“With health systems in even high-income countries still at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic, leaders would do well to heed the example of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).” This was the conclusion of the World Health Organization’s director general in a Guardian article announcing the end of the latest Ebola outbreak in Congo. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus used the June 25 announcement to notify governments and health agencies of what measures were behind Congo’s success in turning back Ebola. “The Congolese people ended a devastating outbreak through an unshakeable commitment to science, data and community, and with international solidarity.”
The Congolese have benefited from the learnings and improvements in health infrastructure gained in stemming spread of Ebola in their response to the COVID virus. The latest WHO statistics on COVID in Congo speak for themselves: in a population of 90 million people there have been 11,052 cases and 303 deaths. These figures are way below those of other Central African countries. In the neighboring Republic of Congo there have been 5,156 total COVID cases with 92 deaths in a country with less than half the population of the DRC. Rwanda leads the DRC in most measures of economic and infrastructure development but has treated 383 cases per each million persons in its population compared to the DRC figure of 122 cases per million.
The tragically inept and chaotic response of the United States is evident in a comparison of the virus’ spread and mortality rate with the Congo’s (DRC). There have been 680 deaths in the U.S. per each million persons and 25,538 cases per million in stark contrast to the Congo’s loss of 3 persons per million to the virus and 122 cases per million Congolese. Even accounting for Congo’s challenges in tracking cases and deaths in remote areas and the country’s faulty data practices, the U.S.-Congo gap in the spread of the virus underlines crucial differences in the countries’ response to COVID.
Perhaps due largely to its experience with other deadly viruses, sub Saharan Africa was quick to respond to COVID. A March 30 statement by the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, pointed to the international cooperation and reliance on science as decisive in her country’s battle with the Ebola virus which took 5000 lives during her administration. Ms. Sirleaf described Liberia’s learnings with these words, “A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.” Three months after this statement, the Trump administration declared the U.S. would leave the W.H.O., the only global health agency created by the United Nations.
In summing up Congo’s effective response to the Ebola outbreak in the country’s northeast, also plagued by civil conflict, the W.H.O. director general emphasized the important role of non-governmental actors. “Engaging communities and influential figures, such as faith leaders and traditional healers, was critical. Communities should be respected as first responders, who can quickly detect cases and collectively work out how to isolate patients, even with minimal resources” Dr. Ghebreyesus wrote. The example set by the leadership and health staff of the Disciples of Christ of Congo is noteworthy. In the poorest province of the country, the DCC President Rev. Eliki Bonanga wrote three weeks after the first COVID case was detected on March 10 that the Church committed to “campaigning against COVID-19 through community education on what is COVID-19, how to contain it, how to avoid it, what to do in case the community identifies a suspect case.”
The Congo Disciples’ health services have greatly benefited from aid from partner churches in Germany and the U.S. International aid and cooperation were highlighted in former Liberian President Ms. Sirleaf’s analysis of her country’s success against Ebola. Commenting on Africa’s readiness to combat COVID, Ms. Sirleaf explained, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”. She concluded her message transmitted by BBC News on March 30 with this eloquent plea, “As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”
Having overcome self doubt and social stigmas due to her physical disability, Congolese professor and pastor Rev. Dr. Micheline Kamba Kasongo emerged as a spokesperson for the marginalized in Congo and worldwide as a leader in the World Council of Churches (WCC). In response to her death in Kinshasa earlier this month, numerous tributes extolling her outspoken advocacy were shared by academic and church leaders in many nations.
Born February 16, 1968 in Kinshasa, with the help of the Congo capital’s Presbyterian Community, she completed college. In 1998, the Church of Christ of Congo named her one of the Church’s delegates to the Harare Assembly of the WCC. During that Assembly she joined other attendees with disabilities in creating the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network. This forum enabled the Council’s member churches to enhance ministries with persons with disabilities in their work and that of the WCC.
At the 2013 Assembly of the Council in Korea, she shared the story of her awakening to her potential as a woman in leadership, “My experience as a young lady with disability influenced the most my spiritual life and my calling into the ministry. It was so difficult to be accepted as God’s creation. (…) I attempted many times to commit suicide but I had not succeeded.
One day my sister knew that and she came to me and said ‘my dear sister what you want to do is not a solution of your problems. Pray and ask your God what life means to you as a young lady with a disability and why God likes you to remain like this’. (…) My sister and I spent three days in fasting and praying so that God helps me. That time was really a healing time.
Since that time I have never prayed to God to heal me physically, because, I know as Paul recognized that ‘God’s grace is sufficient for you, His strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). Then I took courage and I believed in what my sister told me; she was inspired by Holy Spirit and since that time I am accepted as a woman with disability and knew that God had a good plan for me; this was in 1984.
Today, I understand my vocation concerning encouraging those who have physical impairments like me to ‘raise up and walk’ spiritually so that they can be independent, full of life for the transformation of their situation, both in church and society.”
Following her participation in the 1998 Harare Assembly, the Council sponsored Dr. Kamba’s work on her PhD in South Africa. During her PhD studies, she became the coordinator of the WCC’s Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) for French-speaking Africa and in 2006 she began serving on the WCC Executive Committee. That same year the Protestant University of the Congo (UPC) named her an Associate Professor in the School of Theology. In that role, she created the Master’s in Social Transformation at the UPC and helped found a nationwide pastoral ministry for people with disabilities in Congo.
Her Master’s program at the UPC now includes classes in leadership, human rights and gender violence. Dr. Kamba described its aims for U.S. supporters of the UPC, “This Master’s program will change how people view their environment.” The Professor and ordained minister continued, “Kinshasa is not disabled-friendly. We must change attitudes towards people with handicaps, because all people have value.”
Dr. Kamba’s design for the Master’s at UPC also aims to change how Congolese and all of us view women and members of minority groups who have been subjugated and suppressed by thought patterns, customs and legislation. Rev. Dr Kuzipa Nalwamba, WCC program executive for Ecumenical Theological Education described the UPC Masters in Social Transformation as “an admirable demonstration of the deep passion and concern she had for her people”.
was made lengthy by the multiple tributes. “Her voice was essential to our work to bring about justice and peace” the acting head of the WCC, Rev. Dr. Ioan Sauca, wrote about Dr. Kamba. The former general secretary of the WCC, Most Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, also praised her leadership, “Our dear sister Micheline was a remarkable, brave women contributing to the Church and the ecumenical movement in so many ways”. Micheline’s PhD chief advisor wrote from South Africa, “As a student she highlighted a biblical perspective of the challenges of African women living with disabilities.. . The legacy she has left through her writings, sermons and the program she established will outlive her.”
In a paper she wrote for a 2018 WCC Conference on Evangelism, Rev. Dr. Kamba reflected on the Acts passage (Ac3:1-10) which describes the healing of the lame beggar at the temple gate. Her words conclude the essay’s appeal to view healing of the lame, of ourselves and of society in a more holistic way.
“I speak as a person with a disability who has experienced failed physical healing. I demonstrated in my reflection that physical healing is not the only form of healing in this text, though initially, this story, in the Acts of the Apostles, aimed to supply many signs and miracles performed by the apostles. There are other forms of healing (emotional, social, and psycho-spiritual) that I described above which challenge people with disabilities as well as leaders of the Christian church, who think that when a person with a disability is not healed, he or she is being denied fellowship with God and fellowship with other people
In conclusion, my reading of this text is as a church leader for effective awareness of the integration of persons with disabilities in church. I should recognize that they need assistance to discover their real identities so they can take leadership in their respective communities for a transformative church.” When she wrote these words in 2018, Dr. Kamba had become more aware of how her work on behalf of the disabled was also a call to respect the dignity and worth of all members of society. Her holistic view of healing of the disabled had led her to a vision of how her faith could heal and transform the whole social order. “Social transformation” was an apt description of what her MA program at the Protestant University of Congo (UPC) prepared students for.
NOTE: I am indebted to Ms. Linda James, consultant in the Development and Alumni Relations office of the UPC for her assistance in the writing of this post.
The fact there has been an election at all is a victory for and of the people of Congo. They demonstrated. They marched. They were arrested, beaten, shot. Some died and some are still in prison. As a result, the President of the country was forced to stop his efforts to change the constitution and campaign for another term. Then, when he maneuvered to delay them, the marches and the protests continued and he was forced to schedule the elections that just took place.
So regardless of the outcome, that there was an election, not just for President but for provincial and legislative offices as well, is a victory of and for the Congolese people. The December 30, 2018 election is yet another step in the long march of the Congolese toward self rule that began with the 1950’s struggle for independence from Belgium. It continued during thirty plus years of self dealing dictatorship followed by twenty years of plunder of the country’s vast strategic minerals resources by neighboring African countries and their foreign allies who have controlled Congo’s economy since independence. The faith, hope and courage demonstrated by the people over the sixty year long march toward self rule is represented for me by a small, heavily wrinkled woman I met in Congo in 2010.
She had walked over one thousand miles from her homeland in Bunia, Eastern Congo to Mbandaka, Equateur Province, where I met her. She had changed her name to Marie Sauve Vie or Mary “who saves life”. In an attack on her village, she was the only member of her family who survived. In Mbandaka she met the female Disciples of Christ pastor who had organized aid and a support group for women displaced from the East. When a Red Cross boat offered her and the others a return to their homeland she elected not to accept. There was nothing and no one there she wanted to return to. She had been able to survive in Mbandaka through sales of the mats she wove by hand. They are just the right size for doing yoga and remind me of Marie every time I use mine.
The people of Congo will continue their march. They have not reached their destination. There remain many obstacles on the way to achieving a stable, effective government that serves the people. There remain formidable structures of power barring the way to the country’s control of its many, so much sought after resources. But the hope, the strength and the resolute will to live in safety and dignity that carried Marie from Bunia to Mbandaka has already brought change to all of Congo and the people’s long march will continue and bring about more and greater change some day.
The election was not the only victory for the Congolese people in 2018. There was the truth telling sermon of the Protestant pastor before the presidential family and entourage at the beginning of the year. In the packed national Protestant Cathedral, Pastor Francois David Ekofo stepped from his place on the long march to declare it was time for governmental rule that promised true progress and would make the people proud. In October, a Congolese Doctor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to healing women horribly violated by the chaos in Eastern Congo. Before the elections, the unified Protestant Church of Christ of Congo leadership joined the Catholic Council of bishops in calling for a fair, transpararent voting process. Forty thousand “observers” were deployed by the Catholic Church to polling places throughout the country. It was the only nationwide oversight, domestic or international, of the electoral process. That it took place without widespread government interference or opposition can also be considered a victory.
There are signs that international pressures on the current administration are also having an effect. The government expelled the Ambassador of the European Union two weeks before the national voting. This move was undoubtedly intended to avoid greater foreign condemnation should the President’s choice of a successor win the election. His chosen, Emmnganuel Ramazani Shadary, former Minister of the Interior, is now on a list of aides who are banned entry to the EU for violating the human rights of their fellow Congolese.
Pre-election polling and initial reports from the polls have former Exxon Mobil executive Martin Fayulu, of the Lamuka Coalition, holding a sizable lead in the Presidential race. M. Fayulu posted to Twitter shortly after the polls closed, “After the three soundings yesterday, I would like to heartily congratulate all my countryfolk for their clear desire for change. We are going to begin a new era, one which will enable our country to regain its dignity and experience prosperity. Let us meditate on Ph 2:13.” The verse cited from Paul’s letter to the Philippians reads, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. M. Fayulu might have also cited the verse from the Book of Revelation often quoted in the first years of Congolese independence, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rv 21:5).
Pope Francis has called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pray and fast for an end to the growing political instability and decades of conflict in Congo and the South Sudan. In his February 4 prayers on St. Peter’s Square the Pope declared,”I invite all the faithful to a special day of prayer and fasting for peace on February 23, the Friday of the first week of Lent. We will offer it especially for the populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of South Sudan.”
The date selected by the Pope precedes the third nationwide demonstration organized by Congo’s Catholic Lay Committee to end the “dictatorship” of President Kabila. Anticipating a large turn out among Congo’s 40 million Catholics for protests following worship on Sunday February 25, the Pope proclaimed, “Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry to him in sorrow and anguish, who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.’ (Psalm 147:3) I make a heartfelt appeal so that we also listen to this cry and, each one of us in his/her own conscience before God, ask ourselves, ‘What can I do for peace?’
With the potential for violent repression by the Kabila regime of the demonstrators, the Pope also urged non-Catholics to join in prayers on Friday, the 23rd. “I also invite non-Catholic and non-Christian brothers and sisters to join us in this initiative in whatever ways they deem most appropriate”.
Without pledging to join in the prayer vigil and fasting or the nationwide demonstrations, the leading voice of Congo’s 26 million Protestants did respond to the Catholic-organized initiatives. The President of the Church of Christ of Congo (elected last August) Rev. André Bokondua Bo-Likabe addressed the nation’s growing political conflict in opening the meeting of the unified Protestant Church’s Executive Committee. “We are called Protestants because we always protest against what is unjust”, averred the President, who appears to be taking his Church in a new direction in opposing the regime in power. Quoting from Proverbs 29 :2 Rev. Bokondua added, ‘When those committed to justice are in the majority, the people rejoice ; when those who are evil dominate, the people groan.” Reflecting on recent events in Congo, he summarized, “the situation of the Congolese people today is a collective groaning”.
The Kabila administration now faces the most serious threat to its seventeen year rule. Recognizing that his hold on power is weakening, President Kabila recently held his first ever extensive press conference, made a rambling two and a half hour defense of his rule, and named a new Minister of the Interior to take office five days before the demonstration on February 25. In another move to avoid the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Zuma in South Africa in resigning, the President and administration officials have pledged that the election to replace Kabila will take place in December this year. But the regime’s violation of the December 2016 Saint-Sylvestre agreement terms for organizing elections and the brutal treatment of protestors by security forces loyal to the regime has increased anger and opposition to the government.
Summarizing the administration’s response to the two prior nationwide protests, the Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee has noted “the persistence of its arrogance, of its scorn and uncaring attitude. In brief”, the Committee went on, “its categorical refusal to take into serious consideration the protests of an entire nation”. The Committee speaks for the vast majority of Congolese in stating that the people desire “free, democratic elections organized in a transparent and inclusive manner but not fixed and rigged elections which will not bring peace either before or after the elections are held”.
In what can be seen as an additional move by the Pope this month to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in Congo, an assistant and successor to the Archbishop of Kinshasa Cardinal Monsengwo has been appointed by the Vatican. Twenty years younger than the current Archbishop, an outspoken, severe critic of the regime, the Archbishop of Mbandaka-Bikoro in Equator Province Fridolin Ambongo helped negotiate the Saint Sylvestre agreement with the administration. Archbishop Ambongo still serves as Vice President of Congo’s Conference of Bishops which issued a statement last week defending the rights of peaceful protestors. The Bishops endorsed the struggle for “a lawful State in the Congo” and encouraged the population to “remain steadfast and vigilant in taking its destiny in its hands with prayer and initiatives to block peacefully all attempts to seize power by non democratic and unconstitutional means.”
Where is a church digging wells for clean water, organizing microcredit loan programs, educating the community in AIDS prevention, and training women and youth in productive, profitable agriculture? Why in the Congo of course where the role of the State in the economic and social development process has been limited to non existent in the fifty seven years since it became a new nation in 1960. Those who are disturbed about government involvement in the economy and even basic services in the U.S. might consider the effects of a “hands off”/”laissez faire” approach to governance in the Congo. One of the richest countries on earth in terms of natural resources ranks 176 out of 185 nations in the world in the most recent UN Human Development Index. The UN development study further figures that 77 per cent of the Congolese population live on the equivalent of less than $1.90 a day.
As a newly “autonomous”, self governing and self sustaining church body in 1965, the Disciples of Christ of the Congo included in its mission the economic and social development of its primarily rural membership in the poorest province of the country. Cattle raising in the fields of the Church’s first mission station, a youth agricultural training farm in the village of Ikengo, a cement block and sand dredging small business, training in sewing and tailoring had all been started and were managed by church staff and volunteers by the late 1960’s. In the early 70’s the Disciples churches had changed the landscape of the provincial capital Mbandaka with the house building program in the Bokatola quarter of the city. With the assistance of missionary couple Millard and Linda Fuller, over one hundred new houses were built using the “sweat equity” approach that became Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and world wide.
A recent article by the Disciples Church’s Director of Communications updates us on more recent development projects and emphases of the Church’s Development Department. (read the article and others in French at http://natana.tumblr.com/ ) M. Nathan Weteto reports that the former Director of the Ikengo Agricultural Training Center M. Celestin Engelemba now serves as Director of the Department. Assisted by advisors M. Desiré Safari and Disciples missionary Paul Turner, M. Engelemba’s success in restoring and growing the training at Ikengo in the early 2000’s is likely to be duplicated across the vast reach of the Disciples’ churches.
What follows is a photo display depicting some of the current development programs of the Disciples of Christ in Congo. It should also be noted that the Disciples’ contributions to economic advance in the communities they serve has been supported by the Development Department of the Church of Christ of Congo. The Disciples are one of over 60 Protestant church bodies or “Communautés” (Communities) making up the union of Protestant churches in the country.
Paul Turner, the author of the following article, serves in Congo as a Consultant in the development projects of the Church of Christ of Congo’s Disciples of Christ Community. His latest message reports on progress in preparations for a presidential election in Congo before the end of this year. His title “Give Us the Ballot” refers to the 1957 speech by Rev. Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial which focused on voting rights for all citizens of the United States.
On December 19th, DR Congo witnessed large protests in several major cities such as Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, in response to the opposition’s call for demonstrations against President Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power. Police and military personnel were well-organized and out in force. The government went so far as to shut down social media throughout the country to slow the opposition’s ability to organize and share information concerning the number of arrests and detainees.
In the midst of this tense situation Catholic Church Bishops began facilitating negotiations between the government and opposition groups. An agreement was reached whereby President Kabila would leave office at the end of 2017 following elections, and there would be no attempt to change the constitution to allow for a third term. This agreement was a welcomed development because it kept the peace and solidified the importance of holding elections in 2017.
There is another piece of the story that has not been widely reported. At the same time protests were happening throughout the country, Congolese were also signing up to register to vote and receive their voter identification cards. Perhaps this was another form of protest expressing the people’s eagerness for democracy and elections. It was an encouraging sight to see men and women lining up to receive new voter ID cards at Nouvelle Cite Parish. In fact, five churches affiliated with the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo (CDCC) are hosting National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) Enrollment Centers. Rev. Eliki Bonanga, President of CDCC, was asked why the CDCC partnered with CENI to help boost enrollments, he said, “it is our will and hope that people will register and participate in elections so that government will one day respond to the people’s needs.” He also mentioned that the church is a member of civil society and must do its part to secure a hopeful future in DR Congo.
The CENI Enrollment Centers are not operated by the government. As the name implies, it is an independent institution designed to be an objective agent in the electoral process. A recent visit to one CENI Center in Mbandaka revealed that this particular enrollment center had distributed 200 new voter ID cards in the first two weeks. Half of the folks coming through were issued voter ID cards for the first time, suggesting these would be new voters who didn’t participate in the last election in 2011. The other half were older people seeking to replace their old and worn voter ID cards because they are used for identification in the same way a driver’s license is used in the US. The enrollments will continue through March and end around the second week of April. This time frame suggests that elections could take place by the end of the year.
Pro-democracy advocacy is a key strategy for establishing the long-term benefits of good governance, anti-corruption and full citizen participation. In the past few weeks Congolese were making sure their voices were being heard in the streets and at the enrollment centers as they walked away with new voter identification cards. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech, he was addressing voting rights and the suppression of the vote in the American South. Yet, the same sentiment of empowerment that comes from exercising the franchise of voting ring true in DR Congo.
Dr. Bijoux Makuta’s doctoral thesis “Evangelism of the Pygmy People: Mysticism and Missiological Challenges in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)” takes on global importance when we consider the role of the Congolese rain forest in absorbing the carbon dioxide we produce. For centuries it is the Pygmy people who have co existed with and protected their rainforest home.
In the interview below she describes her childhood experience of schooling with Pygmy children as a prime motive in study of the topic. Enlisting the aid and participation of Pygmy leaders is crucial, in Dr. Makuta’s view, in the Church’s mission of protection of the natural environment. She has founded, with the help of her students at the Protestant University of the Congo and other faculty, a non profit Imago Dei to provide scholarships and other forms of support for the education of Pygmy children and youth. For information on Imago Dei and how you can support its efforts write Douglas Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are a child of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo, the CDCC. How has this Community participated in your formation as a modern woman and as a servant of the Church?
Born at the Disciples’ first mission post at Bolenge, the ninth of eleven children, our father Rev. André Makuta Bololo and our mother Ida Likombe Mamongo have served the Lord Jesus Christ all their lives as servants of the CDCC. So in the first place, throughout childhood we all benefited from schooling in the Church’s schools. To cap it all in my case, our mother Church would recommend me as a student of Theology at the Protestant University of the Congo, UPC, and then for a DEFAP (Protestant Mission of France) scholarship to enable completion of my Phd thesis in Paris.
Again with the recommendation of my CDCC Community, since 2007 I’ve been working at the UPC as professor of Missions, Ecumenism and World Religions. I am one of six Disciples who have achieved the doctorate degree and among the three who now serve at the UPC: Ngoy Boliya is the current Rector of the UPC, the Dean of the Faculty of Theology is Ekofo Bonyeku, and I represent the first Disciple woman PhD to teach at the university. Three others served the Disciples Community as President and Legal Representative and although now deceased must be mentioned: Boyaka Inkomo, Elonda Efefe and Ngili Bofeko Batsu. My Community, in making possible my formation at this level of study, has placed me in the debt of these great men and distinguished servants in the history of our Church and our nation and I am proud to be the first Congolese woman doctor of Theology while recognizing the weight of the responsibility this brings to my shoulders.
How did you choose this topic for your thesis: “The Mission of Evangelism among the Pygmy Peoples”?
It comes out of my life story which is in part a mea culpa with origins in the complexity of our Bantu culture’s responses to relationships with the Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC). Several personal experiences have led me to devote my doctoral thesis to the mission of evangelism on behalf of the Pygmy people.
In the first place, you should know that I lived and studied with Pygmy children who were certainly more intelligent than I, but did not have the financial means to progress in a neglectful education system. Secondly, from my childhood on I participated with my thoughts and behavior in the continued marginalization and stigmatization of the Pygmy population. It was only with my ordination as God’s servant that I took account of the evil treatment of the Pygmy and I committed myself to defend their cause while seeking to understand why we Bantu don’t like this people who are like us imago Dei.
I then stumbled on the legend of Elshout which recounts how Pygmies and Bantu are descended from two brothers. The older brother is the Pygmy ancestor who was disinherited by the father for not following tradition in dividing up an antelope he had killed. In sum, the father did not receive the choice portion which was his due according to custom. Despite the father’s pleas, the elder son didn’t change his ways and the father transferred all his rights to the younger son, the Bantus’ ancestor.
It is also said that the Pygmies became people of the forest because the older son took his sister into the forest and on their return she was pregnant. To flee the shame of incest, they would forever hide away like animals in the forest. And they would be called Batwa or “nomads”, from the Bantu root cwa or tswa meaning “to go”.
And so it was that the Bantu, as the heirs of the father, according to the Elshout legend, became the heirs of the whites while the Pygmies, as the disinherited, were again dispossessed of their lands by colonialism for the benefit of the Bantu. It was the same within the Church when the autonomy of Congolese Disciples came in 1964 and the responsibility of educating the Pygmy was handed over to the Congolese leadership. It is at that time that the Bantu responded in a self serving manner depriving the Pygmy of proper attention and the power and resources that came with the transition.
Yet a third reason for my interest in the topic derives from the mystical beliefs of the Pygmy people. In effect, it seemed to me important that with the tools of research light be shed on the consequences of the Pygmy practice of regular communication with their ancestors. When they go there to ask their blessing of a harvest, their fishing or a hunt, there is no problem. But when it has to do with a marriage, a birth, conflicts over land, life and death matters, the reliance on the ancestors’ counsel serves to perpetuate the conflicts between the Pygmy people and the Bantu. As God calls every human being to undertake a holy mission which leads to eternal life, the white man, the Bantu and the Pygmy need to bury the hachet to save ourselves from our sinful nature and work for each other’s salvation.
Tell us how the Protestant churches of Congo have done in their evangelization of Pygmies and what are the primary challenges in carrying out the mission.
It’s not a positive report to share about what the Protestant churches in general have accomplished in this mission. We wouldn’t want you to think there haven’t been efforts to evangelise the Pygmy population. However, when we take account of how political history evolves, we must recognize that in one setting or another all liberation struggles must consider how the tensions and bad blood in daily interactions bear on the relationships of the dominated people with the dominant population.
While there is not much progress in the evangelistic efforts, it is not due to atheistic disbelief among the Pygmies. It rather has to do with the complex situation of the modern Pygmy. We must remember that Christianity is a religion of the book and the statistics tell us that the low level of educational advance puts the Pygmy more than two centuries behind. Hence, there is the urgent need to help educate the population and then embark on other aspects of their formation. Educational efforts are however impeded by the fact that most Bantu still consider the Pygmy their slaves, like a resource they can use up and dispose of.
As a result, the evangelism among the Pygmy is compromised at the outset by an approach which fails to consider the collective and individual consciousness which doesn’t permit a sincere opening by people who are yet considered as the source of all Pygmy misfortune and the offspring of those who have occupied and seized their land. The thesis notes that the Pygmy population have a long memory. Conversation about the healing of souls always submits to the word of God all the ethical, moral, psychological and sociological domains of human interaction.
To the extent that the Pygmy-Bantu conversation always puts the Bantu on the defensive, that one becomes preoccupied with proving he or she is justified by God’s judgment. The cure of the other’s soul in that context only can take place through the other asking for pardon of the Bantu as preliminary to asking God for pardon of oneself. This is the condition placed on accepting the truth that all is grace since everyone who wishes their life to be valued must also value the life of the other in an act of grace bestowed on the world.
Give us please some idea of the gifts of Pygmy culture that you foresee will be a blessing to the Protestant churches of Congo when they take part in the Church’s mission in the future.
The Church must be served by all its members and, notwithstanding their oppressed status at present, the Pygmy is called according to their gifts to serve as pastors, prophets, evangelists, elders and deacons as well as to be beneficiaries of scholarships to study at the college and post college levels so that they may also serve as intellectuals, professors, counselors, administrative leaders, and governmental leaders. I can testify that both the Church and the State owe themselves what the Pygmy can contribute to their work from the learnings of their culture.
There is no question that their culture offers a whole host of knowledge regarding protection of nature and the conservation of species that are threatened today. Let it be said that the Church needs their expertise in carrying out its responsibility to help protect the environment which nourishes us and without which we will perish.
Current Disciples President, Rev. Eliki BONANGA chose Palm Sunday to present an overview of the state of the “Communaute”, one of sixty plus denominations making up the unified Church of Christ in Congo. On his lenten tour of Tshuapa River “Posts” of the Disciples, Rev. BONANGA spoke to over 800 parishoners of Yalusaka, a congregation in the Post of Mondombe 600 miles from Disciples “Communaute” headquartrers in Mbandaka.
Rev. BONANGA stated there are now 23 Posts founded by Disciples in the provinces of Equateur, Bandundu, and Orientale, and the city of Kinshasa as well as missionary extensions in the cities of Kisangani, Lubumbashi , Gemena, Boma, Bikoro, and Lukolela. In a brief review of the Disciples 112 year history in Congo, he called on the parishoners to give thanks in prayer for the missionaries who died on duty in the Congo or in retirement in the USA. He then noted the transition from a missionary led to an autonomous church in the early 1960’s and the paramount importance now of local support of the church’s mission.
Relying primarily on the support of church members, Congolese Disciples have built schools, clinics and churches in significant numbers even during the turbulent years of the recent past. Under the continuing adminstration of the Church’s central office of Education are 486 primary and secondary schools with 65,000 students and 2700 plus teachers. In addition to 6 hospitals staffed by 12 Congolese doctors are pharmacies and clinics in all the Disciples Posts. While the Congolese government is committed to health and education services through payment of salaries, local labor, church offerings and user fees maintain the buildings and make up for delayed and inadequate salary payments by the state.
Tremendous growth of the Congolese Disciples is reflected in the fact that the Church consisted of 10 Posts at
independence in 1960. Another sign of progress among Congo Disciples is the Church’s relative unity after a period of dissension resulting in the split of the remote Tshuapa River Posts. A native of the Tshuapa Post of Mondombe, Rev. BONANGA appealed to the Yalusaka congregation to support the parish through their offerings, their tithes and community projects (e.g. a parish manioc field) to generate revenue. Following Rev. BONANGA, four pastors prayed for the local and world church, including Disciples partners in the U.S. and Germany, for missionaries both dead and living and for social concerns both international and national. The five hour Palm Sunday service ended at 2 pm, long after the Sunday lunch crowd has dispersed in the U.S.
NOTE: Report of the Palm Sunday service is from Nathan Weteto’s blog originating from Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka. Address is email@example.com He concludes the report by noting there were among the 825 persons at the worship service 57 Bibles and 14 song books. The several offerings taken up totaled around $70.
Like Congolese Disciple leader Elonda Efefe, my father Rev. Dr. Joseph M. Smith was a boy from the sticks. In Dad’s case, it was a mountaintop community between White Sulphur Springs, WV, and Covington, VA that rooted and shaped Joe Smith. Rev. Elonda was raised near Lotumbe, Disciple post on the Momboyo River in the tropical rain forest.
The two men had in common a theological education that took them far from home: Dad to Yale and then Union for a doctorate and Paul Elonda to Strasburg, France for his master’s and doctoral studies. They also had in common great love for the people and place they left behind and a visionary commitment to serving those people as Disciple leaders on the two continents.
The rural church was Dad’s special interest both in his academic career and on the mission field in China. After Rev. Elonda was named Equateur Province’s first executive for the unifying Protestant body in Congo, The Church of Christ of Congo, he confided to me, fresh out of college, that all he had wanted and dreamed of during his student days was to become a village pastor.
Dad died January 15 at the age of 98 and a half; Dr. Elonda died in 1991 at the age of 56. Rev. Elonda’s grave is situated in downtown Mbandaka between the Disciples headquarters and the Mbandaka X church buildings. As an important feature of his vision for the church was its leading role in the new nation’s economic and social development, it is appropriate that a corn field grows next to his grave. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim 4:7) is the epitaph.