Saturday, May 31, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

In a slight divergence from life in Congo, I’d like to tell you about a book that I finished reading last week. It was significantly moving and enlightening, and I saw lots of parallels to the lives of people around us here in Congo. The book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo.

Behind beautiful forevers cover

Behind the Beautiful Forevers was an excellent book, in turns moving and frustrating, really drawing me into the lives of those in the Annawadi slum. I was drawn in to the life of Abdul and the Hussain family as they dream and work steadily for a better life through reselling recyclable materials found by scavengers. I felt for Manju as she struggled with her mother’s lust for power at the expense of their neighbors. I found it frustrating to read, at times, because the injustice, corruption, impact of poverty, and jealousy of neighbors that is described so well seemed too “close to home” and similar to the struggles that I see around us here in Congo. It was not the novel to read for a “refreshing escape”.

That said, Katherine Boo often articulated someone’s mindset or revealed the broader impact of certain events in a poignant and insightful way. She put words to things that I had vaguely sensed but failed to yet put together the puzzle pieces or articulate the truth. One such quote is “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity, but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try so many things,’ as one Annawadi girl put it, ‘but the world doesn’t move in our favor.’” (Page 219). As we see families struggling against the impending destruction of their slum, they continue to fall victim to exploitation by others with slightly more advantage– sometimes even neighbors. Boo reflects, “Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chance of other poor people.”

I admit that I read this on Kindle and received it as a gift from a family member, and thought, all the way through the book, that it was a novel. But the most profound thing about Behind the Beautiful Forevers is revealed in the author’s note at the end – that all the people, events, names and conversations in this book are true. The intense research and reporting that Boo did over the course of 3 years in the slum of Annawadi is incredible. The realization that this is the life story of a real community gives weight to the experiences of the people we meet in the book. This is not a generalization or just the perception of a writer of what the impact of poverty might be like in a slum. Boo’s intense reporting to convey the real life experiences, combined with her experience as a journalist reporting on other poor communities certainly gives her the ability and authority to articulate the impact of poverty as she does so well. This is one of many books that significantly help those of us who don’t fall under the poverty line in our respective countries to understand the lives of those who bear the brunt of the impact of poverty.

Even if, like me, you have not yet been to India, I highly recommend this book! And if you do read it or have read it already, I would love to hear your reflections!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Liberation Day

Last week I was at Improka, the CPC printing press, chatting with some of the staff about the songbooks they were producing for us. They told me that Saturday was a holiday in Congo, so the workshop would be closed. I asked what the holiday was. “To celebrate the coming of AFDL into Congo.” was the response, “Do you know AFDL?” I had to admit that I didn’t – political history is not my strong suit. They explained that AFDL was the party/group headed by “Kabila the father” (Laurent Kabila), which overthrew Mobutu’s government in 1997. “Those soldiers beat, killed, and whipped lots of people when they came. It was terrible! A time of real suffering – even here in Kananga.” We had been joking around a few minutes before, so at first I wasn’t sure how serious they were. In French the word they use for holiday, “férié”, sounded to me to connote celebration; so I asked, somewhat facetiously, if the purpose of the “holiday” was to remember the suffering they had experienced. They laughed and seemed to think this idea was tremendously funny. Then Mamu Mbuyi, the Director of Administration for Improka walked into the workshop, and one of the staff added “Even Mamu Mbuyi – they almost killed her! They hunted for her and threatened to kill her. She really suffered!”

I asked Mamu Mbuyi to tell me what had happened. “The soldiers came to have some letters typed and printed at Improka. I saw the letters, and realized that they were orders to kill various people. I was horrified, and realized that as part of the church we couldn’t print such letters. I showed them to the Director (Mukulu Ntumba), and we refused to print them. The soldiers got mad, and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They sent an official summons for me to come to their headquarters, and delivered it with about 10 soldiers.” Those soldiers came three times over a weekend looking for her. When she arrived on Monday morning, Director Ntumba took her to the governor’s office to see how they could get her out of this. Paradoxically, her husband was a district president for the AFDL party, and that is the only reason the soldiers were willing to let her off. They told her directly that if that hadn’t been the case, she would have died.

Later in the day, Pastor Mboyamba stopped by our house. We said we had heard that Saturday was a holiday. “Yes – Liberation Day!” he said. “Liberation Day??” I asked, “I heard that it was a terrible time with a lot of suffering.” “Oh yes. It was!” he quickly responded. “But the government says it is Liberation Day. So, we publicly go with the government line.”

These events are not ancient history. People who are still considered young remember 1997 and some were beaten or whipped when the soldiers came through. It is a sobering reminder of the difficult environment here in Congo and the tenuous security that currently exists in part of the country (and the lack of security that continues to affect the East). Yet, we praise God for the courage and hope that He gives to His people. Mamu Mbuyi is just one example of someone who took a stand against senseless violence. This kind of sacrifice and courage is what is what can help the church and the country to heal and become a place of life rather than a place of suffering.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The tide has turned!

Nine companions set out on a journey.  They have an important mission.  To accomplish this mission they will need to overcome hurdle upon hurdle.  Thankfully, they have a leader whom they can trust.  His name is Gandalf.  He is able to do things no other can do.  They love him greatly.  The nine enter a terrible cave.  Even Gandalf has ill feelings about sojourning through this dark nightmare. 

In the cave they meet Balrog.  Balrog is like a giant monster.  He is terrible.  He is full of cursedness and hatred and power.  All nine fear this monstrosity.  Gandalf, however, plants himself between this cursed thing and his eight friends.  Gandalf defeats him – but is chastened into the abyss below with this ghoulish, hideous, fire maker.  Gandalf’s friends assume he is gone from them forever. They lament the loss of one so fair, so wise, and so special to them.

Gandalf stands in the breach, but falls into the abyss

A few days later, three of the companions are in a deep, enchanted forest.  They see an old man and are fearful.  Lost are they in lonely places.  They ask themselves, “Who is this?” They fear he is a sordid image of a dreaded enemy.  The old man first walks slow.  They he moves quickly beyond reason.  Then he scales a small hill in the glint of the eye.  His clothing changes from grey to white.  His long hair appears white.  His eyes look like rays from the sun.  He carries a staff of power.  They draw their own weapons but are vanquished!   

At once they feel great fear but also great joy.  Their eyes are opened.  Aragorn, one of the three, exclaims, “Gandalf!”  He gushes, “We had lost hope, but you come to us during our time of need.”  Gandalf sagely and serenely replies, “Be full of joy!  We meet again.  I have passed through fire and deep waters since we were together.  Truly, challenges remain ahead, but the tide has turned!”  Aragorn returns, “Truly, you are our captain and our banner.  Our enemies may have great strength, but we have one who is greater.  It is he who has passed through fire and water; they will fear him.  We will go all places where he leads us.”  The three friends are elated and greatly encouraged to be reunited with their leader.  He has transformed from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.* 

Gandalf the White, returns to his friends

Recently we celebrated a narrative of which the central theme not too different from the story above.  For Jesus also travelled with companions.  He became their leader.  His followers loved him.  Jesus counted these followers as friends, particularly the Twelve.  But Jesus was killed by the chiefs of his people.  They harbored jealousy and hatred towards him.  At Golgotha, the place of execution, many women gathered.  They watched everything from a distance.  Among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  Jesus had set Mary Magdalene free; she had been in bondage by seven demons.  She and the others loved this Galilean man.  But now they lost hope.  He was gone.  Sorrow flooded their hearts and tears flowed like a river.

Just a few days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the grave.  They had prepared spices according to their custom.  But when they arrived the very foundations of the earth shook!  An angel of the LORD descended; he wore white clothing, white as snow.  His countenance was like lightning.  The guards shook and became like dead men.  The angel said to the women, “Jesus is not here; for he has been raised as he said…go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from he dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’.”  The women were filled with fear, but with great joy also.  They ran quickly only to find Jesus in their path.  They fell at his feet and worshipped him.  Jesus comforted them and encouraged them also to go to Galilee.

During this season of Eastertide, be encouraged in spirit.  The death and resurrection of Christ our Savior stand as the fulcrum of time and space and herald a new era into which all things will indeed become new.  We remain with challenges in this world, but our leader has overcome sin and death.  Like Gandalf, our captain and our banner has overcome.  The tide has indeed turned!  Jesus, the Lord of life, is alive.  Be of good cheer.

All things will be made new! 


*these are not exact quotes from the Two Towers, the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But they are close.  . 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Clamoring for Bibles

I heard a knock on the door and headed down the stairs to answer it. Before I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see through the window that there was a small crowd of people clamoring at the door. “Here we go!” I thought…it was time for selling Bibles.

On Saturday, we visited the synod meeting of West Kasai, just giving our greetings and also an announcement that we would have Bibles to sell starting Monday afternoon. Unfortunately, the Bible Society only had 2 cartons of Bibles available in the standard size, so we got all they had. We decided with our colleagues to send one of the cartons to Mbuji-Mayi for selling in East Kasai, and we would remain with one. When Monday came, we had several meetings in the morning and it was after 1pm before we got to the office. So, people started coming to the house looking for Bibles. We really try to  ensure that Bibles get sold at the office, so I packed up a bag with Bibles and headed out with the crowd of people trailing after.

Once at the office, I explained that there was a limited amount, so we would not sell more than 1 Bible to anyone. The people who had come were from distant villages, and they had stayed in Kananga after the end of their synod meeting on Saturday just to be able to purchase Bibles. There was a bit of a commotion at first in their eagerness to buy Bibles, but they lined up and I began recording names and distributing Bibles. In the process, I learned a little about their churches and their lives. One woman, Mutare, is an elder in the church and active with woman’s ministry, but has never had a Bible. I asked if she is ever asked to teach in Bibles studies or women’s groups. “Oh yes!” she said “And I have to go borrow a Bible from my pastor to prepare a teaching.” Others in the group were pastors, who said that they had a Bible at home, but it was tattered and missing pages. All were very excited about the valuable tool that they now had for studying and learning more about God. Several of them were from one rural presbytery called Bupuekele, and were about to start the three day walk back to their villages.

Mamu Mutare, with her new Bible

In just one hour, the carton of 28 Bibles was empty. People continued to come, and are still coming days later, looking for Bibles. We were able to get some of the compact size that we continue to sell, but older people have trouble with the smaller print. There is another shipment of Bibles on the way, so we look forward to being able to sell more in June or July. But, I must admit that we are glad that we don’t have that commotion every day!

Members of the Bupuekele Presbytery with their new Bibles