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?”
”Yes!”
”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.”

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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.

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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

Tshibilu


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. 

 
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“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. 

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


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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. 

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At the reception, the young madimba player entertains the guests

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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)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Our Kids! (Ditekemena)


Greetings friends and family!  Life moves full speed ahead for us here in Congo.  We are blessed to have a few visitors from the US this week.  Rev. Debbie Braaksma, the Africa Office Director for Presbyterian (USA) World Mission, has come with Regional Liaison Jeff Boyd, along with Man Yu and JR of Korean Presbyterian Church of Fresno.  I just visited the Ditekemena street children ministry with them.  Debbie gave a warm message about how inner wounds of hurt and pain can fester if not dealt with.  She gave the example of Joseph in the Bible, and the long road of forgiveness and reconciliation with his brothers.  She highlighted that Joseph did not allow bitterness, anger and hurt to dominate his life.  He was elevated to a high position in Egypt and was able to help his family (brothers) who had betrayed him.  Please pray for these children to forgive the families who abandoned them and rejected them to life of destitution and thievery on the streets. 

The children are doing well.  They started school last month.  Five of the kids study at two separate schools which are nearby.   The other eighteen are in a “catch-up” school which will help them be placed in the grade that corresponds to their age next year.  Noella, who is about two years old, is beginning to walk – exciting!  We video-taped her steps earlier this week.  Please enjoy the collection of photos of the children that follows, and say a prayer for them.  Thank you!

Ditekemena Children studying at BICE Center (where they live)
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Children playing, having fun, horsing around!
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The famous Ditekemena Choir!
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Meal time!
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Other fun pics!
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Lord God in Heaven, may you bless these special children whom you have made with a plan and a purpose.  Their families and communities may have rejected them and discarded them as refuse, but they are the apple of your eye, and their value is worth more than all the copper, gold, coltan, and other “riches” of Congo.  Bless these precious ones, Lord God.  May their dreams come to pass, according to your perfect and pleasing will. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fresh Eyes

You know how going to a new place, especially a new culture, makes you pay attention to everything and notice all the things that are “different”? Well, one of the reasons we were grateful for the two brave American pastors who came to participate in ministry with us in Kasai recently is because they gave us the opportunity to see with fresh eyes and also expose church members here to life and church that is very different from their own context.

I call them ‘brave’, because getting to Congo and surviving here is not a piece of cake! The 30+ hour journey to Kinshasa, dealing with the daily lack of electricity and running water in Kananga (think ‘indoor camping’), and a regular diet of food that you are not used to takes a lot of flexibility, grace, and perseverance. Perhaps one of the hardest tests was the arduous drive from Kananga to Mbuji-Mayi. We got stuck deep in the mud the first day, which meant we had to spend the night at Munkamba (half-way to Mbuji-Mayi). The lurching and rattling and leaning of the vehicle over those remarkable swaths of sand and mud called roads was truly an endurance test, but Ken and Dale survived, and we hope that their backs continue to be intact!

vehicle stuck in the mud

Trying to navigate the mud, with plenty of advise from villagers!

One of the significant things they did, though, was participate in the teaching of two different seminars and also some other meetings. Laity from a broad geographic region came together for two days of teachings to empower them in their faith and leadership in the church. Ken and Dale, who have each served more than twenty years in church ministry in different capacities, were able to share some of the challenges and lessons learned in ministry in the U.S. While the context is vastly different, it was enlightening and encouraging for our Congolese colleagues to be exposed to different perspectives and experiences.

Pastor Dale taught everyone several short worship choruses taken from verses in the Bible. He unpacked what it means to intentionally develop disciples of Christ and empower others to grow in faith and leadership. He also taught people the value and importance of studying the Bible together in a group – that each person’s voice should be heard and that we can learn from each other. In this hierarchical culture, people are used to being told the right answer by the authority and learning is almost always didactic, through lecture. While we don’t want to discount those values, it can be very helpful to be exposed to other forms of learning and recognize that each of us can learn directly from Scripture.

Dale teaching 2Dale teaches in Bibanga, with Kristi translating

Sm group Bible study during seminarA small group looks at a passage of Scripture together,
as a practical exercise during the seminar

Pastor Ken, who has spent his career in youth ministry, shared how youth ministry resembles ‘cross-cultural ministry’ and requires intentional observation and learning of their cultural values, language, and activities. Ken played a couple of songs popular among American youth, and shared how his youth group has listened and discussed the lyrics of those songs as a way to connect Scripture with words or topics that are already on the minds of youth. Seminar participants got a big hit out of dancing with him to these rap songs – a culture shift for them! People were really inspired and moved by his admonition to reach out to youth on their terms, to take an interest in them and build relationships with them, rather than simply expecting youth to conform to the structures and patterns of the older people in the church.

Ken dancing in seminarParticipants join Ken in dancing to some rap music during the seminar

In a meeting with youth leaders, Ken talked about his philosophy of youth ministry and answered questions. At one point, he said “We are all created in the image of God, right?” “No!” was the response from a few participants. Surprised, Ken asked for them to explain. “Man was created in the image of God. Then woman was created in the image of man.” A little taken aback, Ken suggested a few scriptures to look at like Gen. 1: 27 and Galatians 3:26-29 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek,…, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). It was good to see these youth expressing their opinions and feeling free to contradict the ‘teacher’; but it also affirmed to me the need for discipleship and resources in the church for learning the Bible well!

Bibanga seminar 2014All of us together at the seminar in Bibanga

A big ‘thank you’ to Ken and Dale, and to their churches who supported them coming. Their presence was a great encouragement and help to our colleagues in Congo. Anyone else up for the challenge of joining us in Kasai?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Have faith in God


A fellow missionary in Kinshasa recently said, “Getting a new vehicle clear across two oceans to Congo is the easy part; getting the vehicle from the port city of Matadi to the capital of Kinshasa, that is the hard part.”  I would perhaps add, “Getting the vehicle from Kinshasa to Kananga is the even harder part.”  

Four weeks ago Mukulu (Elder) Shambuyi Ngoyi, a CPC driver, and I flew to Kinshasa to pick up our department’s new vehicle to be driven the 1,200 kilometers back to Kananga.  As one can only imagine, the process was anything but simple.  Let me name just a sampling of the challenges we faced:  our colleagues were forced to twice pay a duty due to “changes in the system,”  a computer glitch forced us to pay extra days of storage in Matadi, a colleague failed to buy a license plate in Matadi for unknown reasons, tensions arose between church leaders regarding insurance.  At times it felt like getting the vehicle to Kinshasa and then to Kananga was a herculean feat beyond possibility. 

Yet we serve the risen Lord, who tells us, "Have faith in God.  Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11: 22b, 23).  Jesus was specifically talking about the destruction of the temple system and Jerusalem when he counseled his disciples as such.  He was sure that God’s will would come to pass (as it did in AD 70).  Likewise, despite the challenges we faced, Mukulu Shambuyi and I were sure that God’s will would come to pass.  In Kinshasa, each morning and each evening we would pray for God’s assistance and intervention.  Time and time again, we saw God’s faithfulness in action. The vehicle was finally released from Customs in Matadi. We finally saw the vehicle in Kinshasa.  We finally purchased a license plate.  We finally got insurance for the

New Land Cruiser (2), Congo    

proper amount.  Mukulu Shambuyi and Tatu Arsen finally started the long journey from Kinshasa to Kananga.  After six days on the road, four river crossings without bridges, paying a fee at multiple “barriers” and a 250 kilometer detour, the vehicle finally arrived in Kananga fully intact with all original parts a week ago Wednesday to much jubilation. 

CPC women gather early one morning this week to worship God and give thanks for the gift of the
new vehicle for our department of Evangelism; they decorated the vehicle with flowers


A few churches and individuals in the US gave generously to the purchase of this new vehicle.  To them and to others who have prayed, we express profound thanks.  Next week we will celebrate in proper fashion with colleagues and friends here who keep exhorting us to “kuela tshiayi” and “kutua tshianga” – expressions which carry the weight of throwing a party.  May God be glorified as this vehicle be used for His purposes. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Support from all corners

Last Sunday we worshipped with a congregation on the outskirts of Kananga, in the village of Kambote. The green rolling hills and the trees provide refreshing scenery, which I got to enjoy on the one hour walk from the main road in town. The Ditekemena (hope) kids were visiting the church that Sunday also, in the effort of raising awareness and local support for this program to rescue children from the streets. The Ditekemena kids have a choir that is a big hit wherever they go, and Pastor Mukendi, a member of the leadership team, made uniforms for all of them that they wear on church visits.

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Near the end of the service, several women brought in food items – a large basin of corn flour, a jug of palm oil, several bunches of greens, a basket of cassava roots, several pineapples, a pot of beans and a large sack of charcoal. All of this was their contribution to the food needs of the Ditekemena kids. This is not a wealthy congregation – most of their members earn their living by farming small plots. Only three members of the congregation have salaried jobs, and those are low-paying positions as cleaning staff at a university. But they are compassionate and generous with the resources they have – the produce from their fields.

The leadership team for Ditekemena, which Bob is part of, has determined that it would be best for the kids to stay together at the center through the school year. They all started school this week – two in a normal secondary school, and the rest so far in an accelerated program to help them recuperate the years they have missed in school. This prolongation of their time at the center incurs significant extra expenses for feeding and caring for them that were not anticipated. A few churches and individuals have already responded to help cover expenses for the accelerated education program and the rent of the center. One of the biggest needs now is for food for the next few months. If you would like to make a contribution (think of it as joining with the congregations in Kananga in their support!), please let us know!

We have also recently updated our page of current priorities. The list has grown some, so we are calling it our “Top Ten Project Priorities” (linked on the sidebar of this blog). If you would like to participate in any of the projects we’ve talked about, including Ditekemena, you can find descriptions and instructions there.

And, just to round out the list of updates, our August newsletter gives a general update on several of our activities. If you haven’t received it, you can find it on our Missions Connections Page.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Culture and “Critical Contextualization”

 

Recently Kristi and I were having dinner with about a dozen missionaries.  An interesting conversation erupted regarding perspectives on culture.  One outspoken person degraded Peace Corp volunteers, pitying them for “being brainwashed to accept the cultural mores of a native group, not seeking to change them but only to respect their culture.” A woman added that as “Christians our role is to change people from the inside out,” presumably leading towards cultural transformation. 

As a missionary having served for six years in two central African countries, I would say that the perspective of the Peace Corp volunteer and that of the missionary are helpful but incomplete.  There is definitely the need to respect culture.  Our ethnocentrism can demand that cultural variances from our own are inherently wrong and need to be uprooted and replaced.  Swathes of missionaries over the last 150 years have regrettably equated the gospel with their own culture, thus judging negatively other cultures outright (Hiebert; 1985).  That is a real problem.  Indeed, each culture has values that need to be honored, preserved, and celebrated.  For instance, in Rwanda, the notion of “Impfura” implies self-sacrifice for the sake of others; it implies character.  This person will go hungry and not steal.  He will look after your children when you die.  She will be patient when things aren’t going well.  In Congo and across Africa greater emphasis is placed upon people, community and relationships.  Concern for family and friends often outweighs concern for self.  Community and communal life are central.  An African modus operandi for life could be summed up as, “I am because we are” (Kapolyo; 2005); this corporate nature protects individuals from the vicissitudes of life.  Our Peace Corp sisters and brothers do well to respect culture and lift up traits such as these.  How tragic that many time-honored African cultural values are now being trodden upon by modernism, individualism, and consumer mentalities imported from the West.              

Yet to accept all components of culture carte blanche is na├»ve at best and destructive at worst. Culture can be a palace, but it can also be a prison.  Tribalism, in African cultures, can become a destructive form of worship.  Joe Kapolyo writes, “So strong is the feeling [of tribal identity] that, if need be, one is prepared to malign, maim and perhaps kill in order to defend such an identity.”  The Rwanda Genocide epitomizes the dangers of ethnic and tribal allegiances.  In our experience in Congo, tribalism also divides the church.  True Christian fellowship across tribal lines can be elusive and at times seemingly impossible.  It is one of the most discouraging components of our work.  The sin of tribalism is one of the major weaknesses in the African church today.  Spiritism and the fear of “spirit beings” or the “living dead” also binds the peoples of Africa.  These spirit beings are wrongly believed to be intermediaries between people and God.  Even leading church members consult diviners regarding issues of sorcery and witchcraft.  The missionary spokeswoman at our table is right; we need to be changed from the inside out by God’s Spirit so that there can be the possibility of needed change in the broader culture where change is indeed demanded.   

But how is this done?  Unfortunately it isn’t simple.  It requires a critical interaction with culture.  In the words of missiologist Paul Hiebert, we need “critical contextualization” (Hiebert; 1985).  Beliefs and customs should not be accepted or rejected without examination.  An individual or church must learn to approach all aspects of life from a biblical perspective.  Customs of the past must be examined in the light of biblical understandings and truth.  For instance, if one understands the power of Jesus and that He is the one intermediary between people and God, there is no need to fear diviners and witchdoctors and spirit beings.  Jesus has become our peace (Romans 5: 1).  Moreover, if we truly take the words of the Apostle Paul to heart, that Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2), we can equally surmise that God has also broken down walls between the Bajila Kasanga and other tribes of the Bena Lulua of the Kasai of Congo.  Jesus has indeed become our peace, and His peace brings together all clans, tribes, peoples and tongues.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German who lived under the oppressive shadow of the Third Reich, knew the importance of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being and every part of one’s life.  He and other brave souls rejected elements of their culture because of it’s brutal oppression and desire to annihilate Jews and other groups.  They resisted the idolatry and barbarism of their time, emphasizing that Christ must be brought into every square inch of the world and culture.  Our faith must be free of mere religiosity.  One’s faith must be shining and robust and must engage critically with culture (Metaxas; 2010).  Indeed, let us who wear the name “Christ follower” and “Christian” critically interact with culture –whether in the US, Africa, or elsewhere.  Every culture is a palace and a prison.  May we keep the good, reject the bad, and invite Christ to transform us and our culture for His glory.  Hallelujah - Amen!          

Sources

Kapolyo, Joe M. 2005. The Human Condition. Edited by D. Smith, Christian Perspectives through African Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1985.  Anthropological Insights for Missionaries.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Metaxas, Eric.  2010.  Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs The Third     Reich.  Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

BereanSafari

We just finished the week-long BereanSafari conference. Safari means “journey” in Swahili, and the Bereans were a group of people around the time of Christ who searched the Scriptures for understanding and also to verify teachings they heard (Acts 17:11). So, literally BereanSafari seeks to be a “journey of discovery” in the Scriptures using the method of Manuscript Bible Study. A diverse group of people spanning a variety of vocations, aged 20 to 70, from several African countries as well as Europe and the U.S. converged for a week of concentrated study. Since we studied the first half of Mark two years ago at this conference, we got to do the second half of Mark this year. Six days, approximately 40 hours in study sessions, just to do half of the book of Mark? You have to experience it to realize how fast the time can go when learning together! So, I want to share the experience of just one page of Mark to give you a taste.

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First, we start with about 30 minutes of personal study – looking for themes, repeated words, questions that come out, and also looking up unfamiliar words in a Bible dictionary, places in an atlas, or looking for Old Testament connections in a concordance. On page 23 of the manuscript, we are in Mark 9. I highlight the three references to “in my name” or “name of Christ”. I note the actions and consequences involved in the “giving a cup of cold water” and also the “causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” Then I underline in orange “enter life”, “enter the Kingdom of God”, and “reward”, since they appear to all point to the same result. I put a question mark by “their worm does not die”— What in the world does that mean? I tried looking up “worm” in the Bible dictionary, but that is not one of the entries.

DSC_0294Page 23 of my manuscript of Mark

We move into small group discussion. Our group has the lowest average age (about 30) in the room. There are three members aside from myself – all young Kenyan adults, working as a teacher, investment advisor, and Christian rap singer. Mercy notes that Jesus’ teaching in line 1 (“anyone who would be first must be last and servant of all”) is a “new” and countercultural teaching for his hearers. Peter notes that even though John changed the subject, Jesus comes back to children and their value. Chacha (the rap singer) helps us imagine how painful and debilitating it would be to have your hand or foot chopped off – did Jesus mean that literally? Regardless, we agree that Jesus is emphasizing the seriousness of sin, and his call to deny ourselves in our pursuit of Him.

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My small group discussion – from left, Me, Chacha, Peter, and Mercy

Now, we move into large group discussion. Our facilitator, Cyd, walks us through the text, asking questions and hearing from each group about what they found in the text. With her prodding, we realize that the person casting out demons in the name of Christ (who the disciples wanted to rebuke) was acting like the child that Jesus was just holding up as an example. He saw, he heard, and he imitated in simple faith – and apparently it was working! Farther down the page, when Jesus says “if your hand causes you to sin…” Cyd asks “what causes us to sin?”. We remember back on page 17, when Jesus describes sin coming from what is inside us – the cleanness of the heart, not the body. The “cutting off” of a limb, though, is essentially what repentance looks like in our hearts. Manuscript Bible study involves a lot of making connections – trying to see the text as a whole, as it was written, rather than just looking at a couple of verses. Another group that had a concordance contributes that Isaiah 66:24 is the source of the phrase “their worm does not die”, in a prophecy about judgment. A few other Old Testament references also help to flesh out the picture, including Malachi 3:1-4 about God “refining with fire” and Numbers 18:19 about the “covenant of salt” (Did you know there was a covenant of salt??).

The session where we looked at this particular page of Mark took about 2 hours. I came away with a heightened sense of God’s call to humility and faith, as well as the gravity and abhorrence of sin in God’s eyes. Nothing life changing, per-se, on this page, but as we soak in these words over the course of six days and slowly make our way through Mark we gain a much deeper appreciation and understanding of Jesus’ life and mission as Mark portrays it – to bring life – including eternal life, restored life to the hurting or marginalized, and the salvation found through losing our lives for His sake. We are so grateful for this week of soaking in the Words of Life, and left invigorated, inspired, and refreshed, hoping that we can introduce Manuscript Bible Study someday in Congo!

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The “Mark 2” study group, including our facilitator, Cyd (far left)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Exile

 

A week ago we travelled down to Tshikaji for the 45th General Assembly of the Congolese Presbyterian Church (CPC).  After giving greetings and listening to a few reports, we joined the General Secretary and other church leaders for lunch.  These church leaders were in their element; they changed into casual clothing and enjoyed food, camaraderie, and a relaxing hour. 

In the midst of smiles and seeing old faces, we noticed a large group of sixty persons sitting under a tree outside and adjacent to the large assembly hall.  They were not smiling.  Sitting twenty yards away was an armed police officer.  He and two others were on guard.  Kristi and I scanned the crowd under the tree.  We saw no one whom we recognized.  Perplexed, we asked ourselves, “Who are these people?”  In my heart I knew, but at the same time I didn’t want to know.  The following day a friend told me the truth I was afraid to hear – “The ones seated outside under the tree are those contesting decisions made by the church.”  They are in exile, I thought to myself.  On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Paul Detterman, an evangelical leader in the Presbyterian (USA) Church, recently writes that staying in a denomination that has made decisions with which he and others struggle to agree forces him to reflect.  He, unlike many other evangelicals, has chosen to remain.  He describes his call as one of “exile.” 

The reality is this – no one likes exile.  Who wants to feel left out?  Who wants to be marginalized, ostracized and vilified?  We all want to belong.  Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem.  Yet, reflecting on these matters, I suppose that there are important lessons to be learned in exile.  There is the lesson of humility.  There is the lesson of patience.  There is the lesson of trusting God while pining away in the prairie of loneliness.  There is the lesson of holding on to our beliefs, but also being open to God doing new things. 

King David was a man of sorrows.  For half his life he was on the run – living in caves and wallowing in wastelands.  Yet out of the wilderness we hear the heart of a man after God’s own heart – a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief and knew rejection.  Yet faith and hope anchored his soul.  Thus, this soulful saint was able to write such things as “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37: 39).  At least half of the Psalms are credited to this man who knew the painful realities of exile.  Jesus, the author of Hebrews tells us, suffered outside the city gate where he bore abuse (Hebrews 13: 12, 13).  He died outside of the holy city of Jerusalem.  Jesus died in exile.

For those of us acquainted with rejection and marginalization, the good news is this – “God lives with us in exile.”  David was not forsaken; nor was Jesus.  Our sisters and brothers who sat under a tree are not forsaken.  God sees our pain and knows our sorrows.  Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem.  The reality is this – the only safe place is the refuge of our Heavenly Father.  In exile we experience this truth.     

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.  Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
(Hebrews 13: 12 – 14)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Cultural Conundrum

As he removed the bandage, I cringed at the large open wound that covered most of Muambi’s shin. He was a tall, strong young man, but now he could barely walk with the help of a crutch. He told us the progression: In March, a railroad tie had fallen on his leg while he was at work constructing a building. It was not a large wound, and he assumed it would get better in a few weeks. But it didn’t; the wound got bigger and more painful. In late April, Muambi’s father, Malandi, came to us to ask for help. Malandi is our night guard, and part of his work contract is that we will cover medical expenses for his dependents. But because Muambi is nearly 30 years old with three children of his own, we did not want to set the precedent of taking on all of his medical expenses. So, we gave a contribution to them for the purpose of going to the doctor or getting medicine, and affirmed that we agreed he should get treatment. In late May, I asked our night guard how his son was doing. “Not good” was the reply. “He can’t walk. The wound has not healed. We have a friend who is a pharmacist who has been treating it at home, and he said he has tetanus. We don’t know what to do.” I told him that I would go see him. The next day, I happened to be with Sankara, a Congolese friend who is a nurse. I told him about Muambi’s situation, and he suggested that we go together to see him. And so here we are, sitting in the lush valley of their compound, with Sankara assessing what should be done about the wound. Sankara was able to confirm that he did NOT have tetanus, but that the wound was infected.

Muambi and his father confirmed that they wanted him to go to the hospital and get treatment. I asked which hospital they wanted to go to, and they said that they preferred to go to PAX, which is the Presbyterian clinic in town. I came home and called Bob, who was traveling at the time. We decided we would cover the costs for him to see the doctor and get tested and treated for infections. The following day, I met Muambi at PAX and accompanied him to see the doctor, get the wound cleaned, and get some antibiotics and other medicines. We paid about $13 for all of that – a modestly significant sum for medical treatment in Kasai. The doctor told him to come to the clinic each day for a week to get the wound cleaned.

In early June, a few days after going to the clinic, I saw Muambi’s wife on the road and asked how he was doing. “Not too well. His leg swelled up after going to the clinic, so he gave up going to get the wound cleaned.” That evening, I asked Malandi, Muambi’s father, about the situation when he came to our house for work. “Muambi’s leg swelled up after going to the clinic, and he was not able to climb the hill to the main road to go to the clinic for cleaning the wound. A couple of days ago, someone came to our home who told us that this wound was not an accident. Someone cursed him with nkuba. ‘You will never be able to heal this wound with Western medicine.’ he told us, ‘You need to find a traditional healer who is able to heal these types of wounds.’” I started to get frustrated. But Malandi continued “This visitor recommended someone, and he came to see us. He said that he can heal the wound, but he will charge $150 and 2 chickens. We hope that you will help us to cover this expense because we can’t afford it ourselves.”

I was getting angry now. “You didn’t even follow the doctor’s instruction for a week, and are already pursuing this other path of treatment?! You waited for 2 months without seeing a doctor. Now that you’ve seen one, you give up on the treatment immediately?” “We didn’t know the real cause,” Malandi responded, “We couldn’t discern ourselves that it was nkuba. It was only when this visitor came and told us that we realized what should be done. I know that we have different ways of seeing things, and your culture does not believe in nkuba. As Africans we know that sometimes people use mystical powers to attack someone – because of jealousy or as punishment for something they have done. the healer has already started the treatment; he mixed up a solution and put it on the wound, then put his lips on the wound and sucked until a large black bug about the size of my finger came out. He will come tomorrow morning to treat him again. You could come and see for yourself.” Malandi had been explaining patiently, like a father trying to help his child understand a foreign concept. Now he got defensive “If we had followed the western medicine instructions, they would have amputated the leg! We don’t want that to happen.”

I had heard nothing about a need to amputate, and was frustrated that he was believing that rumor. The following morning I had to leave early for a meeting, so was not able to take him up on his offer of coming to see the traditional healer. I told him that we had agreed to help him get treatment at PAX, but were disappointed that they did not follow through. They were on their own now if they wanted to continue with the traditional treatment for nkuba. We parted, both rather exasperated.
Nkuba is a Kasai term that refers to a tribe of people (the Bakuba), but also means “thunder”. The Bakuba are believed to have power to kill or wound people remotely – e.g. to put a curse on them. The death usually happens during a storm and somehow by the storm– hence the reference to thunder. There are different terms based on different regional tribes and the specific “medicine” or power that they use. In the west we know the existence of the scientifically verifiable physical world (including germs, wind, etc.) Most Christians also believe in the existence of a spiritual world, including angels and demons. But as far as I know, in English we don’t have good terms or concepts for much in between. Dozens of times we have heard reports of people being killed or debilitated by nkuba or something similar. This is not just a phenomenon that happens “deep in the bush” or among uneducated or unchurched people. Malandi, our guard, is an elder in his local Presbyterian congregation. His conclusion was that some people were jealous of his son Muambi because he had a job and a family and had good character that they could not fault. And, because he was in a Christian family, he would not retaliate with mystical powers. That is why they sent this nkuba, or “thunder medicine” to attack him.

So – what do we do? I talked to some colleagues in Kananga to understand more about nkuba. I heard that the pastor of Malandi’s congregation had experience in “freeing” people from nkuba and responding in a pastoral and Biblical way, so I encouraged Malandi to talk to his pastor. When Bob returned from his trip in mid June, we sat with Malandi and heard again his perspective, but reiterated that we were not going to help with the expenses of this traditional healer. Bob challenged him “Do you think that this nkuba is stronger than God?”

Still concerned about Muambi’s prognosis, we went to visit him around the end of June. The wound still looked big and ugly, but they said that it was scabbing over and getting better. The other leg, however, was grossly swollen. He was not able to walk at all now. What started as a significant problem had gotten worse. He was not able to work now, and his family was hungry. We prayed for him and gave them some money for food. We have asked after him periodically this month, and there does not seem to be much progress.
DSCN4706Muambi, his wife Marie and young child,
and Bob, holding “baby Bob” in 2011 at their home

This is just one incident that demonstrates the cultural dissonance that often occurs. These terms are not used in the Tshiluba Bible, exactly, but could be considered sorcery. Trained pastors here would emphatically agree that God does not approve of the use of sorcery. But most would also agree that it indeed exists.  Thus, the question – How do you respond to people who are apparently victims of nkuba in a way that honors the culture, demonstrates love, and also emphasizes the power of God and allegiance to Him alone? Here is where we live and breathe…and struggle to find answers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Meekness and Rest

 

After one unexpected visitor after another came knocking last Thursday afternoon, I was finally able to break free and escape to our designated sanctuary of peace here in Kananga.  Kristi and I have been taking personal retreats at the Tabor Center since arriving in 2010.  The nuns and other workers know us by name, and Tabor has become synonymous with peace in our rhythms of life in Congo. 

Sister Justine greeted me, gave me the key to my room, and asked that I remember her in my prayers.  The next 48 hours would be spent reading and reflecting on scripture and books by inspirational authors, taking prayer walks through the vast open space, journaling, centering prayer, resting, watching bugs, and listening to worship music and inspirational teachings on my MP3 player.

One particular word can summarize some of my reflections during this particular prayer retreat – “Meekness.”  A.W. Tozer, in The Pursuit of God, writes that the human race can be described as embodying the antithesis of everything Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes.  Pride, pleasure seeking, arrogance, vanity, cruelty, corrupt imaginings and quarrelling seem to define us.  Sardonically Tozer writes, “Of this kind of moral stuff civilized society is composed.”

Tozer describes the burden of pride.  He writes that many of us set ourselves up as “a little god,” suffering the intolerable burden of cringing under any criticism or imagined slight, “tossing sleeplessly if another is preferred before [us].”  Sadly, I feel that I can relate all to well to this scathing analysis of the human heart.  I want to shine and not be outshone.  I want to be preferred and chosen, not overlooked and forgotten.  I want to be the inspiring person people remember.  All of this pride and disdain of even the perceived slight from others burdens my heart and soul like a 2,000 pound lead weight.  “The heart’s fierce efforts to protect itself from every slight, to shield its touchy honor from the bad opinion of friend and enemy, will never let the mind have rest,” writes Tozer.   

Yet Tozer also offers the antidote - meekness and rest.  “The meek man,” he writes, “cares not at all who is greater than he, for he has long ago decided that the esteem of the world is not worth the effort.” Moreover, the meek person is able to kindly acknowledge to himself the reality of being overlooked, the need to be consistent in her humility before God and before others, and to simply not care what others think.  She may recognize that she is indeed helpless and weak, yet she also knows that she is more valuable to God than angels.  The meek person is not a “human mouse” with a terrible inferiority complex.  Rather, he may be as bold and courageous as a lion.  The key, however, is that he has accepted God’s estimate of his life. 

In the Cloud of Unknowing, a famous contemplative work by an unnamed English mystic, meekness is described as “a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is. For surely, whoso might verily see and feel himself as he is, he should verily be meek.”  However, in true contemplative fashion, the author does not leave us there.  Rather, he states that there are two levels of meekness, and this estimation of self is only the first.  The second level lies in our ability to grasp or seek to grasp the “over-abundant love and the worthiness of God in Himself; in beholding of the which all nature quaketh, all clerks be fools, and all saints and angels be blind.”  Here, he argues, is where perfect meekness dwells – standing in awe of perfection and divine goodness and someone greater than anything we could ever dream or imagine, God Himself!      

I wish that I could say that God healed me from my heart of pride during this two day escape into the rocky wilderness of my soul.  He didn’t.  But I am on a path, and I pray that in due time I will be able to gently and lovingly chide myself when I am overlooked or feel slighted, remember who I am in relation to God, find my soul at rest in Jesus who offers us rest (Matt. 28: 11), and see God standing exalted before all persons, angels, creatures, created things and creation as Greatness personified,deified and magnified. 

Sister and brother, may we with utter meekness of heart and depravity of soul say with Isaiah the prophet of old, “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6: 5). 

In our meekness, may we find rest.  Glory be to God.
  

Blessed are the meek:  for they shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5: 5)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Widows in Kanyuka

Last Sunday we went with Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa to visit a congregation in the village of Kanyuka, just outside of Kananga. Bob had been invited to preach, and Pastor Kabeya was formerly the pastor of this congregation, so for them it was like a reunion with old friends. One old man who struggles to walk and is nearly blind they have nicknamed “David” because of his gift for songs. He got up a few times in the service to spontaneously sing a solo. Everyone loved it when his feet started shuffling in dance as he got absorbed in the song.

Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa have been wonderful advisors for us and we admire their hearts of compassion and their strong faith in Christ. It was their initiative for a small house to be built at this church in Kanyuka that would house widows who do not have a place to live. That house is now a few years old, and just last year a second building was built that houses 3 more widows. We joined the congregation along with Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa for a picture.

Most of the women who live in these houses are too old or weak to farm or work for themselves, but most have some relatives nearby who bring them food regularly. The church also has a field on its property where they grow some beans and other crops that can help to provide for the widows. The pastor told us over lunch that other women have come and asked to be able to sleep on the church floor because they have nowhere to live…so the need continues. But right now 6 women have a clean and durable structure to live in, thanks to some help from Pastor Kabeya’s friends in the U.S.

Mamu Ngosa sits with Mamu Ndaya in front of her room

The current pastor at Kanyuka (left), stands with Mamu Ngosa and Pastor Kabeya
along with the six widows who live in the two houses.

Each of the women has their own room – which seems like a great combination of being able to have some private space but also be in community with others. There is also a rain-catchment system, so that during the rainy season water from the roof is collected in a barrel. And there is an outhouse – not to be taken for granted in Congo, where many homes do not have one! We are glad for this example of caring for those in need, and grateful to this small congregation who seeks to be faithful with the little they have.

“Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.” (James 1:27, NLT)