally became convinced that God wanted him to go into the ministry and, after further soul searching, discovered that youth ministry was the area in which he should serve.
Salim returned to Con-cordia College as a fifth-year senior, after another summer of selling books on the road. The campus pastor, Phil Holtan, with whom he had had conversations the previous year, advised him of an opening for a part-time youth pastor at St. John Lutheran in Fargo, North Dakota.
Salim applied for and got the job and spent his final year in Moorhead working at St. John Church. While serving there, he completed his degree work in computer science and took some courses in Concordia’s new non-degree program in church professions.
Following graduation from Concordia in May 2003, Salim spent the summer as a counselor at the Luther Park Bible Camp in Danbury, Wisconsin, and then got a full-time job in the fall as youth minister at Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Cloud. He and his wife, Katie, a Concordia graduate whom he started dating after his conversion, were married in the spring of 2004. They moved to the Twin Cities shortly thereafter, when he took his current position at Abiding Savior in Mounds View.
Salim’s duties, as he works to develop programs for junior and senior high youths include, among other things, leading Bible studies and helping with confirmation classes.
He’s also retrieved an old guitar that he’d discarded because he thought he was too clumsy to play it. With help from a parent in the church and one of the youths, 10th-grader Joshua Anderson, Salim is developing a real passion for the instrument. He’s formed a 10-member youth band that plays at some church functions.
The Rev. Larry Gedde, senior pastor at the 2000-member Mounds View church, says church youth programs too often have a big burst of growth when a charismatic leader takes charge only to die quickly when that person leaves.
“While Salim is the kind of person young people are going to like, he’s also a steady person who’s moving slowly, deliberately and doing this the right way,” Gedde said.
As for the congregation in general, the pastor said, they have received him “with great warmth and affection and great interest because he is a unique young man and a very personable individual.
“Adults and family members have responded to him very well. I think he’s particularly well liked by the senior members of the congregation. He has found an important niche here with us.”