Muslims and Christians “Together Towards Life”

These days, we in the United States continue to discover new intersections of our personal political positions and our personal theology. In this year’s campaign for President, the issue of immigration policy has taken a new direction with even more obvious theological overtones in the contrasting positions of the two parties on admitting Muslim refugees.

As we approach the presidential election, it is likely that Donald Trump’s opposition to Muslims being admitted into the country will continue to feed the perception that the nation with the most Christians in the world is conducting a war on Islam. Some U.S. Christians counter that perception with action such as helping Syrian

Head of the largest Christian university in the U.S. Jerry Falwell Jr. joined Donald Trump at a January campaign event in Iowa
Head of the largest Christian university in the U.S. Jerry Falwell Jr. joined Donald Trump at a January campaign event in Iowa
refugees resettle in the country (as reported in the last blog on https://erasingborders.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/report-from-kansas-city-un-informe-de-kansas-city/). In our context of xenophobia and fear, such action needs now to be joined by defense of freedom of religion along with declaring trust and respect for adherents of Islam.

It is also important if not urgent for Christians in the U.S. to clarify their views on mission and evangelism in the Muslim world. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, conservative Christian mission boards in the U.S. had considerably stepped up efforts to convert Muslims overseas to the Christian faith. The Southern Baptist Convention began distribution of a prayer guide in the late 90’s to guide their followers in praying for conversion of Muslims at the same time they considerably increased the number of missionaries being sent to majority Muslim countries such as Kyrgyzstan.

Fortunately, U.S. Christians seeking ways to unite with Muslims in movements of reconciliation and healing worldwide can find guidance and encouragement in the beautiful statement written by the Commission on Mission and

Chair of the Commission on Mission and Evangelism Bishop Mor Coorilos (WCC photo)
Chair of the Commission on Mission and Evangelism Bishop Mor Coorilos (WCC photo)
Evangelism of the 349 worldwide churches making up the World Council of Churches. Led by a Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Commission unequivocally proclaims that the aim of Christian mission and evangelism today is to join with persons of other faith traditions in affirming human life and the whole of creation.

A summary statement of the Commission’s 2012 document “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes” declares, “Authentic evangelism is done with respect for freedom of religion and belief, for all human beings as images of God. Proselytism by violent means, economic incentive, or abuse of power is contrary to the message of the gospel. In doing evangelism it is important to build relations of respect and trust between people of different faiths.”

At the beginning of the document, the Commission envisions its task as discerning the implications of the “shift of the centre of gravity of Christianity”. One outcome emphasized is the accompanying “shift in mission concept from ‘mission to the margins’ to ‘mission from the margins’” and the ensuing question of “what then is the distinctive contribution of the people from the margins?”

Living the Christian faith as a minority community on the “margins” leads to some profound reflections on our relationships with persons of other faiths: “Plurality is a challenge to the churches and serious commitment to interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural communication is therefore indispensable. What are the ecumenical convictions regarding common witnessing and practicing life-giving mission in a world of many religions and cultures?”

One conviction that emerged from the Commission’s deliberations is that “mission activity linked with colonization has often denigrated cultures and failed to recognize the wisdom of local people. Local wisdom and culture which are life-affirming are gifts from God’s Spirit.” Christians in mission today who join with “local people”, whatever

Son of a Muslim immigrant bus driver Sadiq Khan is the newly elected Mayor of London (Photo by Jonathan Brady, Press Association)
Son of a Muslim immigrant bus driver Sadiq Khan is the newly elected Mayor of London (Photo by Jonathan Brady, Press Association)
their faith tradition, in life sustaining and life enhancing actions find that “marginalized people are reservoirs of the active hope, collective resistance, and perseverance that are needed to remain faithful to the promised reign of God”.

In this time of deep division within the two political parties of the United States and within the country itself, the World Council of Churches’ overview of Christian mission and evangelism calls us to a new vision of unity. The document “Together Towards Life” challenges us to include the entire human species in our interpretation and celebration of the familiar words of Psalm 133:

“How very good and pleasant it is/ when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV version)

Pour la traduction du document de la Commission en francais ver https://www.oikoumene.org/fr/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes?set_language=fr

Pour la traducción en español du document de la Comisión ver
https://www.oikoumene.org/es/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes?set_language=es

“Beyond Vietnam 1967 to Congo 2016”

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo.  He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo. He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church.

On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the U.S. waging war on Vietnam. His “Beyond Vietnam” sermon will undoubtedly stand as a landmark speech in the history of the United States. Among the words of powerful prophecy we read,

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.”

Today a peaceful revolution is under way in the Congo. This revolution prevented the regime in power from changing the constitution last year to extend the president’s rule. Despite heightened repression of the opposition, demonstrations throughout the country this year have called on the government to prepare for the constitutionally- mandated presidential election. The response to these demonstrations has been arrests and attempts to silence Congolese citizens’ calls for change and their defense of the right to a free and fair presidential election in 2016.

One of those speaking out for change is the renowned Congolese doctor and founder of the leading clinic treating victims of the violence in eastern Congo. In a March talk at the French cultural center in Kinshasa, Dr. Denis Mukwege declared that in an election year which also brings the end of the President’s second term, “We have spoken too much of rape, of war and destruction; now is the time when we can also talk about development”. In response, the government’s spokesperson chastised the surgeon for “talking politics” and characterized his speech as “gross pandering” stating that he should focus on his medical work.

Within Congo, the government in power is attempting to silence even members of opposing political parties. In Equateur Province, the governor elected in March, M. Tony Patrick Bolamba, identifies himself as an “Independent”, which apparently is cause for suspicion. Since his election, the ruling party has attempted to unseat him to no avail. Their latest accusation challenged the validity of the new governor’s voter i.d. card. Such a trivial charge is another sign that the President’s party has been intent on preserving his rule indefinitely. In a “mini-gathering” of the ruling party held in Mbandaka two years ago its Secretary General declared, “We must enable the party and its founder (President Kabila) to hold on to power”.

What is the United States and other major foreign powers doing to support constitutionally-mandated change in Congo? What are the major powers doing to support the peaceful revolution under way now? Unfortunately, very little. Apart from statements calling for the election to be held, no action has been taken to bolster the people’s calls for change.

The focus of the major powers remains pacifying eastern Congo. On March 30, the UN Security Council voted to maintain the UN’s 20,000 member force for another year “to ensure an environment conducive to a free, fair, credible, inclusive, transparent, peaceful and timely electoral process.” Investing in reducing the mayhem and horror wrought by multiple armed groups plundering eastern Congo does little to nothing to support the holding of elections and the peaceful revolution carried out by the people of the country. The primary obstacle to holding free and fair presidential elections is not the marauding bandits of eastern Congo; the primary obstacle is in Kinshasa where the current government will never have, as the Mobutu regime never had, the popular backing nor the will to pacify the eastern region of the vast country. The latest UN resolution defies the regime’s desire to have the UN force reduced but does nothing to pressure the regime to prepare for the presidential election.

Why no sanctions on economic dealings of Congolese regime leaders as the U.S. has undertaken with respect to Venezuela? Why no withholding of aid to Congo by Belgium, France or the U.S.? Why no embargo imposed on Congolese exports? Maintaining UN troops in the East simply shores up the current regime’s armed forces and their enforcement of the status quo and stands in opposition therefore to the peaceful revolution in embryo throughout the country.

As achieved in South Africa, as well as in all the former Portuguese colonies including Mozambique, free and fair presidential elections will some day be held in Congo. It is the will and the dream of the Congolese people since independence from Belgian rule in 1960. The questions now are how much longer must they wait and at what cost? How the United States responds to the people’s organizing for change in Congo will have much to do with the answers to these questions.

Could it be that the U.S. embrace of political change in Congo will require profound change in the United States? Following the words quoted above from the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the Baptist preacher declared,

“The words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Nearly fifty years later, we are still a long way in the U.S. from making the shift to that “person-oriented society” Martin Luther King envisioned. Does this mean the people of Congo cannot count on their nation’s leading benefactor, the U.S. government, to support them in their peaceful revolution? The answer to this question at this time has to be yes. Does this mean the Congolese should not count on friends in the U.S. to stand with them in their struggle for freedom? The answer to this question remains to be seen.

***************************** ******************** ******************************

The entire text of “Beyond Vietnam” can be found at the King archives’ site: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/multimediaentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/index.html

The March of the Christians in Congo

The U.S. Jewish World Watch is calling for "targeted sanctions" on the leaders of the Kabila regime to apply pressure for a presidential election  this year
The U.S. Jewish World Watch is calling for “targeted sanctions” on the leaders of the Kabila regime to apply pressure for a presidential election this year

On this day of February 16, in Congo, the “heart of Africa”, the largest demonstration was organized in opposition to the dictator Mobutu Sese Soko in 1992.  It was the first time Congolese Protestants and Catholics had come together on such a grand scale for any cause and it is known still in the country as the “March of the Christians”.   At least thirty persons, lay and clergypersons, were killed by troops and police during the non violent gatherings but it now marks the beginning of Mobutu’s decline and eventual flight from Congo in 1997.

As recently as December it was expected among Congolese leaders of the church and civil society that the Catholic Church would again take the lead in organizing another mass demonstration in the capital Kinshasa on this day.  Instead people are being urged to stay home away from school and work and thereby shut down the city in a call to the current ruler Joseph Kabila to hold the presidential elections as required this year by the nation’s Constitution.  It is being referred to as the “ville morte/dead city” protest and no one seems to know exactly why the Catholic Church continues its silence on this and any future mobilizations in support of the election.

Leading foreign political commentators on Congo agree that the Vatican has counseled Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo and other Church leaders to halt their former pointed and persistent calls for government action in organizing the elections.  There may been have been a clue of a shift in Vatican oversight of Congolese Church leadership with two

Pope Francis opens the Holy Door prior to declaring the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy  at the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis opens the Holy Door prior to declaring the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy at the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

developments toward the end of 2015.

The Church’s delegate to a Dakar Conference on elections in sub Saharan Africa in December left the meeting protesting the anti incumbent character of the proceedings and the need for the Church to maintain its position of “neutrality”.  The second development took shape with Pope Francis’ visits in Africa late in the year and the relative lack of attention paid to Congo, the country with more Catholics than any other on the continent.

In contrast with the Pope’s prophetic critiques of economic and political elites while visiting Mexico this week,  Pope Francis’s response to African authoritarian rule and genocide was to declare in a late November visit to Bangui, Central African Republic the year 2016 as the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy.  Cardinal Monsengwo followed suit just before Christmas recapitulating the Pope’s proclamation of Mercy at Kinsahsa’s Cathedral and calling for prayers for the success of the elections in the coming year.

Three weeks ago, the veteran Belgian journalist/political scientist specializing in Congo Colette Braeckman quoted the Congolese Minister of the Interior’s comment that “big marches were ruled out; Christians should limit themselves to praying.”  In Braeckman’s view, there was no doubt of what was behind the Congolese Catholic Church’s shift in position: “while there were “marches of Christians” originally planned for February 26 (sic!), there were directives from Rome instructing the Congolese Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) to stay out of politics”.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence of progress in the monumental task of organizing national elections in a vast country with impenetrable rain forests, abysmally poor roads and a history of chicanery and duplicity on the part of the regime in power.  During a lull in the fighting in Eastern Congo, the Kabila administration has focused on arrest and silencing of the opposition to its rule rather than preparing for a transition in leadership.  And at this time, the major powers historically involved in Congo, with the U.S. and the United Nations at the forefront, seem content to defer any pressure on behalf of the Congolese people’s aspirations for democracy and self rule in exchange for a period of relative calm.

In the view of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to the Congo, the risk of violence surrounding the elections especially in eastern Congo is simply too great. “In the absence of agreement on the electoral process, political polarization has heightened tensions and contributed to an atmosphere of increased harassment and human rights violations” Maman Sidikou reported to the UN Security Council last month.

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo has powerfully advocated for peaceful leadership change in Congo in the past.  The US National Catholic Reporter touted him as a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo has powerfully advocated for peaceful leadership change in Congo in the past. The US National Catholic Reporter touted him as a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict.

The weakness, if not fallacy, of this view emerges when one first considers that the eastern Congo has been at war almost continually since Indepdendence of the Congo in 1960. Secondly, the violence associated with “increased harassment and human rights violations” takes place in Kinshasa on the other side of the country and has always been caused by brutal state-sponsored repression of non violent resistance and protest.  To associate or imply association of violence in Eastern Congo as stemming from the call for democratic elections in the country is completely misleading.  The people’s desire for a free and fair presidential election will be reflected in their peaceful participation in the “Dead City” general strike today in Kinshasa.

Whatever the outcome today, it is certain that it won’t be long before the Congolese people’s voice on behalf of their right to democratic self rule will be heard much louder and more clearly.  It is also certain that their struggle for peace – with justice!- will be a non violent one following the example of the Lord of Mercy.  The “March of the Christians” in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues.

 

Celebrating Women in Leadership

150 Congo Disciples women began their gathering this month with a march from the headquarters chapel to the cathedral Mbandaka III church. The meetings’ theme: “A wise woman takes action for development” (Prov 14:1) Photo by Nathan Weteto

Across Africa today, major change is taking place as a result of women in leadership.  While Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election and re-election in Liberia captures the headlines, it is grassroots women leading community development projects in rural and urban settings that signals significant change throughout Africa.  In Liberia, the election of President Sirleaf followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of women who marched for a peaceful resolution to thirty years of civil war in the country.  Elsewhere, it is often the women who lead in organizing the water projects, microcredit groups and agricultural programs that are saving communities from the ravages of climate change across the continent.

It is no different in Congo where the Disciples of Christ Community has made the education of women pastors a priority and recognized the traditions of patriarchy (polygamy among them) as a drag on the country’s development.  There is no more hopeful sign that God is indeed “making all things new” in Congo today than the emerging of women leaders in the Church and in Congolese civil society.  This blog celebrates the work of four Disciples women and the contributions they are making to healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous communities.

But first here’s a little history. A strong women’s movement characterized the newly “autonomous” (African led and governed) Disciples “Communaute” of the 1960’s.  Led by Mama Leale the women of the disciples Mbandaka parishes met regularly to celebrate

1969 Disciples women outside Mbandaka III church including Mama Leale, l. of center woman in blue, and Mama Entombodji to her left.

and support each other’s work in their respective parishes.  Disciples President Rev. Dr. Paul Elonda (later Elonda Ifefe) involved the women in the women in a two year process of theological dialog on polygamy.   As a result, Disciples called for monogamy as a requirement for pastors and church employees and defended the rights of women, and wives in particular, to assume active roles in the economy, civil society and church of the new nation

Revde. Christiane IKETE

Building on the legacy of strong women’s leadership embodied by her predecessors, Revde. Christiane Ikete has in recent years served as Director of the Disciples Office of Women and Family. Mama Christiane has helped organize the micro credit groups among the women of several Mbandaka parishes and most recently in the rural posts of Monieka, Boende, and Boyeka.  In the isolated, impoverished villages around Boyeka, initial distribution among 25 women of $2,159 after six months of loan activity provides a powerful incentive for organizing more micro credit groups.

Dedication festivities last year for the new Restaurant Entombodji

The sale of purses with cap made by Congolese Disciples women at the 2010 Women’s Quadrennial helped fund the initial phase of the Restaurant Entombodji next to the Disciple headquarters in Mbandaka.  Revde. Ikete envisions the Restaurant as providing training in food service and business management as well as tasty food for Mbandaka visitors and residents.  Several small shops behind the headquarters  have been leased to women entrepreneurs for years.

Revde. Janette Bafalanga

One of the first Mbandaka micro credit groups was organized at the dynamic Nouvelle Cite parish where Revde. Janette Bafalanga provided crucial leadership as Assistant Pastor in the parish. Women of the parish have also led in the parish’s aid programs for orphans, in organizing a highly successful preschool and in participation in the literacy classes at Nouvelle Cite.  (See  https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/?s=nouvelle+cite                                             blog for more detail on the parish outreach programs)

In addition to her work at Nouvelle Cite, Mama Janette has also headed the Disciple headquarters’ Outreach and Service Department (“Diakonie”). That Department’s corn and manioc field on the outskirts of Mbandaka models for other parishes a profitable income generating project.  Mama Janette in 2010 hoped to fund new fields and service projects through purchase of a mill to process others’ produce as well as that of the Department’s field.  In 2011 Revde. Bafalanga became Senior Minister at Nouvelle Cite so the current status of the Diakonie projects is not known.

Revde. Madeline Bomboko

The first woman ordained by the Disciples in Congo, Revde. Bomboko, dared to reach out to women fleeing the catastrophic violence and mayhem in eastern Congo.  Meeting one woman who had walked one thousand kms. to what she hoped was safety in Mbandaka was the genesis of her Woman to Woman Listening Ministry that served over 50 refugee women.

Although most of the women had returned home when I met Revde. Bomboko in 2010, she introduced me to a woman whose entire family had been killed in the warfare and who considers Mbandaka her only home now.

(For more of the story see https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/2010/10/)  The pain and suffering of Marie Sauve Vie and other refugee women had deeply touched Mama Madeline and the courageous openness and compassion of Mama Madeline’s response recalls W.H. Auden’s definition of Christian faith:

To choose what is difficult to do all one’s days and make it seem to be easy that is faith.”  (from For the Time Being )

We can celebrate that Revde. Bomboko now serves the Disciples parish next to the Mbandaka headquarters.  And she remains a good friend to Marie Sauve Vie.

Revde. Antoinette Bailu

With an outstanding academic record behind her, 2010 graduate of the Theology Department of the Protestant University of Congo, Revde. Bailu follows a large vision in her call to ministry.  Not only does she fill the traditional roles of pastor as Assistant Phe astor of Mbandaka I.  Revde. Antho has started agricultural projects in both the parishes she has served.  She reported in a recent email, “the pineapple field has begun producing but we need to hire a sentry and enclose the field as our produce continues to be stolen”.

In another recent email, she wrote, “In Equateur Province, our leading natural resource is the rainforest and we must take more advantage of it.”  She sees herself as a spokesperson for the importance of agriculture in the region’s economy and continues “to exhort my friends and fellow pastors to place more importance on developing projects in their parishes”.  She summed up her vision with these words, “I will hold to my mission of struggle against poverty through agricultural development and I know that in spite of difficulties I will achieve this goal”.

NOTE TO READER: This is the final lokoleyacongo post for the time being as Doug Smith and Kate Moyer complete preparations to begin a two year mission assignment with the Disciples and Congregational churches in Mexico.  To follow their work and commentaries on Mexican culture and society and  Mexican Protestant churches’ witness   go to their blog http://erasingborders.wordpress.com/ .  

To follow news of the Disciples of Christ Community in Congo, subscribe to the Community’s blog authored by Director of Communications, and micro credit trainer!,  M. Nathan Weteto at  http://natana.tumblr.com/

Tribute to a Friend

Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969
Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969

Before closing this marathon of blogging begun with my return to Congo in June, 2010, I want to pay tribute to a good man I sorely missed seeing on my return.  Rev. Thomas Bosai was the Director of the Youth Department to which I was assigned as a “Fraternal Worker” – now Global Mission Intern – in 1969. Without his trust and friendship so readily offered on my arrival, this blog writing would not have happened.

Back in the mid-1990’s Thomas wrote the last letter I was to receive from him.  He asked if I could help arrange for support of his son to continue his studies in medicine in the States.  Eric had nearly completed his course in medicine at the University in Lubumbashi by then.  In a time of job transition and divorce, co-parenting two primary school daughters, my response was feeble and discouraging.

Now standing out among my memories of the 2010 summer in Congo visit is lunch in the Mbandaka home of son Dr. Eric Bosai and

Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana
Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana

family where I was again able to greet Thomas’ widow, Eyenga Bekana.  Eric, now Director of the Disciples hospital/clinic at the old mission post of Monieka, cast no blame in his account of his father’s death.  In his mid 60’s, Thomas was making the long trip by pirogue from the Mbandaka 2003 Disciples’ biannual Asembly when he was hospitalized in Ikela following a severe stroke.  Just before his Eyenga, “Sunday” in English, would arrive from Opala, Thomas died.

Thomas had served the Disciples as a pastor in several settings after his term as Youth Department Director.  Opala, a remote extended village in Orientale Province, was one of the Disciples new posts when Thomas was sent as the “missionary” there. It was the first Disciples post in the province to the east of Equateur. Today there is a growing Disiples presence in Opala, with primary schools and congregations in outlying villages among the fruit of my friend Thomas’ labors.

Those are some of the facts of Thomas’ life but had I been able to give testimony on the occasion of his passing I would have thanked him for taking me under his wing like an older brother in 1969.  In a vastly different culture, with multiple reasons to suspect and distrust this young white man from the States, there was little Thomas did not share with me – about his past, his education in Kinshasa and his joy and hopes in marrying the beautiful, young Ekana. While it was I who had the title of “Counselor” to the Youth Department, Thomas’ earnest advice on maintaining a respected image as a young, single “mondele” male still rings in my ears though it was not entirely heeded.

Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director
Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director

Thomas’ propulsive energy and faith quickly persuaded me that the vision of a Disciples farm project at Ikengo would become reality.  I hope that if that Projet Agro-Pastoral d’Ikengo continues to expand, the roles of Disciples President Dr. Paul Elonda in shaping the vision and Rev. Thomas in carrying it out will some day be honored and celebrated by the Disciples Communaute in Congo.  In the meantime, Thomas, this blog’s for you!

A Faith Without Borders

Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin
Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin

A recent visitor to our home prompted me to take out for the first time in twenty plus years the python skin from Congo.  It was brittle and a few of the scales fell as we rolled the skin out on the living room floor; forty years out of the rain forest in our relatively dry atmosphere will do that. We took out the tape measure and no one marveled at the length more than I: eighteen feet.  I had estimated it to be between eight and ten feet.

The python skin along with pre-ban ivory figurines are among the tangible possessions I carried away from two years in Congo 1969-71. Rarely in the forty years since have I stopped to admire the delicately carved ivory figurine of a woman’s head or the design on a three foot iron “executioner’s” knife. But the tangible artifacts from Congo serve as occasional reminders of the lasting impact on my life of those two years. And their display in my home represent a public testimony that the Congo experience shaped my life in decisive and indelible ways. They are clues to who lives inside the house and who I am.  They help others get to know me as they help me understand myself.

What a joy to find on my return to Congo that my presence forty years before had not been

Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine's home
Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine’s home

forgotten by the Congolese.  Joseph Ikete, the bright, dignified youth leader of 1969, met me at the airport in Mbandaka and we laughed about the photo I had taken of him and his wife at their home in 1971.  A couple of weeks after my arrival in June, 2010, we dined in his home again, but this time daughter Christine and husband joined us.  She now serves as the Director of the Women’s Department of the Disciples of Christ community.

What a joy it has been to share the 2010 experience in Congo with you readers of this blog.  That I have continued these postings for two years has helped me understand the place of Congo in my life, how it has shaped who I am and especially its role in shaping my faith. If we accept Augustine’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”, theology has been the overarching theme/tag/category of every posting.

So as wife Kate Moyer and I prepare for a two year assignment with Disciples and UCC churches in Mexico, beginning this fall, I want to wrap up my lokoleyacongo blog postings with some questions that have guided and will guide my future theological reflections on what is going on in Congo.

How could the richest nation in Africa with an incomparable wealth in strategic minerals and other natural resources rank at the bottom of the world’s nations on the UN Development Index (number 187 out of 187 countries ranked)?

How could the nation considered a priority for African development aid by the United States have failed so miserably at the task of nation-building and forming a government which is held accountable by the people?

What is the responsibility of the Church in the U.S. and in Congo in upholding the human rights of the Congolese people? When will the unified Protestant Church, the Church of Christ of Congo defend the fundamental right of one person one vote and the nation’s right to hold free and fair elections?

When will the weak and corrupt regime in Kinshasa be seen as the primary source of continued conflict in eastern Congo – which an article in the National Geographic called the richest tract of land on earth? And when will Congo be permitted to form a government made up of persons committed to serving the people?

At the 10th Congo Independence Day celebration Mobutu’s political party provided dresses for the occasion with the slogan: “To Serve Oneself: No! To Serve Others: Yes!”

There is little doubt that Congo is a tough assignment.  The questions above will perplex and bedevil anyone who goes there.  But I hope this blog has succeeded in highlighting some of the rewards awaiting anyone who makes the effort to live and celebrate life alongside the Congolese.  One of those rewards comes from the insight that Congo and what happens there is at the front line of African and, indeed, of human liberation.

Since my return to the States in 1971, we have celebrated the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa and the end of apartheid rule in southern Africa. There has even been progress in Sudan with the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011. Among the new nations of Africa, only in Congo has there been retreat from the people’s aspirations in 1960. Only in Congo has the government failed to protect and further the rights of the people to such an extent they now proclaim the Mobutu era as the good old days.

At the same time, the Protestant churches of Congo have carried out ministries we in the States have had a hand in and can be proud of.  Among the sixty plus Congolese Protestant denominations, the Disciples of Christ played a leading role in the creation of the unified Church of Christ of Congo and the Disciple Rev. Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale served as its first President for 30 years.  In many areas of the country, Protestant churches are the lone providers of health, education and community development services.  While the government often fails in its promise to support these services in urban and rural areas, the churches and its leaders help raise the funds to keep them going.  In the fields of public service, the churches both Protestant and Catholic lead the way.

In the midst of the decline in the country’s roads and other infrastructure, the growth of the Protestant movement in Congo challenges our imaginations.  The Disciples community has grown from around 25,000 members in 1960 to more than 650,000 today.  With missionary zeal, Congolese Disciples have planted new churches throughout Congo and the neighboring Congo Brazzaville.  The honor and respect accorded the U.S. missionaries who first planted the seeds extends to those fortunate enough to visit and represent the U.S. Church in our day.

To those who might consider a longer visit to Congo in a missionary assignment today, I can assure you that your presence there would be answering the Congolese Disciples’ prayers. It has been many years since someone from the U.S. served with the Disciples in Congo in a longer term assignment.  For several years, the office of Global Ministries (www.globalministries.org) has been seeking to fill the two fully funded positions described on the website.  The need for French skills and the high humidity in Equateur Province have ruled a Congo assignment for Kate and me but I would welcome contact with anyone considering the call to serve there.  You may reach me at dsmithy1@verizon.net

What Makes Kinshasa Tick

One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a "pousse pousse" cart down a Kinshasa street.
One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a “pousse pousse” cart down a Kinshasa street. Photo by Cindy Shiner.

For most travelers to the Congo, the dusty, chaotic capital city of Kinshasa will shape their first impressions.  This is unfortunate on many counts but foremost for the reason that Kinshasa can overwhelm in ways that threaten to challenge appreciation of the overall Congo experience, including the experience of life in the more serene settings in the interior.  A similar challenge would be faced by those entering the country via the war torn cities of the eastern Congo, Bukavu and Goma.

The following article on Kinshasa by journalist Cindy Shiner represents an attempt to describe how ten million people survive the degraded economic and environmental conditions of the capital city. It will, I hope, serve the reader in facilitating understanding of the order underneath the chaos and perhaps enabling an appreciation of the courage and vitality of a population struggling for a better life for themselves and their children.

By Cindy Shiner from All Africa. Com  11 June 2012 “Staff Blog”

Titled “Congo-Kinshasa: A City’s Modern March of Hope”

Kinshasa — It begins at twilight, just as the roosters begin to crow, before the sky reclaims the overnight rain. At first there are only a few hundred – the earliest risers, the ones hoping to get ahead of the traffic, those wishing for a jump on the competition. By dawn, the steam rising from the rain-soaked ditches and potholes, the people along the Boulevard Lumumba number in the thousands.

Once the mini-buses, trucks, motorcycles and car taxis have jammed the road, the masses of people heading into town have swollen to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands: walking, jumping into trucks, tying things down, hoisting them up, holding them in place, limping, carrying, balancing, navigating, shifting a baby on their backs, holding a child’s hand, peering through the cassava leaves bundled on top of their heads, urban cowboys yelling from taxi buses, cash blooming in their fists, a man dressed up in a chartreuse shirt and polka dot tie, carrying a portfolio, another holding an umbrella in case there is an afternoon thunderstorm. Footsteps sound on pavement; mud sucks at shoes.

Twenty years ago, a pro-democracy demonstration called the March of Hope brought thousands onto the streets of Kinshasa. Now, a march of a different sort plays out six days a week in this city of 10 million, as masses of people head downtown to earn a living or seek a means to do so.

It is, in a sense, another kind of march of hope – one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with survival. To a returned visitor, however, it has everything to do with politics. Because it is poor governance – the lack of urban planning, corruption, neglected infrastructure – that is responsible for Kinshasa’s millions of poor people and the state they’re in.

I first came to this capital city in January 1992, a few weeks before what was formally organized by church leaders as the March of Hope. I lived in the city for five months and then returned intermittently throughout the 1990s while based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as a freelance journalist. My last trip to Kinshasa was in 1997 for the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year despotic rule. Known as Zaire under Mobutu, the country became the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I recently had the chance to return to Congo, on assignment for AllAfrica to do a story on maternal health, and I jumped at it. I wanted to see how much had changed in the past two decades. Demonstrators in 1992 were marching for democracy and the better life they thought it would bring. Where, I wanted to know, was Kinshasa’s hope now?

I didn’t find the answer on the rehabilitated Boulevard 30 Juin – an eight-lane highway that drivers treat like a speedway. (Just ask the head of the emergency department at the main hospital.) I didn’t find it in the many new hotels and high-rises in the city or in the brand new western-style supermarket downtown. I didn’t find it on the giant billboard advertizing the new Justice Ministry offices that are to be built with the help of foreign aid. I didn’t find it with the recognition that all the calendars I saw in government offices were for 2012, unlike previous visits when they were often out of date, serving mainly as artwork. I didn’t find it discussing the most recent, problematic elections. And I didn’t find it around the new fountain downtown or the one near the stadium, as aspirational and refreshing as they looked.

On the "shoulder" of Kinshasa's Boulevard Lumumba on the way to town from Ndjili Airport
On the shoulder of Kinshasa’s Boulevard Lumumba on the way to the city center from Ndjili Airport

No, the hope I found was in an unlikely spot: on the Boulevard Lumumba.

The morning bustle on the boulevard is the audible manifestation of se débrouiller – the French word that means “to get by” or “to manage”. The Kinois, as the residents of this city are known, are experts at it. And as these things go, it is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Perhaps if they hadn’t been so good at getting by and making do, they would long ago have gotten rid of the corrupt leaders who forced them to rely on theirdébrouillardise, or resourcefulness.

Eighty percent of the country’s workforce labors in the informal sector. Ask them how they deal with the many problems they face – joblessness, conflict in the east, endemic malaria, scant running water, poor sanitation, health and education they can barely afford, the rising cost of food and transportation – and they’re like to say, “Je me débrouille.” I get by; I manage.

But it’s more than that isn’t it? I get by wearing 10-year-old sandals. I manage the household budget (or I’m supposed to). Kinois, I thought, must have a unique idiom – possibly a local word, a Lingala word – for what they do. There is one term, Article 15, which encompasses ingenuity and state-sanctioned graft. But I was thinking of something a little different, something more physical, because being a Kinois is downright hard work. Ask the man hauling 18 oil drums on a wheelbarrow down the street.

These efforts are not “managing” or “getting by” they’re much more than that. So I asked my Kinshasa assistant, the efficient and pragmatic Emery Makumeno, if there was a Lingala term. And, he said, to some degree, there is:kobeta libanga. It is literally translated as “breaking stones” from the time of forced labor under the Belgian colonizers. It is often used to refer to Congolese in the Diaspora who will work any job to send money home. It is also used to describe the work, efforts and challenges Kinois will undertake to survive in their city. Je me debrouille rolls off the tongue easily, but kobeta libanga is worthy of a ballad.

Kobeta libanga plays out the length of the Boulevard Lumumba as more people are forced to walk several kilometers into town because of frequent traffic gridlock caused by road works. Named after independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the boulevard is the main artery leading to Kinshasa from beyond the international airport, Ndjili.

At the end of the runway, and visible from the air, is the city’s version of a potter’s field. There’s no telling how many people have been buried there: headstones are broken, stolen, grown over. It is one of the cheapest places around to inter a body. There’s another cemetery, downtown, that has been taken over, the precious soil now used as a community garden for people to plant subsistence crops or a few surplus vegetables they can sell at the market. I asked Emery if people had much success hawking vegetables nourished by decomposing bodies. “I don’t think they tell anyone,” he said.

Passing the airport on the right, the same side as the Congo River, the boulevard abuts the neighborhoods Masina I, II and III. I don’t know why these impoverished quartiers weren’t given distinct names. Perhaps by the time people had reached that far from the city center, they just plain ran out of ideas.

Health workers I visited at the Roi Baudouin I Hospital Center in Masina I, said the Masinas are

The UN's funding of nearly 20,000 soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power
The presence of nearly 20,000 UN soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power

among the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Kinshasa. Wikipedia says Masina (it didn’t say which one, or all three) had “recently become a desirable area in which to live and has a large, growing population”.

I think someone should tell the Wikipedia editors that just because a lot of people live in a place doesn’t necessary mean it’s desirable. Much of the Masinas are on a wetland. Malaria is endemic. The disease is the DRC’s biggest child killer, claiming the lives of some 180,000 children under the age of five per year, according to Unicef. A wet, warm, overcrowded environment is prime for malaria transmission.

Further down, the Wikipedia listing says this: “The urban area reaches population densities comparable to those of other municipalities in the heart of Kinshasa (about 50,000 inhabitants per square kilometer).” To get a perspective on just how many people live in the Masinas, take into account that New York City has a population density of about 27,000 people per the equivalent of one square mile, or 2.6 square kilometers, according to the city’s official website. So, for those of you who are math challenged like me, that means nearly double the number of people in Kinshasa live on less than half the equivalent area. And most don’t have running water, proper toilets or trash disposal.

If that wasn’t daunting enough, the United Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2020 Kinshasa’s population will have grown by 46 percent. That means the challenges for Kinois, the competition for resources, the pressure on an already overburdened infrastructure and the sheer effort it will take to get into town will become that much greater. The government of President Joseph Kabila deserves credit for making improvements to Kinshasa’s main arteries, such as the Boulevard Lumumba and the Boulevard 30 Juin. But little work has been done in the most populous neighborhoods, such as the Masinas.

Much has been written about DRC’s resources – it’s gold, copper, diamonds, rubber, forests – and how transparent use of them could turn the nation around. The Congo River – the world’s second largest river by volume – has enormous hydroelectric potential. But as it is now, DRC ranks near the bottom of United Nations indicators for human development.

It is true that the country could be an economic giant in sub-Saharan Africa and that it holds enormous promise. The World Bank predicts an annual economic growth rate of seven percent over the next two years. But growth cannot reach its full potential without the work of the Congolese people – the nation’s greatest resource, its best hope.

As I wrapped up my stories from Kinshasa I was also finishing up some of the escapist reading I had bought to pass the many hours spent on planes and in airport terminals. I found this passage at the end of “Sole Survivor” by Dean Koontz.

“Only the human spirit can act with volition and consciously change itself; it is the only thing in all creation that is not entirely at the mercy of forces outside itself, and it is, therefore, the most powerful and valuable form of energy in the universe.”

The government in Kinshasa should take note.

NOTE:  Photos in this and all lokoleyacongo postings are by the editor/author, Doug Smith, unless otherwise noted