As a leader of the youth of Kananga Presbytery, Marcel Ilunga requested our department help their choir travel to Mutoto to minister through song to the church there. Because we were also planning to go to Mutoto, we collaborated to travel together. The trip proved a bonding experience with Marcel Ilunga and the youth.
We gave ourselves fully to get there and back, amidst horrendous road conditions and several flat tires and times getting stuck. That was in early January, 2013. On Monday morning, February 17th, 2014, at 3:03am, Marcel Ilunga breathed his last breath. He was thirty years old, married, and the father of two year old Manasseh.
Upon our return to Kananga in late January, we learned that Marcel Ilunga had been quite sick. When we attended the neighborhood cell group meeting on Wednesday, his sickness became a central topic of conversation. I asked, “When can we go see him?” We collectively agreed to meet at church the following morning at 7am. Early Thursday morning about fifteen of us wound our way down into the valley. Upon our arrival, we saw Marcel Ilunga surrounded by family and friends. He looked thin and had a placid expression. We sang a song and prayed for him. We didn’t stay long.
The following Monday I was travelling with a group. As I drove I overheard Pastor Manyayi mention Marcel Ilunga’s name. Later I asked him about it. Manyayi informed me that Ilunga had died that morning. I couldn’t believe it. Yes, he was sick, but now he was dead? This promising young man known for his zeal and politeness, dead? How could that be? It didn’t seem right. I was puzzled and dismayed. The following morning we joined the throngs to honor his life and remember him in death. The Kananga 1 parish was packed to overflowing.
After the closing benediction, we passed the peace and everyone gathered on the road to walk together to the cemetery. It was a hot day and the sun was intense. Kristi and I walked just behind the vehicle which carried Marcel Ilunga’s body.
I walked with Ilunga’s Uncle, Pastor Manyayi, and Tatu Dona. Kristi walked with Marcel Ilunga’s sister and her infant child. Fairly regularly, the car would stop and a chorus of young people would sing and dance. Maybe an hour later we arrived at the cemetery. The coffin was lowered into the ground and two young men worked feverishly, shoveling mounds of earth and tossing the dirt into the fresh grave.
Women wailed. Men watched. Children imitated. Pastors prayed and led us in song. I had this image of Ilunga climbing out of his coffin, out from the earth and joining us once again. Death has robbed us of a bright, shining star, stolen from us in the prime of life.
On Tuesday morning at our office, I had asked our colleague Pastor Mbikayi about joining us for Ilunga’s funeral. Mbikayi declined. He had seen too much death in the last two weeks. He didn’t want to face the tragedy of a promising young man now also dead. Marcel Ilunga, I can only trust that you are now in a better place. By faith, I believe that our paths will cross again. Even though our time with you was brief, you made a lasting impression. Your funeral bears witness to a life well lived. May God bless your soul.
John 11:25-27 (NRSV)
25 Jesus said to [Martha], "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."