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


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. 

“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. 

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

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. 

At the reception, the young madimba player entertains the guests

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)