“I will sprinkle new water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36: 25 – 27)
There is no doubt (in my mind anyway) that God is in the business of transforming lives. God spoke the above words through the prophet Ezekiel to the house of Israel, words to a wayward people who needed to be redeemed, reclaimed, restored. In the book Cry the Beloved Country (Paton, 1948), Anglican cleric Msimangu says to his friend Stephen Kamalo, “I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hand on me, that is all.” Truly, when God puts His hand on a person or a people, there is transformation. There is change. There is power. There is new life.
On our recent eleven day trip into the hinterland of Congo, Kristi and I visited several villages and village parishes. One village was Bongo Tshiela. Bongo Tshiela, we learned, is a Bakuba village. In our readings of Congo and Presbyterian mission history in Congo, the Bakuba have been a noteworthy people. More than one hundred years ago, they were a very powerful and feared people, yet aloof, living in the heart of Central Africa (Congo). They had migrated down from a more northern area, and were known to be particularly hostile to whites and foreigners. Courageous missionaries such as William Sheppard and later Hezekiah Washburn slowly made inroads into this hostile tribe’s territory. With love, respect, gentleness and humility, our mission forbearers found ways to demonstrate the realities of God’s kingdom, God’s truth, and God’s love for all peoples. These missionaries ministered and cared for slaves, women, children, and kings. The raw perseverance of these missionaries won out, helping to bring transformation to a warring and hostile population whose cultural practices included burying slaves (still alive, mind you) with their deceased king.
I have personally been fascinated by the Bakuba. Their amazing artwork was a marvel to the western world when William Sheppard began sharing and displaying it in Europe and the States in the late 19th century. The aloofness and pride of the Bakuba shroud them in mystery. Bongo Tshiela was the our last stop after visiting half a dozen villages on a 13 hour day trip from Luebo to Mueka (roughly 70k). If it wasn’t for the sheer surprise and thrill of seeing hundreds of people (the whole village!) waiting and dancing in the road, I would have been loathe to stop again. The noise when we got out of the car was deafening (we were tempted to put our hands over our ears!). Hundreds walked the length of the town with us, singing and dancing. Two or three Bakuba traditional warriors greeted us with their dance rituals. One woman waved a palm frond on the ground in front of us to and fro, almost as if she were sanctifying the ground we were about to tread. “BaMamu” (Women) danced and sang as they escorted us to the church. Being inside the church was an experience in itself. The interior was laced with the famously distinctive Bakuba art. The choir all had green robes, which was amazing in that most choirs here in Congo struggle to even have matching clothing. The church building was jam-packed and alive with singing and energy. The people were incredibly happy to see us. There was definitely something distinctive and different about the people of this village. Their energy and zeal was contagious. After a time of worship and introductions in the church, we went to a home which also had wonderful Bakuba artistry in the interior. The food offered was different from that of all the other villages, a refreshing change. The pastor’s wife was beside herself in making us feel at home, and it almost felt like a comedy act watching her busy herself around, arguing with others about how to best care for us. The experience was altogether surreal. We learned later that they also had wanted us to spend the night, but a full day already and more people to see in Mueka pushed us on.
The joy of the Bakuba people we experienced in the village of BongoTshiela speaks of the transforming power of Jesus Christ, our Living God. A once hostile and aloof people welcomed two white foreigners with as much African pomp as one would welcome a visiting king and a queen. I felt a thrill of God’s joy and peace being with these people. It makes me want to shed tears of joy just to remember it…
Our God is powerful.