Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Growing young faith

The children looked intently at the picture of the baby in the hay surrounded by a man, a woman, and a few animals. A few would eagerly raise their hands to answer Tatu Celestin’s questions:
“Who was Jesus?”
“The son of God!”
“Where was he born?”
”In a stable with animals.”
”Was he born with honor?”
”Is a stable with animals a place of honor? No, he was not born with honor and glory. He left that in heaven when he was born as a person like us.”

SS pictures Kga 1-1

Here in Kasai, most families sleep at night with livestock in their homes – goats, chickens, guinea pigs, etc. So, I could see how that was the concept of Jesus being born in a stable was not particularly “dishonorable” to these kids. And they could recognize the animals and the surroundings in the picture as a familiar setting. Tatu Celestin patiently walked them through the story of Jesus’ birth, always making sure the kids understood and engaging them with questions. One 7-year-old was even able to quote John 3:16 when he asked the reason why Jesus was born.

This Sunday was the first Sunday that a new set of pictures and lessons about the life of Jesus was used here. Tatu Celestin, the Sunday School teacher at our nearby parish in Kananga, was the first to try it out. It has taken almost all year to develop, and it is finally finished! A team of people here, including the Coordinator of Christian Education, the director of Evangelism, and the director of the printing press, coordinated the effort along with a couple of others who helped with writing lessons or illustrating the pictures. The pictures were drawn locally in Kananga, and lessons were written in Tshiluba. Each of the lessons was laminated so that it will last for years despite the humid and dusty climate, and so that nearby churches can share and rotate the lessons amongst themselves.

The staff at IMPROKA, the CPC Printing press, with
the completed Sunday school pictures

We have found few churches here who have a strong Sunday school or time for teaching children. Children are present in the main worship service, and maybe after a 3 hour service adults don’t have the energy or motivation to do anything else for the kids. Many people have told us that a lack of materials like pictures and lessons is one the primary reasons for the neglect of Sunday schools. We know that there are lots of ways to communicate a story and truths without materials – story telling, acting something out, etc., but those require some training and a lot of effort on the part of the teacher.

We are hopeful that early next year a training can be organized in both West and East Kasai to equip Sunday school teachers with knowledge and materials for teaching children. Children are eager to learn, and we have seen many who are fervent prayer warriors or are exceptionally loving and helpful to others. But we know that they need dedicated time tailored to them to really understand the truth of the gospel and the significance of what Jesus accomplished through his death on the cross.

And the support for creating these pictures? It came from a generous and faithful woman in the U.S. who spent many years in Congo as a missionary. In her retirement, she has collected stamps from churches and individuals and used the proceeds from the sale of them for ministry projects in Congo. What a creative idea! Given the decline of postal mail and the increased cost of mailing, “Stamps for mission” ended this year. But, we are grateful for Peggy’s faithful use of time and energy to continue to support God’s work in Congo.

SS pictures Kga 1-4
The children and teachers of the Kananga 1 parish,
along with Kristi on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Highway in the Desert

Isaiah 40:3-5 (NIV)
3 A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Q-Zee, a Kenyan friend of ours who sings in a Christian Rap group called the Super Concaves, recently said to me, “In our suffering, God makes a highway of blessings.” I preached these words a week ago Sunday, yet sometimes in the wee hours of the night I still wonder, “Are these words really true?”

The people of Judah had found themselves estranged from Yahweh for three score years and ten. They were lost. They had released the anchor of their faith. They felt abandoned. They wandered in a spiritual wasteland. Their hope was gone. Yet into this barrenness comes a fresh word. Into the parched desert comes water for the thirsty. A voice calls, “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD.”

Several centuries after these words are spoken, a man appears in the desert. He announces the coming of another. This another announces a kingdom within. He announces a kingdom without end. He announces blessings for those bent down; He lifts up those bowed down. A highway is made.

Our friend Q-Zee does not speak empty words. 2014 has been a year of trial for him and his family. His mother was imprisoned, falsely accused of killing someone. Q-Zee’s estranged father was one of her accusers, seeking to profit from selling her land. Yet when Q-Zee went to visit his mother in prison, he learned from prison officials that his mother spends all of her time comforting others. She isn’t distraught. She is consumed with serving her Lord and Master. In prison, in the place of desolation and rejection, in the desert, she has found consolation and comfort from God. In turn, she imparts words of comfort to others.

What comfort do you need this Christmas season? Where are you feeling oppressed and overwhelmed? What broken relationship has sent you reeling? What source of suffering has thrown you to the ground? Friend, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ comes on a highway and meets us in our places of disconsolation and disquietude. God meets us in the desert. All four Gospel writers sing with one voice the words of John the Baptizer, “Prepare the way for the LORD, make straight paths for him.” Luke gives full expression to the echo from Isaiah when he writes, “And all flesh will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3: 6).

Thank you, Q-Zee. Your words indeed are true. “In our suffering, God makes a highway of blessings.” God meets us in the desert, and brings forth salvation.

God of all persons, times and places, we humbly come before You this Advent Season. We acknowledge our weakness and our need for you. Many of us have found ourselves ‘in the desert’. We have been wandering in a spiritual wilderness. Please come and meet us. Please construct a highway of blessings beyond anything we can currently imagine. May You be glorified in us! In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

**this devotional message can also be found on the PC(USA) World Mission homepage and World Mission Facebook page where every week this month you will find an Advent Devotional written by a PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Strength of the village

Pastor Crispin showed up promptly at 8am on Sunday morning to escort us out to his rural parish for our long-anticipated visit with them. About 35 km outside of Kananga, we turned off the main road onto a narrow path. “So, is this ‘road’ really big enough for a vehicle?” I queried skeptically. “Oh yes!” was the quick reply from Pastor Crispin, “There are a couple of difficult spots, but we have just repaired them so that you can get through.” So, we plowed through the narrow path, and it sounded like an automatic car wash as branches brushed the car on both side. While en-route, Pastor Crispin shared about the challenges of living and serving in a rural area. Most of his congregation are not very educated; few of the women can read, and those that cannot seem to feel they are too old to learn. They are all farmers, so having disposable income does not come easily. The average offering is about $1 per week.

At about 9:30, we started to see palm fronds planted by the road as a sign of welcome. We saw some of the church members still hurriedly gathering up things to go to church, and welcomed some into the car. A group of youth waving palm fronds and shouting welcomed us on the road and ran behind the vehicle cheering. We learned that this was the first time this church has ever had a missionary or foreigner worship at their church. We were thoroughly impressed with their building, especially the strong and durable looking thatch roof.

Everyone enjoyed the worship, including a couple of solos by a young woman. Bob preached from Isaiah 40:1-5, where God tells his people, in the midst of their suffering and despair, that He will send the Comforter, the Messiah. It seemed especially appropriate, given that people in the church had literally “prepared the way” for us by making the “rough ground level” so that we could reach them. Towards the end of the service, the pastor invited people to bring the gifts they had prepared for us. As the youth played a song, women and men danced forward in a joyful procession and presented us with the produce of their fields – basins of corn, large roots of cassava, plantains, pineapples, and a whole bunch of bananas. It was amazing to see the outpouring of generosity, especially knowing that harvest season is not yet in full swing.

After the service, we piled into the vehicle with as many people as could fit, and drove the 100 meters to Pastor Crispin’s house for lunch. As we drove, one young man stood on the back of the Land Cruiser with a megaphone, inviting people in the village to come and buy Bibles and other books. “Come and get a Bible!” he announced, “Instead of paying 10,000 Francs, you can pay just 4,000! Come buy a songbook! Lessons for children!” Pastor Crispin had been mobilizing his people for weeks, encouraging them to have money ready when we came to buy Bibles and other books. The church members succeeded in buying all 5 Bibles that we came with, as well as some other books like a catechism and a biography of a Kasaian pastor named Maweja Apollo.

Over lunch, we learned that the church has formed an Evangelism Committee. Every week, the committee members gather at one member’s house on Friday evening, and spend the night there. Very early on Saturday morning, they worship and pray together, then go out visiting in the neighborhood. They go door to door, asking each family if they can pray for them, or if they want to talk about God. They visit each house, regardless of whether the family attends another church, or doesn’t worship at all. Sometimes, people welcome them warmly and are eager for their prayers, and other times they get a hostile reception. After a couple of hours of visiting homes, the committee reconvenes to share their experiences. They then stay together throughout Saturday, preparing for an evangelistic worship and prayer gathering at 4pm.  We were so impressed at their active involvement in the community and their passion to share the love of Christ. What a generous sacrifice of time each of these people is making! In a place with very little financial income, they are giving generously of the their time and their energy – also precious resources in this agricultural society.

We returned home tired after a long drive, but refreshed by the joyful and generous hospitality of this rural church. We are enjoying fresh pineapples, corn, and plantains this week, and looking for vulnerable others with whom we can share this bountiful gift!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Months of planning and preparation were involved.  It was a big initiative.  Our department was asked to help “make it happen.”  It promised to be a big day.  It was announced on the radio.  Announcements went out to most of the congregations in four presbyteries. Invitations were sent to special guests.  The twenty eight person choir practiced for two months beforehand.  Robes were pressed and prepared.  Plastic chairs were borrowed from nearby congregations.  Three hundred and seventy five new songbooks were produced.  Visitors from the US and Kinshasa were en-route. It was going to be a “tshibilu tshinene!”

Last Saturday our Department of Evangelism hosted a ‘tshibilu” (worship celebration) to launch a new songbook and to commemorate fifty years of STUDIPROKA, the radio ministry of the Congolese Presbyterian Community (CPC).  It was a long day for Kristi and I as we served alongside our Congolese colleagues.  At the end of it all, we slunk into our couch with a tired smile of satisfaction on our faces. 

This story begins with Elsbeth Shannon.  She and her husband, Dr. Ralph Shannon, served in Congo for more than thirty years and raised their four children here.  Elsbeth had a passion for music and for helping the Congolese to develop worship songs that reflect their traditional beats and rhythms.  Her work has been greatly appreciated here.  In 1991 the CPC celebrated 100 years in Congo.  Elsbeth and a colleague were instrumental in working with Congolese pastors and lay leaders to compose songs to commemorate.  Today we have friends who were part of a large choir which she led during that special time.  Elsbeth Shannon died in 2010.  Before she died, she shared with her family her desire that these songs be collected and made into a new worship songbook for the CPC.  Corinne, her daughter, took her mother’s request to heart.  Earlier this year Corinne emailed Pastor Mboyamba, the Director of our department, and shared the vision of producing this songbook and unveiling it to the church.  He readily agreed and our journey together began. 

“Chorale Unie” (the United Choir) with members from all four Kananga presbyteries
sang several popular songs composed by Congolese Christians

Elder Muamba Mukengeshayi has been the Director of STUDIPROKA or “Tshiondo Tshia Muoyo” (The Drumbeat of Life) for forty five years.  Without his steadfast commitment to this ministry, it would have died several years ago.  At the Board Meeting earlier this year, he asked our department to help host a celebration of fifty years of this ministry in the Kasai of Congo.

Thus, two important initiatives collided and were celerated on Saturday, November 8th.  The Shannon family came:  daughter Corinne, Dr. Shannon and wife Rebecca, son Scott and his wife Sharmeen and their three children.  About sixty special guests came and about two hundred others as well.  It was a joyous celebration.  The choir sang several of the popular songs from the new worship book and taught us all a couple of them as well.  A traditional madimba* player accompanied their lively singing.  People were standing and dancing and clapping over the duration of the three hour service.  Corinne gave a fitting tribute to her mother.  Elder Muamba shared the history of ‘Tshiondo Tshia Muoyo’ and Pastor Kayimbi shared the hopes for the future of this ministry – namely to buy a radio transmitter and have a full-fledged radio station.  Many folks gave generously and offered pledges to see this happen; the total collection with pledges was roughly $1,900.  Corinne, representing the Shannon family, and Elder Muamba were honored publicly and given gifts for the efforts and service of them and their families  It was a fitting tribute to those who have labored with love for the sake of the Lord and others in central Congo. 

Elder Muamba Mukengeshayi Mpopola shares the history of
“Tshiondo Tshia Muoyo” (The Drumbeat of Life)

Corinne receives a special “didiba” (woven traditional fabrics and dyes) -
it says, “Elsbeth Shannon is buried in the US, but her spirit is alive in Congo”

May God bless the Shannon family for their years of service to the Congolese people.  May God also bless Elder Muamba Mukengeshayi and his family for years of faithful service and perseverance in the midst of many obstacles.  It is good to celebrate.  It is right to honor those who have gone before us.  May God receive all the glory!      

*a madimba is a traditional instrument resembling a xylophone. 

At the reception, the young madimba player entertains the guests

Bob inadvertently becomes the ‘hit of the party’ by joining
in with the traditional dancing

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Internal enemies

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with cynicism recently. We both have struggled with it at times, and feel that a country like Congo gives plenty of grounds for cynical thinking…but it is a struggle none-the-less.

One Congolese friend recently lamented that it seems that often a project or task does not get completed here unless there is persistent follow up. Our colleagues have sometimes expressed a desire for something to happen, but then in the midst of the project it feels like people fail to show up for meetings or complete what they’ve said they will do. Failures to be honest or forthright by some cause me to mistrust the people around us.

As the parliament contemplates extending or eliminating term limits for the president, I find myself losing hope for change along with many other Congolese. The deplorable roads that cause hardship for all levels of society and the lack of infrastructure that discourages economic growth all contribute to a sense that any efforts at improvements will be thwarted. Several of our friends in Congo have lamented the lack of justice that seems pervasive in the government. One sad reality is that the poor here are often the victims of theft…thieves break into houses where there is a dirt floor they can dig through, not the big houses with a guard or a high metal fence. Alice, one of the caregivers at the Ditekemena kids’ program returned home last week to find a woman in her house who had packed up all the clothes into a big bundle and was just about to take off with it.

One morning this week we happened to be standing outside our office when the nearby primary school let out. Several kids came and started asking for money. When we politely said no, they started chanting “l’argent! l’argent!” (money! money!), which of course drew more kids and more noise and felt like a near riotous mob to us in the middle of it. The blatant and indiscriminate asking here often feels rude and annoying.

I vent about these examples simply to share some of our internal struggle. Maybe some of these things resonate with you or sound familiar – I know Congo is not the only place with frustrations! One day recently while I was feeling especially frustrated and cynical, Bob wisely commented that if we give in to the cynicism, we have lost the battle. Our challenge is to be a voice of hope and the fragrance of Jesus in the midst of an environment that feels on the surface like it is a lost cause. We consistently pray that God would give us His eyes and His heart in the midst of the challenges. As I have prayed, God frequently reminds me of the things to be thankful for…as I recount those blessings and give thanks, I find the cynicism dissipating and God giving strength to carry on. Yes, it is hard to see injustice, poverty, and sin around us. But we serve a loving and victorious God, who IS calling, transforming, and empowering people to be His ambassadors. We can rejoice, and give thanks!

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, rejoice! Let you gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:4-7)