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.

 

RETURN TO IKENGO

 

The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return. On our first visits there forty one years ago my role was to drive the Youth Department truck loaded with thirty plus youth singing above the groaning of the truck springs on the 30 km, two hour trip from Mbandaka . Everyone but the driver evacuated the vehicle at the culvert fashioned with branches which often had to be repaired before the last leg of the journey.

My two return trips this summer have been made comfortably seated in a plastic lawn chair placed in a pirogue powered by a 15 horsepower outboard motor. The village has grown considerably; what had been a sleepy village of 500 inhabitants is now several times larger. The deterioration of the road from Mbandaka, similar to the deplorable conditions of the roads and transportation infrastructure throughout the country, has not prevented the Governor of Equator Province and other dignitaries from making the trek to Ikengo these days.

The reputation for size and quality of the pigs raised at the Church’s Centro Agro Pastorale (CAP) d’ Ikengo, and the lovely retreat-like setting on the Congo River attract most of Ikengo’s visitors with vehicles these days. This was not the case ten years ago when a large cattle and pig raising ranch was in full swing. Former President Mobutu’s Minister of Finance maintained the road for the multiple vehicles of his ranch, developed on the land across the road from the Church’s CAP. The rain forest where giant trees emitted the shrieks and squawks of monkeys and birds was cleared in 1980 to house a large work force and sheds for the livestock. The ranch ceased operations with the death of the owner but the CAP maintains the village’s identity as the prime source for the tastiest pork in the Mbandaka area.

Rev. Paul Elonda’s founding vision of the Church’s vital role in developing the natural resources of the country is carried out at CAP today by the cultivation of the most advanced vegetable seed varieties, pig and chicken raising and the trainings carried out at the Center. The full time staff consists of ten workers and the CAP Director, with nine of the men being of Pygmy background. The current director, a Bantu, helped start a network of Pygmy civil rights groups in Equator Province before beginning work at the Center. That organizing effort began his collaboration with one of the Province’s very few Pygmy secondary school graduates now working at the Mbandaka office of UNICEF.

The preponderance of Pygmies on the staff remains something of a mystery to me so I look forward as I write this to having some of my questions answered. Whether the Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years at the Center in the mid 70s brought the village Pygmies into the Center’s life is an unknown. What I do know is that Church leaders years ago spoke out against the widespread discrimination against the Pygmies as an “inferior“, even “subhuman“, minority of the village and Equator Province population. Although I don’t recall ever meeting a Pygmy resident of Ikengo forty years ago, they were confined to the end of the village at the time, I did learn that they were masters of the hunt and supplied villagers with meat from the forest. This weekend I preach in the Ikengo Church where Pygmies now worship and I will no doubt have some fresh learnings to report on later.

The story of the Peace Corps volunteer who married a girl from the village also remains something of a mystery. Before returning to the States they had three children while he worked in Peace Corps headquarters in Kinshasa. No one I’ve spoken with to date seems to know his whereabouts or that of the wife and children. The foundation of the adobe brick house he built next to the River bank provides the outline today of the Center’s “Payote”, the thatch roofed hut without walls where visitors to the Center are now welcomed.