Educating Congo’s Future Leaders

Ms. Linda James in back of UPC students on the campus.  "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela
Ms. Linda James in back of UPC students at the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Day event on the campus. “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

For over two years Ms. Linda James has served the Protestant University of the Congo as a Consultant in Development and Communications. As a Long Term Volunteer with Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) in the U.S., Ms. James will be thanking churches in the Kansas City area this month for their support of the University before her return. She wrote the following history of the University’s remarkable growth and its many and varied contributions to improving health services, educating leaders and preparing citizens for their important role in the global economy.

Founded in 1959 with three students in the School of Theology, the Université Protestante au Congo (Congo

UPC Theology student works on a translation from Hebrew Bible
UPC Theology student works on a translation from Hebrew Bible

Protestant University) with 8000 students today is a pioneer in Congolese higher education. Unlike many former colonies in Africa, Congo had only one Congolese PhD graduate at the time of independence in 1960. So the Disciples of Christ Church of Congo took the lead with four other Protestant church bodies in founding the Free University of Congo.

During the university’s 50-year history, it has survived chaotic political regimes, wars and civil strife that ensued after Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960. In 1961, after the assassination of Congo’s first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, chaos reigned. During the Simba Rebellion in the mid-1960’s, rebels moved into the city of Kisangani, the university’s home, forcing it to move to Kinshasa where it joined forces with an established Roman Catholic university in the nation’s capital.

For 20 years, the university survived a period of “nationalization” under Mobutu Sese Seko, the longtime dictator. Shortly after regaining its independence and returning to Kinshasa from Kisangani, the University began to expand beyond the original School of Theology. At that point, the Schools of Business and Law were established. Then came the wars in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when approximately 5.4 million Congolese lost their lives. Yet, the University remained in operation and, in 2006, the School of Medicine opened.

Disciples missionary and first President  Dr. Ben Hobgood at UPC's  first sign in 1959
Disciples missionary and among the first UPC Presidents, Dr. Ben Hobgood, at the University’s first sign in 1959

The Disciples of Christ of Congo’s influence and partnership throughout the years have been essential in the University’s success. Longtime Disciple missionary and Congo-born Dr. Ben Hobgood served as President of the University in the early years. Until his death in 2014 Dr. Hobgood’s commitment to Congolese higher education led him to serve on his return to the States as consultant to the University and to found the North American Liaison Bureau, the University support organization.

In Matthew 17:20, Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” While the Mustard Seed parable is widely cited, it holds special meaning for work here in Congo. Keeping the faith, even when the forward progress can be slower than expected, is so very important. Over the span of over 50 years, the perseverance of the Disciples and other founding church bodies in keeping this institution going even in times of violence and chaos have enabled advancement in hundreds of lives and hope for change in this new nation.

The faith which founded the University is now bearing fruit under the leadership of the current University

Current UPC medical students in a chemistry class
Current UPC medical students in a chemistry class

President, Dr. and Rev. Daniel Ngoy, who was raised in the Disciples Church in Equator Province. The University now produces a variety of success stories: Fulbright Scholars, leaders in nonprofit work, doctors in the rural areas, and pastors and community leaders.

From the beginning, the University’s leadership, faculty and students have distinguished themselves through a record of achievement under the most difficult circumstances, as illustrated by:

• Creating an indigenous self-sustaining higher education business model;
• Attracting a student population that is over fifty percent women;
• Recruiting predominately Congolese faculty, many of whom received their undergraduate education at the Congo Protestant University; and
• Producing alumni who become leaders including the University President who himself has a doctorate in Theology.

Highlights –

Theology School: 2016 marked another milestone in University history – after awarding her the PhD in Theology, the School of Theology brought on staff Dr. Bijoux Matuta, the first Congolese female Disciple to earn a PhD. (See the interview with Dr. Makuta in a recent lokoleyacongo blog posting)

New Medical School Classroom at the UPC
New Medical School Classroom at the UPC

Medical School: Training physicians to work in the interior of the country by sending every Medical School student to rural hospitals to complete their year-long internship.

Business School: Doctoral program established to provide local opportunity to pursue an advanced degree thereby guarding against the brain drain that is detrimental to the development of Congo. Executive MBA program trains young professionals in the Congolese business community.

Law School: Masters program in African Business law. Regular participation in international Moot Court competitions.

Without the support and commitment of those original five visionary Protestant denominations who founded the Congo Protestant University, this outstanding educational institution would not be the force in Congo that it is today. For further information on University programs, do a search on the Global Ministries web site: http://www.globalministries.org. The North American Liason Bureau web site: http://www.upcongo.org offers regular updates on University achievements and on ways to support its continuing growth.

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The Marginalized Pygmies as Our Protectors

Dra. Bijoux MAKUTA Likombe Moze grew up in the first Disciples  of Christ congregation in Congo Her father is a Disciple minister as is her husband.
Dr. Bijoux MAKUTA Likombe Moze grew up in the first Disciples of Christ congregation in Congo. Her father is a Disciple minister as is her husband. DEFAP photo

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 dougnslp@gmail.com.

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

In the village of Ikengo, the Disciples' agricultural project did employ a Pygmy staff, including 3 men on the right, and provide Pygmy children with scholarships.
In the village of Ikengo, the Disciples’ agricultural project did employ a Pygmy staff, including 3 men on the right, and provide Pygmy children with scholarships.
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.

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

Your Presence a Blessing

Metal flashlight becomes a rhythm instrument and your blogger becomes a Congo choir member (From the August 2010 postings in the Blog Archives at right)

Imagine yourself playing an instrument in a Congolese choir and then consider one of these opportunities described below to further the partnership of the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ in the U.S. with the Disciples in Congo.  Discover what so many others have found through sharing their lives with persons in Congo: in a setting of “underdevelopment” the Congolese people will help you learn more about what it is to be human.  And you will bless them as your presence confirms that we in the U.S. have not forgotten them and that we continue to value our historic ties with Christians in the Congo.  Join with the Congolese in celebrating the proclamation of the Psalmist: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:6)

Congo Travel Experience

You are invited to participate in the celebration of the groundbreaking for the new wing at the

Worshipping in Congo, and participating in the offering, leaves a deep impression on the visitor

first and oldest hospital founded by the Disciples in Congo.  There is still space in the delegation leaving for Congo August 7 this summer.  In addition to the visit of Disciples in Bolenge/Mbandaka, the group will tour and meet with Church partners in the capital cities of Kinshasa and Congo Brazzaville.  Further details from the http://www.globalministries.org  web site follow:

Congo Travel Experience

August 7-18, 2012

Our goal is be a “critical presence” by:

  • Celebrating with the Church of the Disciples of Christ  the completion of the maternity wing at the Bolenge hospital and the groundbreaking for the surgery/general medicine wing at the Bolenge Hospital.
  • Celebrating the renewal of the Global Ministries partnership between the Michigan Region and the Kinshasa Post
  • Visiting our partners in the neighboring country of Congo-Brazzaville.

The cost of the trip is $5000 inclusive of transportation, accommodation and meals. Contact the Africa Office for additional information: sgourdet@dom.disciples.org orpsanborn@dom.disciples.org

Mission Priority Positions

Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ has

Your blogger tells the story of Disciples missionary Ray Eldred whose drowning in a Congo river inspired the poem “The Congo” by Vachel Lindsay in the early 1900’s

identified priority positions for special funding. These mission priority positions have been received by Global Ministries from partner churches and church agencies and will be filled on the basis of a special fund raising project. These fully supported positions provide the missionary with a modest salary, health care, pension, housing and additional benefits related to educational benefits for children.

AFRICA

Democratic Republic of Congo: Medical doctor to serve with the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo in rural areas with an ability to adapt to very limited, outdated or non-existent facilities. French or Lingala required. Four-year term.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Leadership and Economic Development Consultant to strengthen the capacity of leaders of the Disciples of Christ in Congo to rebuild their war ravaged rural areas. Candidate should be versed in strategic planning and management, and grant writing. French or Lingala required. Four-year term.

Do We Believe in Congo?

Rev. Jean Bokeleale with Rev. Thomas Roughface of the Cherokee Nation at a World Council of Churches gathering in the early 1970's
Rev. Jean Bokeleale with Rev. Thomas Roughface of the Cherokee Nation at a World Council of Churches gathering in 1969

With the union of the sixty plus missionary-founded church bodies in 1969, the Church of Christ of Congo (Eglise du Christ au Congo – ECC) became the largest French-speaking Protestant Church in the world.  Under the leadership of the Disciple Rev. Jean Bokeleale, elected President of the fledgling united Church in 1968, the Protestants gained equal status in the new nation that had been seen as predominantly Roman Catholic during the colonial era.

Protestant missionaries provided health and education services for decades with no subisdies from the Belgian colonial administration which exclusively supported Catholic services until 1946.  At the time of independence in 1960, Protestants remained a minority religion although counting 25% of the population, about half the number of Congolese Catholics.

Rev. Bokeleale, who eventually took the title of Monsignor, succeeded in elevating the Protestants’ status in the new independent nation through adulation of the increasingly authoritarian rule of Mobutu Sese-Soko. In an excellent article on “Zaire Protestants and the Decline of Mobutu” a Congolese studying in Strasbourg wrote in 1991, “The Church (the E.C.C.) distinguished itself by its unconditional support for the regime and the person of President Mobutu”.[1]  In a 1995 pastoral letter to the E.C.C. titled “The Eternal Marginalisation of the Protestants in Our Country is a Danger Not Only Today but Especially for Future Generations”[2], Mgr. Bokeleale presented his case for siding with Mobutu’s rule.

The majestic Protestant Cathedral erected next to the Congolese parliament building in Kinshasa as well as other ECC properties in the capital stand as testimony to the success of Mgr. Bokeleale’s political strategy.  Among the continuing costs and consequences of this strategy is the seemingly “unconditional support” for the Kabila administration of the current ECC leadership of Mgr. Pierre Marini Bodho.  Prior to marching to the Electoral Commission to declare his candidacy for President in last November’s election, Joseph Kabila and family participated in a service at the Protestant Cathedral led by Mgr. Marini.  In a sermon which could only be construed as a blessing of the Kabila right to rule, Mgr. Marini declared that it is God who “chooses the one to rule and communicates the program to be undertaken”.

But lest we be seen as judging past or present Congolese Church leadership, let us consider U.S. complicity in authoritarian rule in the country.  Let us consider the fact that since 1960 it is the U.S. who has been the principal source of foreign aid and has played the leading role in post independence events in Congo from the assassination of Patrice Lumumba to the elevation of Joseph Kabila to his 2006 position as the youngest head of state in the world.  Let us consider that the U.S. policy emphasis on security in Congo is in part responsible for the warfare in Eastern Congo that has claimed the lives of over five million people in the last fourteen years.

Lest we American Protestant Christians who love Congo continue to content ourselves with thoughts

Kinshasa Electoral Commission Headquarters which a Methodist Clergyman Headed for the 2011 Election
Kinshasa Electoral Commission Headquarters which a Methodist Clergyman Headed for the 2011 Election

that we can do nothing about political change in Congo, let us consider what we are doing now to support the courageous Congolese who declare that the election was a travesty of democracy.  Yes, it is true that our holy scripture and our reading of history tells us that it is the Congolese who will liberate themselves from oppression and foreign control of their resources.  But we who know Congo and Congolese for longer than policy makers in D.C. and who represent church bodies with a longer history in Congo than even the U.S. government, we should have something to say and be able to do something more about the current crisis in Congo than wring and throw up our hands about the continued exploitation and violence in Congo.

We can make clear that we who believe in the God of liberation and justice stand in support of those Congolese who expect and demand political leaders to represent their highest aspirations and be held accountable for what they do with the power entrusted to them.  We can make clear that we believe in the Congolese people’s right to self rule and their capacity to rule in a manner that furthers all the people’s sharing in the country’s wealth.  We can make clear that our faith promises a bright future for Congo, for the Congolese people and for all of Africa.  By doing so, we will have made clear we believe in Congo.


[1]“Protestantisme Zairois et Declin du Mobutuisme”, Philippe Kabongo-Mbaya, Researcher at University of Strasbourg, Politique Africaine, 1991

[2] “La marginalization eternelle des Protestants dans notre pays est un danger non seulement aujourd’hui mais surtout pour les generations futures”, Lettre pastorale, Bokeleale Itofo Bokambanza, 1995,  Kinshasa publication of the Eglise du Christ au Zaire

Here’s a prize for those who have read this far;  click on the blue type that follows to access the web link for last Sunday’s CBS News 60 Minutes report from Kinshasa: 60 Minutes Presents the Kimbanguiste Symphony Orchestra . Go to the 13 minute video at the bottom of the page for the “Ode to Joy” performed as you have never heard and felt it before.

We Lose a Friend in TJ Liggett

Rev. Dr. Thomas Jackson Liggett, 1919 - March 27, 2012
Rev. Dr. Thomas Jackson Liggett, 1919 - March 27, 2012

To learn about Rev. Dr. T.J. Liggett’s distinguished service of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and his contributions to world peace and Christianity’s ecumenical movement , go to

http://www.disciples.org/DisciplesNewsService/tabid/58/itemId/1190/Updated-Disciple-leader-Rev-Dr-TJ-Liggett-die.aspx

After being introduced to him by my father on a subway in New York City in the mid – 1960’s, I didn’t see TJ again until the Liggetts’ move to California in the late 1980’s.  He enthusiastically greeted me after a church gathering as the son of a colleague (Dad was Executive for Asia) with whom he had shared much.   Liggett was fond of telling me about his first meeting with Dad on a snowy day in New Haven.  They were participating in a Yale sponsored gathering on Communism and Christianity and Dad revealed that TJ would soon be asked to join the world mission staff of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as executive for Latin America.

When my father died in January of last year, I called TJ before leaving for the memorial service in Virginia.  For the first time, Liggett characterized for me what his relationship with Dad had meant to him.  “I never had a brother”, TJ noted, “but there have been a few people in my life who I knew I could go to for advice when I needed it.  I knew when I went to Joe I would always get a thoughtful response.”

TJ was an uncommonly kind man – and a profoundly loving one as well.  Undoubtedly the deepest, most lasting impression he has left on me comes from modeling of what it means to be a devoted spouse.  After choosing Pilgrim Place in Claremont for its excellent reputation for professional care, he made his personal care of Virginia his priority for years.  His devotion to her set an example my wife and I joked about never being able to emulate.

On my visits to their home in Claremont, Virginia sat at the window facing the busy Harrison Avenue and would first ask about my daughters.  While I learned about her grandchildren, TJ would be busy preparing tea and a plate of cookies.   No matter who the guest, I am certain there was never any question as to who was at the center of home life in the Liggett household.

On one of the few evenings when TJ took time away from Virginia, he spoke on a rainy night in Long Beach at the annual Disciples’ Regional Martin Luther King event.  In a memorable tribute, Liggett recalled learning of Dr. King’s assassination when he was at the Mindolo Ecumenical Institute in Zambia.  Without delay, the Institute staff had called the community together for prayer and testimony. In addition to this evidence of Dr. King’s impact worldwide, TJ wanted to us to know that for these African Christians King stood out as a man who declared that none of us are free until we are all free.

Along with many pictures of his family, Liggett displayed in his home the cane from Congo as a prized gift from his life of service of the world Church. The first President of the Church of Christ of Congo, the Disciple Bishop Bokeleale had presented TJ the ivory inlaid, ironwood cane on one of his trips to the U.S.  Another gift, this one from his years of Latin America service, was a rock paperweight on his desk.  The rock bore a quote from the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, one of Dr. Liggett’s intellectual mentors, “May we know if not the peace of God then let us know the glory of God”.  Through TJ Liggett I believe many of us, in the U.S., in Latin America and worldwide, came to know better the glory of God.

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936):  “Think about the emotional and feel the intellectual”.
Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936): “Think about the emotional and feel the intellectual”.