Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo”

 

  “This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion

  in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death

  of Ray Eldred.  Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ

  who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.

  See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,

  published by Fleming H. Revell.

LOnga sanctuary, built by Ray Eldred, is still the center of Longa church life

So wrote the poet Vachel Lindsay in a footnote to his most famous poem “The Congo” . The sermon which inspired the poem was preached in his hometown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Springfield, IL in October, 1913.  The preacher had been a friend of the Congo missionary Ray Eldred before his pioneering service in helping found the second Disciples mission station in Congo at Longa.  According to Hensey’s book mentioned above, Ray Eldred perished while trying to ford a small tributary of Longa’s Ruki River.

The poem, while a startling reflection of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the U.S.  fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, made Lindsay famous and still appeared in most American poetry anthologies in the 1950’s and 60’s and may still

"Witnesses to the Resurrection":on the gravestone of Lillian Byers Eldred, d. 1912, and Ray Eldred, d. 1913, in Longa

appear.  Lindsay’s performances of this poem made him a public figure in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.  He was a wandering minstrel, twittering his verses for all within hearing distance and the Wikipedia article on the controversy of “The Congo” , on Lindsay’s championing of the poet Langston Hughes and other highlights of his fascinating life is a good introduction to him.  See it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachel_Lindsay

I strongly suggest reading the article on Lindsay’s life before the shock of reading the poem.  Keeping in mind the cultural context and history of the times –early in the 1900’s Springfield was the setting for one of the worst race riots and lynchings in U.S. history-  Lindsay’s claim of promoting the advance of “the Negro” by writing the poem seems more credible.

Read the poem at:

http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/congo.html

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A Season of Joy

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

About thirty minutes into the worship service in the Ikengo parish church, the sermon came to me. I had the scripture passage, Jesus referring to a child as the greatest among them, but as the service began I still felt stymied to find words for the grand paradox of the message. Gradually, the setting, the singing, the heat under the tin roof freed me and I simply decided to try to describe the sources of my joy in worshipping with them that morning. It was the first time in my life I had discarded my notes for a sermon and I exulted as I scribbled “A Season for Joy” above three points on a page of my notebook.

I began with thanks and praise for the vision of Rev Paul Elonda in the founding of the Centre Agro Pastorale (CAP) in 1969. The village’s two primary schools, secondary school and health center were cited as among the fruit produced by the vision of a church leading the way in rural development. Most recently, the visit of the Equator Province’s Governor to the CAP had brought about the construction of a new school building by a British non profit. Having heard the villagers’ testimonies regarding CAP’s aid in improving their crop yields and quality I moved on to a more personal testimony.

Whites have been coming to the Congo for over five hundred years either in search of riches among the incomparable natural resources of the country or they have come seeking to give of themselves. It is another grand paradox that those who have come to give return with the greater riches. We who come to help strengthen the Church in Congo find ourselves strengthened as those who came in the past to evangelize were themselves evangelized by the Congolese. What a joy to discover spiritual resources within the people here richer than the coltan and the cobalt prized by the powerful.

But the greatest joy, I declared, comes with having discovered that God liberates peoples and persons from enslavement and from the exploitation suffered by the Congolese in these days. In the biblical accounts, the liberation of a people does not result from foreign intervention or initiative. Liberation comes in the biblical record when the captive people find the way to free themselves at hand within themselves. Some day the Congolese people will take up, like David, their five smooth stones or be led from their wilderness by a stuttering Moses and an Aaron.

Just as South Africans freed themselves from white rule under apartheid so will Congolese free themselves from the foreign plunder of their resources and the resulting deprivation and impoverishment. Nothing brings greater joy than this knowledge of the source of the people’s power and liberation. It was I proclaimed this knowledge that caused Jesus to “quiver with joy” (in the French translation of Lk 10:21) for God had hidden such things from the powerful and revealed them to the simple and the common people.

Among the medley of hymns preparing us for the “sainte scene” of communion, we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. I leaned over and shared with the Ikengo pastor Luka Is’olenge that it had been Gandhi’s favorite. Its meditation on Jesus’ call to draw on the best within ourselves described for the lifelong Hindu why he considered himself a follower of Jesus as well.

On the return to Mbandaka Sunday afternoon, I rode on the back of a motor bike piled with my gear. We fairly flew by children and adults, some of them waving and calling “mondele” (white man), and I couldn’t keep from smiling. It had been a great day.

 

ALWAYS SURPRISING

Friday, July 17, 2010

It has not been an easy week. A visit to Bolenge, the Disciples first mission post, always disturbs and always raises questions about the future. How will the stately buildings of the old secondary school ever be restored or even saved from further deterioration in the relentless climate of the Equator Province? How will the Church maintain Bolenge’s reputation as the seat of learning which produced most of the Church’s leaders and many others who now teach, heal and lead in Congo and outside the country? How provide quality medical services with integrity when the State only offers a $30 to $40 per month stipend for doctors, absolutely nothing for nurses in the Disciples hospitals and virtually no assistance with the purchase of medicine or equipment?

These questions were set against the background of the Bolenge Regional Minister’s account of three days of pillaging of the village and the Bolenge Parish’s 5 schools and hospital by the rebels who brought an end to the Mobutu dictatorship in 1997. Anyone out of doors, mainly Rwandan Hutu refugees, was shot and corpses continued to be found in the fields long after the rebels had moved farther down river.

Yesterday’s conversation with retired ministers of the Church would also be unsettling Rev. Bonanga had advised me. The 80 year old President of the retired ministers summed it up by saying that the pension paid them by the Church fell way short and some of them were in risk of dying from hunger. The top pension, paid the widow of the former President of the Church, amounted to $30 per month. The grizzled small man sporting a clerical collar slightly askew noted he received $2 a month. He began his remarks with thanks for the missionaries who had evangelized and educated him. “I begin each day with a prayer for them; I thank God for the holy spirit that brought them here and ask that God will bless them this day and every day because of their service here.”

The plight of the retired ministers and the needs of the Church in maintaining a network of 486 primary and secondary schools and 6 hospitals, the Sisyphean challenge faced by the Church here, weighed on me this morning. While contemplating the river two young men singing in a pirogue came on the scene. The one in back cried out in a cadence, “open your heart white man and let us live” and the other picked up the refrain as they drifted out of sight, “open your heart white man and let us live”. The good cheer and spirited magnanimity of the boatmen’s call suggested part of the answer to the weighty questions of the week.

As I have written earlier, life is full of surprises here. And never boring. But let me provide someone else’s testimony to the uncanny beauty of the spirit of this place by quoting another Mbandaka visitor, the U.S. journalist Helen Winternitz. Her book East Along the Equator reports on her mid 1980’s boat trip up the Congo River. In a summary statemnent later in the book she writes, “I wasn’t to be satisfied until I found that imaginary peace I had left behind in Mbandaka, that place in my mind where the narrow confines of life disappeared, where rampant flowers bloomed……, where surprises were delightful and where people fell in love with the world every day.” (page 118) Her first description of the city of over a half million people at the time of her stay includes these words, “I didn’t want to leave Mbandaka and its unfettered sky. Despite its history, Mbandaka was not a place of beaten people. It was a place of survivors, of Africans who knew the strength of their continent.” (page 85)

I share the above as another way of paying tribute to the Disciple missionaries whose faith and love of the people here have surely contributed to the unbeaten spirit of Mbandaka’s leading Protestant Church and of the city’s inhabitants. I also share the above in the belief that those who come to know better these people will come to know their own strength better as well as the strength of the African people.

Schooling in Congo

Nearly everyone here is “Mama” or “Papa”. Children at an early age are acknowledged half wryly but affectionately in this way. Rev. Bonanga is not “Monsieur le President” as the head of the Disciples community; he is “Papa President”. And I have never heard Sandra Gourdet, the Global Ministries Africa Executive, referred to as anything but “Mama Sandra”. There is simply no more respectful honorific the culture can bestow than “Mama” and “Papa”.

While everyone is given the title, both parents and non parents, adults work hard and sacrifice heroically in their role as parent. “Papa Pierre”, one of my night time guardians in the compound, hopes to receive an advance today of $45 on his salary. Tomorrow his daughter graduates from her sixth year of primary school and there must be an appropriate celebration of the milestone. A new dress and shoes at a feast shared with family and friends crown the occasion. The expense projected is more than his monthly salary but is not an unusual outlay for a child even when there are eight or nine in the family, as is typical here.

The other night sentry in our Disciples guest compound “Papa Dominique” has with his wife continued to work a field more than 20 kilometers from the family‘s home in Mbandaka to pay his 9 children’s school fees. Papa Dominique’s wife sometimes spends two or three months away from home cultivating and harvesting before marketing the manioc root and leaves, corn, rice and potatoes. Even parents who have jobs in Equateur, the least developed Province with the highest unemployment, must seek additional income for their children’s education.

The school fees, averaging $4 monthly for primary school in Mbandaka, are largely seen as necessary to supplement the teacher’s measly salary which the State is often late in paying. Where parents’ committees in the States are concerned with raising money for the arts programs or athletics, in the Congo they are focused on paying the teachers enough to keep them on the job in the classroom.

The first Disciple missionaries in Congo were moved by the profound emphasis of the culture on the role of parent. Dr. Royal Dye and wife Eva, in the early 1900‘s, acquired a new identity and standing with the birth of their first chilld. In keeping with Congolese custom, they were after Polly’ Dye’s birth primarily referred to as the “Papa” or “Mama” of Polly. Their daugther many years later testified to the help of the Bolenge villagers in raising her in her book In His Glad Service . To ensure the survival of Polly’s parents and their child, when the white family’s food stock dwindled, villagers in Bolenge beat on the lokole drum an S.O.S. which brought ample relief from a Baptist mission station nearly 300 miles away.