It’s our first night in the Congo. … I imagine I’m like many of you in that I tend to focus only on those places that I have some direct experience of. … I told my dad last week that going to Africa actually makes me a little nervous because I’m just not sure I have enough time in my day, energy in my life, or even room in my heart for more of that (combination of) suffering and beauty. But you know what? Tonight when we got off the plane, our first stop was a little Presbyterian Church called Mikongo. As we pulled into the driveway, there were probably fifty people waiting for us – mostly kids. (Did you know that 48% of the population of this country is under fifteen years old?) They were so excited to have us visit. The children sang – absolutely beautifully – and we just had a short service of welcome. There is joy – and it is abundant in this place. And I remembered that relationships with real people make this fun – not a task to be accepted – but a joy to be embraced. I’ve known that for many years, but I’m especially mindful of it as I arrive in this place.
May 15 (Pentecost Sunday)
The PC(USA) has two mission partner churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Presbyterian Church of the Congo (CPC) covers all the Presbyterian churches outside of the capital city of Kinshasa. The other, called the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa (CPK), is limited to the region in and around the capital city.
The CPC has close to two million members, and it is a growing church. …
Yesterday, I attended a church in Kananga called “Katoka – Nord” with the General Secretary of the CPC, a large, thoughtful man with a steady smile named Dr. Mulumba. The church is a large cinderblock, rectangular building with a tin roof. There were no windows, but the concrete walls had sections where the blocks had been left out, and the doors were left open for ventilation. It was quite hot. … There were moments of great animation in which everyone in the congregation was up and dancing in the aisles. One of those moments was during the offering, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in church before. In front of the pulpit there was a communion table at floor level. It had five plastic, green buckets sitting underneath it. There was also a wooden box beside the communion table that said: “We are called to give ten percent of what we have.” …
The offering began with a child standing in front of the communion table holding one of the buckets. All of the children, even the youngest who were just learning to walk, went forward and placed money in the basket. Then, a teenager stepped forward and held another bucket to receive the offerings of all the teenagers and young adults as they danced and sang their way forward. Finally, one of the elders held a bucket as first the male elders, then the women leaders, then all of the other men and women in the church danced forward down the two outside aisles, offered their gifts, and danced and sang their way back to their seats down the center aisles. The whole thing took more than fifteen minutes, but it was the most exciting, vibrant, alive offering in which I’ve participated in my life. …
As we shared a meal with some of the elders after the service, they asked us questions about our own churches. They marveled at the idea that worship could be contained within a one-hour service. They had a hard time imagining a church with only one choir, or in which the children’s choir sings only once a month. For them, it was clear: church is the center of their lives and their community. Everywhere I go, people here in the Congo are praying for their brothers and sisters in the United States. Please keep the people of the Presbyterian Church in the Congo in your prayers as well. … These are my thoughts from a place where the Spirit is alive on this Pentecost Sunday.
No matter how long I live, I don’t believe I’ll ever have an experience that tops the welcome we have received here in Bulape. … As we descended the three steps from the rear of the airplane, we were overwhelmed with the crush of people. People everywhere – smiling and wanting to shake our hands. There was one tall village soldier for the king wearing a grass skirt with shells woven into it and two huge gourds that hung around his neck. He was carrying a long spear in one hand, and antelope antlers in the other. He turned out to be our protector and guide, shooing the children away to clear a path for us as we walked up the hill to the mission station. I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, truly speechless.
For years, I’ve been hearing about the mission stations planted by Presbyterian missionaries here in Africa, but I had no frame of reference to help me picture one in my mind. I’ve now visited four of them, and I’m fascinated by the feeling I get of entering a Congo of fifty to one hundred years ago – mixed together with a sense of what African village life is like today. Each of the stations is planted in or very near a village, In Bulape, the village is less than a ten minute walk down the hill, and it has grown to nearly 20,000 thousand people who have moved here to be closer to good medical care, better schools, and greater economic options that come with a larger population base. There are close to five thousand children in the schools in Bulape and the other villages that closely surround it. Back on the hill, there are several dozen buildings: a large church, substantial missionary houses from the old days, a hospital and nurses school, and a variety of outbuildings used for education, storage, workshops, and administration. …
In 1960, just before the Congolese gained their independence from Belgium, there were close to two hundred Presbyterian missionaries and their families living and working in the Congo. Now there are fewer than half a dozen. …As I walk around the station, I can feel the spirit and the presence of the dozens of missionaries who have made this place their home and this work their vocation over the years.
(On a visit to city of Mbuji Mayi) We were seated in the yard in front of the home of Pastor Chibemba and his wife, Mama Rose, who had graciously prepared our meal. The sky was dark, and our gathering was illuminated by the light of a single, naked bulb run on a generator. The twenty-five of us fit easily under the spreading branches of three mango trees. … Doug Welch is the PC(USA) Regional Area Coordinator for Central West Africa, and he is fluent in both French and Tshiluba. Mbuji Mayi is where Doug began his mission service to our church back in the late 1970s. He’s bright, dedicated, savvy about the complex dynamics in the DR Congo and our relationship with our Congolese partners, and he obviously cares desperately about these people. He sat with me during our meal and translated a conversation with an old friend of his named Medikanda, who is responsible for the development work of the church here in the East Kasai. Medikanda’s primary responsibility is food security, and most of his development work is among rural folks who make their living on the land. He and a small group of promoter/organizers resource 82 associations of ten to fifteen people each – over one thousand participants total.
One of their projects is a nascent palm oil project I’ve seen in several different places as I’ve traveled, developed with technical support from our Mission Co-Worker Larry Sthreshley and funding from the Presbyterian Medical Benevolence Foundation and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The numbers seem to be magic. … Within five years, Larry tells me that the five thousand dollar investment should be returning $40,000 to $60,000 per year after the cost of labor.
(At worship service in Kinshasa.) There is much to be learned from these congregations. The hallmark of worship here involves the mind, soul and body. People are up and dancing and singing for much of the time. Children are included – one of the choirs is the best children’s choir I’ve ever heard. People are clearly there because this kind of worship lifts them up and carries them through a very difficult week. This is worship that knows we depend on God. … I find myself wondering more and more what it would take to reclaim this kind of experience of God in our church.
(I’m grateful to Presbyterian Mission Co-Worker Inge Sthreshley, who works with the Garden Project in Kinshasa, and Nancy Haninger, a nurse/midwife working with a pilot project in Tshikaji, for their work and for educating me about these projects.) The Moringa tree is a miracle. The Moringa grows quickly in any tropical climate. Within six months of planting a seed or a piece of trunk, one can cut leaves from the tree to eat. …
Check out these statistics on the nutritious value of Moringa leaves, from a book called “The Tree of Life” published by Church World Services in 1999. “For a child aged 1-3, a 100g serving of fresh cooked leaves would provide all his/her daily requirements of calcium, about 75% of his iron and half his protein needs, as well as important amounts of potassium, B vitamins, copper and all the essential amino acids. As little as 20 grams of leaves would provide a child with all the vitamins A and C he needs.”
In Kinshasa, Inge tells me thousands of trees have been planted. The first seeds are planted on the properties of Presbyterian churches, schools, and clinics. As soon as the tree begins to mature, the cuttings are offered to women to plant in their own yards. I visited the pilot project up country at Tshikaji with Nancy, and got to meet with one of the promoters there. The project is housed in a nutrition center next door to Good Shepherd Hospital. The Center identifies children who are highly malnourished and invites their mothers (with their other children) to live at the center for a short period of time where their children can be offered a special diet and monitored for progress in their growth. … In the area around Tshikaji, more than sixty percent of the children meet the World Health Organization’s definition of malnourished. In Kinshasa, urban poverty is a grim backdrop to the problems of malnutrition that are widespread among the children. I thank God for the magic of the Moringa Tree and the wonderful church volunteers from the DR Congo and from the United States who are promoting its growth. Mission matters.
We were at the Women’s Development Center of the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa, and our small delegation was meeting with three pastors (one woman, two men) who are part of a team working to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis. HIV/AIDS in this country and across Africa is a problem that defies my imagination. The DR Congo has roughly fifty-two million people, and close to three million people have HIV or AIDS. (As usual, I’m long on reflection but short on detail. If you’re interested, please go to http://www.pcusa.org/health/usa/healthinfo/hivaids/resources.htm for links to better statistics and information.) This is a problem that seems to touch every aspect of church life, and preoccupation about it has been widespread among the church leaders with whom we’ve met. … One youth leader explained to me that they actually plan youth events for late afternoon each day because they know that is when teenagers are most likely to be involved in sexual activity. The CPK commissioned twelve volunteers to help the church coordinate its response to the AIDS pandemic. The group included men and women who were pastors, lay people, and teenagers. They began by training one hundred volunteers to become organizers and community educators about this issue. The first step in the community is to convince church members that they should take the test to determine whether they have the virus. Though there is little access to the anti-retroviral drugs needed to treat the symptoms of the disease, it is critical to identify those who are infected and to ensure that they understand the disease and what it could mean to infect someone else. …
This group sees the Bible as the best possible resource to guide their church and society in developing a response, and they insist that any response that doesn’t deal with what the Bible has to say about sexual intercourse outside of marriage is morally bankrupt. Worse, in this spot in the world it has clearly become a matter of life and death. They take it a step further, however. After careful biblical study, the team is convinced that the Bible has a lot to say about stigmatizing any group of people, and that the stigma attached with this disease causes as many problems as the disease itself. …
It would be easy to despair in confronting this problem. However, the people of God are creative, energetic, and smart. That’s a good thing, because the problems that confront God’s people are significant. Everywhere I go – in the Congo, in Colombia and Central America, on the U.S./Mexico border, and in communities across the United States – I see examples of what I refer to as “the Church being Church.” Those churches share a common approach. They assess the situation, pray continuously for God’s guidance and wisdom, and get started – no matter how overwhelming or intractable a problem may seem. I’m excited about the ways the PC(USA) is a part of God’s work here, and I dream that this important work of “Church being Church” will continue to fan the flames of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our denomination. Please pray for our brothers and sisters who are ministering to those with HIV/AIDS, and for thousands of families … struggling with this disease.
The music stole the service, of course, as it has in every worship service in which I’ve participated here in the DR Congo. One song that the CPK Women’s Choir had written centered around the refrain, Jesu masiya nicolo na bikamua, which translates, “Jesus Christ is Maker of Miracles.” As I sat on the stage and looked out over a sea of small, paper flags waving in response to the music of the choir, I was convinced that the women of this church are absolutely right. Jesus Christ is maker of miracles. We can depend on it. We are called to give our lives to it.
(Letter to his wife, Kitty.) It’s dawn in Kinshasa, the last day of our trip. … If I had to choose a word to describe my feelings as I prepare to leave later today, I think it would have to be ambivalence. That’s a dangerous word, because in our church and in our country I think ambivalence is too often associated with inaction. …
Maybe I should start with what I feel no ambivalence about. I’m convinced that we’ve made a good decision to spend our lives on the margin where contradictions abound and few things seem to be clear. God is here with the folks whose needs are so great, and I’ve discovered God again as I’ve spent time with the people of the DR Congo. God seems to love the messy ambiguity of hanging out with the people who are most at risk. …
Though we have a strong and wonderful tradition of mission in this place, and in many ways Presbyterians have led the world in caring for God’s people here … in too many places I’ve visited the legacy of our mission efforts is a community of dependency that leads with asking the church in the U.S. “What will you do for us?” Even in our consultations with our PC(USA) partners, church leaders have made it clear that their conviction is that if we simply make their desperate condition known, U.S. Christians will be compelled to send money and that money will make things better. Doug Welch, our regional coordinator for Central and West Africa, is told by our partners that he is one of them because he speaks their language, knows their customs, and is at home here. It is a heavy burden to bear however, because he is also told that he is responsible for the welfare of the church: that the weight of the great needs of our church partners here is on him. …
I feel almost like a traitor when I write these words. Somehow, it feels as if I’m supposed to share only the joy and the excitement of the church here. There is plenty of that, too, and I’ve tried to share those stories as I’ve traveled this month. But I don’t think we gain anything by not talking about how hard it is to know how to do mission today. No matter how hard we work at being faithful to God’s call, there will still be more to do. No matter how faithful the people of God are in this place, the needs are likely to grow. In spite of our best intentions, mission is likely to remain a messy business in which the power imbalances will remain and the line distinguishing Christian service, fellowship and community from creating unhealthy patterns of dependency will be difficult to discern.
Still, we remain a people called to service because it’s a messy proposition, not in spite of it. God doesn’t allow us the luxury of isolation from need .
Over and over again, the Bible calls us to be an adventuresome people who defy the borders of our own fear and complacency to reach out to others. And, as I’ve shared in my storytelling of the last few weeks, there are plenty of creative areas where we are accompanying the church here and can be a positive force for Jesus Christ and Christ’s values here in the Congo.
I wish I could require every Presbyterian in the U.S. to have this kind of experience of God’s community. I think we would have little time for so much of the bickering that seems to occupy our time. If you haven’t been outside of the U.S., outside of your comfort zone, to be with God’s people other places in the world, I hope you’ll consider this an invitation.
Jesu massiya nicolo na bikamua.
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