Friday, November 30, 2012

Congolese Refugees

God is our refuge and strength, and ever present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46: 1 – 2, 7)

Fifteen days ago we sat in the General Secretary’s office on a Thursday afternoon.  We were advised by a missionary colleague to inform him of our forthcoming trip to Rwanda.  We explained to him that we have many friends in Rwanda whom we were planning to visit during our forthcoming vacation.  Dr. Mulumba, the General Secretary, lovingly but directly told us that going to Rwanda at this time was a bad idea.  He warned us that to do so would cause ANR, the Congolese security forces, to track us and suspect us of being spies upon our return.  Deflated and feeling shell-shocked by his advice, we sat below our apartment on a cement block, wondering what to do.  Of course, we could just go to Kenya and not beyond (to Rwanda), but that just felt lackluster and gave no appeal.  We toyed with some ideas over the weekend of how to re-present our case to Dr. Mulumba. On Monday we realized that it was a lost cause when Larry Sthreshley, a veteran missionary colleague based in Kinshasa, affirmed Dr. Mulumba’s fears and advised us not to visit Rwanda at this time.  He told us that relations between Rwanda and Congo are the worst they have been in ten years.  Our decision was made, we would not go.

The next day the city of Goma (1 million people) fell into the hands of the M23 rebels, a group reported by the UN as being supported by Rwanda and Uganda.  The next day Larry emailed Dr. Mulumba from Kinshasa, informing him that M23 was threatening to forge alliances with the political opposition and possibly march on Kinshasa.  Dr. Mulumba acted quickly, advising Larry to inform a group from Charlotte (NC) to not come to Congo at this time.  He also advised us to start our vacation early, catching the Saturday plane for Kinshasa, so that we could leave the country the following week.  His concern was that if we waited, Kinshasa might be a mess in a week or two.  Three days later we were in Kinshasa, and by late afternoon Monday we found ourselves in Nairobi. 

Right now we feel like “Congolese refugees,” though our plight is nothing like the one faced by half a million Congolese in Eastern Congo who have had to flee their homes, now living in internal displacement camps or makeshift living arrangements.  I have read accounts of families living in tents, with wet mud as their floor as the rains have begun.  I have read about M23 killing randomly and at-will in Goma, causing the population to live in fear.  It is the sad, familiar story of Congo.  A corrupt government which isn’t able to protect its people finds itself challenged from inside and out.  The story of Rwanda and Uganda using proxy militias to enforce their own selfish aims and objectives in the volatile east, with almost no outcry from the international community.  A story which may continue with more suffering, more displacement, more killings, more injustice, and more stories of heart-wrenching sadness.

Congo, displacement in the East
Woman with child, displaced in Eastern Congo 

**photo from BBC article, Nov. 30th 2012

In the midst of this upheaval and tumult, God has given us His peace.  He has provided us a place to stay in Nairobi, and we are feeling grateful.  We continue to pray for Congo and we hope we can return as planned in early January.  Our long-term prayer for Congo is that she would experience lasting peace and good governance.  That prayer feels almost like an impossible prayer, as current events seem to sabotage this land once again.  We trust that God will work out his plans in the midst of the messiness and utter pain so many are currently experiencing.  We, too, are feeling the pangs of being displaced, and we can only trust that God will use this time according to His sovereign plan and purposes.                      

Monday, November 19, 2012

Creative attempts to help

We are surrounded by very real physical needs. There are often people who come to us asking for help – sometimes people we know, sometimes people we don’t know. We do want to interact with individuals and show compassion, but we realize that sometimes our attempts to help could be harmful – to the person we are trying to help, and/or ourselves. Here are a few testimonies of people who we are trying to help in constructive ways.

Tatu Mbuta showed up at our door one day asking for help. He looked extremely thin and obviously poor. He said that he attended the same local parish we do, but we did not know him. We helped him once with a little food, but knew that was not the answer. After he had showed up several times, we started asking about his family and asked for verification from a trusted source who knew his family. His mother is a widow, and neither he nor his mother are physically able to do much manual labor, so they struggle to put food on the table. They do attend our local parish, and she receives a tiny amount of support from the church along with some of the other widows there.

One of the elders we consulted suggested we give Mbuta some occasional work to do as a constructive way to help them. So…we gave him an empty plastic bottle that had been used for cleaning powder, and a sample pastoral collar. He very successfully cut up the bottle to make 4 white strips that could be used for pastoral collars. Lots of times, we have heard pastors request help in getting “vestments” (pastoral shirts, collars, robes, etc.) These are not so commonly used in the U.S. anymore, but they are still seen as important to church life in Congo. We have wanted to find a way to locally produce the collars (pastoral shirts and robes can hopefully be made locally too!). So – he helps us to meet a need for supplies for pastors, and we help him and his mother meet the need to eat.

, pastoral collars

Tatu Muanda works in our home – doing laundry (by hand!), mopping floors, and doing a little cooking. He has been a quiet, hard-working, and trustworthy presence in our home for almost 2 years. One of the things we appreciate about him is that he never complains and rarely asks for anything beyond his normal salary. His wife, however, who returned from her home village last year, is a little more outspoken. When we see her, she always mentions the old roof sheeting on their house that is full of holes. She animatedly exclaims “Is this a house? No! It is as if we are sleeping outside! When it rains, we don’t sleep; we get wet!”

We mulled around what to do. We did not feel right purchasing a new roof for him outright, but we know that his meager salary coupled with limited financial tools for the poor make saving for a large purchase nearly impossible. In mid-October, we proposed to him that if he felt getting a new roof was a priority, we were willing to help him save by deducting a small amount of his salary each month. Then, we would “match” whatever he had saved toward the purchase of new roof sheets a few months from now. He was appreciative of the idea, and said he wanted to start the next month. At the end of October, I paid him his salary. He carefully counted out 10,000 Congolese francs and handed it back to me. “Getting a new roof is a good idea. I want to start this month!” So – we’ll see what the outcome is – but we are grateful to have the hope of a better home for him.


Kristi stands with Monique, Tatu Muanda’s daughter, in front of his home.
André, her oldest son standing in front of her, died a few weeks ago.

The needs around us far outstrip our creativity and resources. However, seek to empower the church in their efforts to help the poor, and also be sensitive to God’s spirit and available to try to engage with individuals ourselves in constructive ways.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why did Tshituka die?



A few weeks ago Kristi wrote a blog post about some friends of ours who lost two children within one month.  Tshituka, their two-year old daughter, died only weeks after Mamu Vicky gave birth to their son.  Their son died right after delivery; doctors told them that their son died due to malaria.  

But why did Tshituka die?  When a calamity happens in the Kasai of Congo, the important question is generally not “how” but “who.”  Their worldview is one of cause and affect.  In my western mindset, Tshituka probably died because her body was weak from malaria.  Being young, malnourished and already sick, her fragile body could not handle their long trek to the village.  Is my hypothesis correct?  Well, yes…according to me.

Others have different notions.  Mulami Simon’s son Victor tells us the reason Tshituka died.  He says that Mamu Vicky’s older brother caused Tshituka to die because Mulumi Simon hadn’t helped him buy a goat for the dowry he needed.  Mamu Mbuyi of Kananga 1 parish has another idea.  She says that Tshituka died because Mulami Simon took some things from the church when he stopped worshipping there.   

Who is right?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that it is easy for me to quickly pass off such notions.  In doing so, however, I miss a learning opportunity.  I miss out on understanding how relationships work here, and the tension people face when death and disease come knocking.  Please note that this cause/effect way of seeing things is not limited to Kasaians.  In the Old Testament, Job’s friends assumed that Job must have done something wrong to deserve such gross affliction.  Of course they were wrong, but his afflictions were caused by someone.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples believed that a man born blind was suffering either because of his sins or the sins of his parents.  Jesus, in reply, says neither.  Jesus says the man was born blind so that “the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9).  In each of these cases, there is the notion of cause and affect.  Even Jesus seems to acknowledge this principle.

It is possible and probable that Tshituka died because of malnutrition and sickness exacerbated by their journey to the village.  However, I find it important to listen to the perspective of Kasaians.  In ministering to and caring for our brothers and sisters here, it is important to know what they think and how they feel.  It is important to know what they value and how they see the world around them.  Tshituka died, and that is a tragic reality.  When Mulumi Simon and Mamu Vicky return from the village we will sit with them and grieve.  Whatever reason they give for her death will be sufficient.  Our role is to love them, to stand with them, and to pray for them.  As people of faith, we believe that despite this awful tragedy, the work of God has been and can be displayed in Tshituka’s life.



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Let’s get together…

Congolese culture is a “warm” (relationship-based) culture that thrives on relationships, interactions, and interdependence in the community. We enjoy that aspect of culture in Kasai, and we know that spending time celebrating relationships is what helps us to connect and belong in this culture. Here are a few highlights from last week, a “social whirl-wind.”

On Monday afternoon, we went to the home of an older woman to pray for her. She had stopped us after church the day before, and expressed that some of her grandchildren who live with her were sick, and that she wanted us to come. On the way home, we stopped at the home of another church member who has been in mourning from the death of her mother a few months ago. We enjoyed a good conversation with them, and expressed how much we missed receiving her gift of teaching in our weekly cell meetings. On Wednesday, we went to our neighborhood cell meeting, and were pleased to see that she came, and that others were encouraged by her presence.

On Thursday, after our Tshiluba lesson we hosted our language teacher, Mukulu (Elder) Muamba Mukengeshayi for lunch to celebrate his 75th birthday! We, along with our colleague, Ruth, enjoyed beans, plantains, and moringa leaves – no cake since he is diabetic! He brought Christmas music to listen to (“music about birth!”, he said), which made it a festive atmosphere.

birthday lunch w Mukulu Muamba

Thursday afternoon, we piled into the Land Cruiser with the Christian Education curriculum committee that Bob is on, to visit one of their committee members who recently had a baby. As we enjoyed holding and celebrating baby Ndumba, we learned from his mother, Pastor Charlotte, that someone had come to tell her that the baby had appeared and spoken to him in a dream. The message was that the baby did not want his parents to stare at him or examine him closely. It is not uncommon in Kasai for a baby to “appear” and communicate a message in someone else’s dream. The traditional understanding is that sometimes a baby is a reincarnation of another person who has died. Our colleagues explained this to us somewhat sheepishly, “This is the culture of Kasai…”. Because we don’t want to dismiss some of the deep-rooted beliefs of this culture lightly, we asked our colleagues, “In a situation like this, what do you do?” “Ah, we just pray for the child,” one pastor responded. He continued “traditionally, people say that the child’s face should be marked with chalk to cleanse him/her.” At the end of our time with the family, they asked Pastor Kayembe to pray for the child. He held the child and asked God’s blessing and protection on his life. In his prayer, he declared the power and grace of God, and said that the blood that Jesus shed for us is the “chalk” that marks and cleanses this child.

Pastor Kayembe praying for baby Ndumba

Friday, was an “end of the month laity meeting” at our parish. All of the neighborhood cell groups come together for a joint meeting at someone’s house. Our “cell” was hosting this time, which meant preparing a meal for everyone. We sat outside, grateful for the evening breeze and the shade of a large tree while we enjoyed a lively time of worship and a great teaching about Jesus healing the man by the pool of Siloam.

Laik meeting sm

Saturday was a big day. We were hosting our friends, Pastor Manyayi and his wife, Mamu Biabanya, along with their children, for lunch. We deliberated all week about the meal: local food, or American food? Find someone to cook the greens for us, or do it ourselves? We finally decided to make bidia, the local staple, even though I was nervous about making it for that many people. I also decided I wanted to try making the greens myself – and God answered our prayer, and both the bidia and the greens turned out well. The day felt a little like Thanksgiving to me – cooking all morning and eating all afternoon! Bob made plantain chips, and I made a mango cobbler, in celebration of the mango season we are in. Their 1-year old is named after me (Kristi), and she kept everyone on their toes while she ran around the house and explored with her curious spirit.

Lunch w Manyayi family 1

Lunch w Manyayi family 2

On Sunday, Bob preached on Reformation Sunday at a parish across town. It was our first time to worship with this parish, and they gave us a very warm welcome. We enjoyed the heart-felt worship and the spirit of the people. On Reformation Sunday, CPC collects contributions from all of the parishes for UPRECO, the Presbyterian university and seminary in Kananga. We enjoyed lunch with the pastor after the service, and talked to the student from UPRECO who had come to collect the parish’s contribution. We came home mid-afternoon, grateful but exhausted.

B&K at Malandi Central

We reflected on our week – while it feels draining sometimes (for this pair of border-line introverts), we do feel blessed by these connections with the people around us. So much learning and growth happens in the every-day social interactions!