Friday, October 29, 2010

“Mamu” Power!

We just returned from our first visit to Mbuji-Mayi, the capital of Kasai Oriental, the province next-door to us to the east. It was a grueling 180km (about 110 miles) drive to Mbuji-Mayi, which we likened to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland—for 9 hours straight! We enjoyed meeting leaders in the church there, visiting families in their homes, and seeing the ‘life of the church’ in Mbuji Mayi. One of our highlights was meeting with the women’s leadership from the Synod and presbyteries that Mbuji-Mayi is located in. Three times we were hosted for a meal in different churches by groups of women, and each time we grew more impressed with the strength and faith of the women of the church.

DSCN4359 Mamu Sabine (left) and other women’s leaders dance
into the church as they greet us.

In each place, we were joyfully greeted with song and dance as we drove up to the church. It is hard not to feel welcomed and joyful when you are received this way. We were served a big meal (and feeding the car-load of people we traveled with is an undertaking!) and then heard from them about their activities and life in the church. Culturally, women have a big role to play in farming, working, taking care of their families, and being the social and emotional ‘glue’ in the community to keep people together. This means that being involved in the church does not come easily!

First, the women of CPC typically divide their parishes into ‘cells’, and the women of each cell meet once per week to pray, study the Bible and worship. The women of each parish have a monthly combined meeting, and every 3 months the women of several parishes or an entire presbytery will meet in one location for a ‘unity meeting’. These women typically travel to all of these meetings by foot, which means walking for 2 or more hours if going to another parish! Each year they have a women’s conference for the presbytery and the synod, which we are anxious to visit sometime soon. At their conferences, women learn how to teach the Bible, lead singing, facilitate women’s activities in the parish, and cultivate healthy relationships in their families, as well as physical skills like soap-making and cooking. These conferences are an important time for women to learn and teach, because it empowers them to teach and have confidence to voice their opinions in their parishes.

DSCN4374Discussing women’s activities with the leadership of the Synod of East Kasai

In each group of women, we were impressed with the projects that they have started to improve the lives of the poor in their parishes. We were especially impressed that most of these projects are initiated and funded by the women themselves! Several times we heard a story like, “the women of the committee each contributed what they could, and we came up with $10. So we bought a few chickens….” Or, “We loaned the $10 we saved to a woman who did not have a job, and told her to put the money to use.” Or, “We were able to buy supplies to make and sell soap.” Amazing how many possibilities there are with a little creativity!


One women shows off the clothing that she made.
The women dye fabric as a cooperative project and sell it.

Presbytery women in corn The women of the Presbytery of Mbuji-Mayi stand in the corn of
their cooperative field. The proceeds from the harvest helps start
new projects, provides food for their families, and also supports
the local parish and the women’s department of CPC.

DSCN4397 The women of the Bipemba parish slowly built a house with the
proceeds from their field! The house is rented to 2 families, and
provides an income of $5 per month to support women’s activities.
They hope to start building a second house!

Each time we heard their stories, we left impressed. These women have strength and faith to persevere in the midst of many challenges. It is a challenge for everyone here to feed their children and pay the school fees, and keep their families healthy. But these women choose to put God first, make time for worship and prayer, and therefore find strength and creativity to face these needs together. In each location, they expressed a desire to partner with women in the U.S., to encourage and strengthen each other, and to find support to grow some of their projects. We think that we have lots to learn from them! :)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Chicken Blessing

 Kasai rooster We were going to visit Pastor Mboyamba at his home, to officially congratulate him on his new position as the elected Legal Representative for the CPC. We set out first for the market with our house-worker, Tatu Muanda. He led us to the section where they sell chickens, and we carefully selected a large white rooster. We bought a burlap bag and gently placed the rooster in the bag. Then, we walked back to the bus-stop and boarded a crowded mini-bus out to Kananga 2. We parted ways with Tatu Muanda at his stop, and gingerly carried our rooster the 1km or so to Pastor Mboyamba’s house. The rooster stayed pretty quiet, and it felt strange to realize that while this was the first time either of us had ever carried a live rooster in a bag, no one who passed us on the street would necessarily know we were carrying a live chicken!

We found several other people sitting in clusters in the yard of Pastor Mboyamba’s house, but he was not yet home. He had a constant stream on visitors in the week following his appointment, at all hours of the day. Chairs were brought for us, and we chatted with his wife, Mama Charlotte, and met the other visitors. The rooster stayed pretty quiet in his bag until I accidentally bumped it, and then the clucking turned a few heads. Pastor Mboyamba arrived on his moto, and pulled into the yard near our chairs. Before he had even dismounted, Bob pulled out the chicken and started to sing the song we had rehearsed:

Tshiakadipuee, Thiakadipuee, Thiakadipuee, shila muana
Tshiakadipuee, Thiakadipuee, Thiakadipuee, shila muana
muana nguetu bonso!

While we chanted this song, Bob held the chicken and danced around Pastor Mboyamba, touching it to his head, his shoulders, even down to his knees. People laughed and clapped and joined in the singing. Mama Charlotte took the chicken, and we then went inside to eat – a true expression of African hospitality! After eating, we sat outside, and each new visitor who came was told the story of the ‘Batoke’ (Westerners) who gave a chicken to Pastor Mboyamba and sang the traditional song of congratulations.

Before we went to visit Pastor Mboyamba, we shared with our language teacher about the visit, and asked for his advice about the appropriate way to express our congratulations. He affirmed that giving a live chicken was a good idea, wrote out the words of the song for us to learn, and explained how to hold the chicken and ‘bless’ the person with it. This event happened more than a month ago. We continue to hear people re-tell this story, or meet people who have heard the story somehow. “…and they brought a totally white chicken! You should have seen how Bob waved the chicken around Pastor Mboyamba!” They express how impressed they are that we would do this, as this shows how we have really embraced the culture. The culture in Kananga is so different from our home culture, and we find a constant tension between embracing the culture and maintaining our own culture. This is one victory in the midst of many other experiences where we feel we failed to adequately appreciate the culture. But a victory, none the less! :)


Standing with Pastor Mboyamba (white shirt) in front of his home

Monday, October 11, 2010

Everybody needs a hero!

Everybody needs a hero.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, I have a number of heroes.  One is Billy Graham.  In my estimation, Billy did more for the church in the 20th century than any other person.  Not only did he preach the Gospel message to millions, he brought church leaders together and fostered a spirit of unity and ecumenism that continues to this day.  Another hero of mine is William Carey.  Carey believed in the mission movement in a day when the ultra-Calvinist position in England was that God would reach the unreached unassisted.  Carey believed that “means” were necessary to spread the message of God’s love.  He sailed with his family to India where he served and had a fruitful missionary career.  His act of faith ignited the modern missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our 72 year old Congolese language teacher, Mukulu Muamba, has a hero.  The name of his hero is Pastor Daniel Moody Tshisungu.  Pastor Tshisungu was born at the turn of the 20th century and died in 1964.  He was a prominent Congolese evangelist in the Presbyterian Church of Congo.  He is buried behind the church where Kristi and I often worship in Kananga.  Tshisungu is known as someone who was full of the Holy Spirit.  He was a popular and powerful preacher and teacher.  He is remembered for having a strong and true faith. 

Let me tell you a story which Mukulu Muamba recently related to us.  In 1953/54 there was a terrible famine in the area of the Lubondai Mission Station of West Kasai.  It didn’t rain for two years, and people’s crops were being devastated.  Missionaries did their best to find food from other regions, but their efforts were not able to quell the food shortage.  Word of the famine came to Pastor Tshisungu who was living in Luebo.  Tshisungu sent word to the villagers of Lubondai, “Don’t worry.  Keep planting.”  The villagers were dumbstruck.  “Keep planting…there is no rain!”  He arrived the following Saturday, greeted by hundreds camped on the grass around the house where he would stay.  The next morning in church he exhorted everyone to meet every evening the following week at church to pray.  He encouraged them to plant and cultivate during the day, and to come together and pray afterwards in the evening.  Following his admonition, they planted during the day and came in the evening.  They prayed until 10pm.  Some lived long distances away.  Yet, they still came to pray and seek God’s face in the midst of their adversity.  On the following Sunday, all gathered in church for worship.  Pastor Tshisungu said to the congregation, “Don’t worry.  God has heard your prayer.  The rain will come.  The famine is over.”  At the end of the service, Pastor Tshisungu prayed.  As soon as he closed with the word “Amen,” a torrential downpour fell from the heavens.  People stood aghast…in amazement!  God had heard their prayers.  The following morning Pastor Tshisungu encouraged the praying faithful to give thanks to God for hearing them and answering their cry.  He then went back to Luebo.  The rains continued, and they enjoyed a bountiful harvest.  Their grief turned to joy.  Their sadness turned into a season of celebration.

The famous Congolese evangelist, Pastor Daniel Moody Tshisungu, is becoming a hero of mine as well.  Thank you LORD, for the ways you use the lives of others to inspire us to greater faith and faithfulness!                        

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Living around poverty

One of the most glaring aspects of life in Congo is poverty. Adjusting to living around the level of poverty here is a constant challenge. It effects the structure of economic society: prices, cost of labor, means of distributing goods. Poverty affects culture … and all of life.

When we arrived at Lake Munkamba, 90km from Kananga, we learned that one of our neighbors was leaving the following day to go to Kananga. He walked the entire way, and back, because he did not have money for other means of transport (and even if he did, there is no bus). Government workers (e.g. teachers, police, nurses) typically earn a salary of $35  per month. The total Sunday offering for a church of about 300 people is consistently less than $20. When people buy sugar (somewhat of a luxury item), they typically buy it in tiny bags that cost 5 cents. A majority of the population lives on an income of less than $1/day. Many people work very hard and earn very little.

In terms of adjusting to life, this means that we often see or hear about difficult situations. We were surprised to see the number of holes in the roof of one pastor we stayed with; he invited us to return in the rainy season to see what it is like to dodge the drips! A woman came last week who is a single mother with a disability, and asked if we could take in her child because she does not have the ability to care for him. Mama Mputu, who brings water for us once a week, came on Monday to ask for food because she and her children had gone to bed hungry for 3 days straight. Visiting our friends and neighbors is often bittersweet – we enjoy seeing the smiles of the children and connecting with people, but we grieve to see the physical challenges they life with.

P1020975 Mamu Mputu pours the water from the basin into the barrel in our kitchen.

We recognize that in this context, we are considered ‘rich’, perhaps even extravagantly so. This feels uncomfortable, partly because we would not put ourselves in that category in the U.S. Living around poverty really challenges us in our life decisions. Is it ‘right’ to say ‘no’ to paying school fees for a child we have just met, and then to go to a restaurant for dinner? Should I feel guilty when I eat chicken because I know how rarely many people around us get to eat chicken?

DSCN4080 Mama Elisabeth in front of her home. She sells peanuts and cassava at the
market on our street, and her husband is the night guard for the CPC education office.

Congo has a communal culture. The culture and the long history of poverty and exploitation means that many people seek out people to help them with their problems. We admire the way that people are involved in each others lives in times of need. Since we are foreigners, and perceived to have more disposable funds than most Congolese, we often get asked for assistance. How do we respond? We often get overwhelmed by the pervasive problems that we see. We cannot help every person that asks, and if we tried, we would be further overwhelmed by requests. We do, however, want to be involved in people’s lives, and we do want to find ways to help people with these urgent needs.

A few weeks ago, we were expecting a transfer of money from Kinshasa which took longer than we anticipated. In our optimism that it would only take a few days, we got down to only 8,000 Francs (about $8) remaining in our wallets. It was Friday evening, and we knew it was unlikely we would be able to receive the transfer until Monday. Some friends were going to the local prison the next day, and we wanted to contribute toward the meal they were preparing for the prisoners. I wondered how we would make it through the weekend! We decided we would contribute $5 to the prison ministry and trust that we could make it until Monday. That night I slept fitfully, worrying and calculating how we could pay the bus fare to church on Sunday, and what we would eat. Because we do not have a refrigerator, we buy food every day or two; how could we make it until Monday without going to bed hungry? The next morning, I reflected on how consumed and worried I was, and realized that many of our neighbors and friends in Congo live with these questions and worries every day! In our case, it was an unusual situation, and we were overjoyed when we were able to receive the transfer on Saturday. It was a good reminder for me though, of the challenges of lack of resources.

I was reflecting recently on systemic poverty, and wondering about the causes. I speculated what steps might help improve the quality of life for individuals or the society as a whole. I realized that I cannot fully understand all of the factors involved, or determine the right solutions—I’ll leave that for the experts. We are simply being asked by God to listen to Him, and be obedient each day. I recently read a quote from Mother Theresa that seemed poignant in this environment: “It is not that you serve the rich or the poor. It is the love you put into the doing.” We are glad that in this context we work with the church. We are not trying to solve problems by ourselves; we are just small parts of the Body of Christ in Congo, seeking to show God’s love and respond to the spiritual and physical needs of the people around us.