Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Incarnation

Matthew 1:23 (NRSV)
23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

During this time of year we celebrate the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  As the apostle Matthew quotes the prophet, he shall be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.”  The Incarnation, or the presence of God amongst us, is probably the most incredible reality we can ever attempt to wrap our minds around.     

On Monday night, around 9pm, Kristi and I arrived back to Kananga with six of our colleagues of the Department of Evangelism of the Congolese Presbyterian Community (CPC).  We had just spent 13 days on the road, visiting the two large city centers of Ilebo and Mueka and the famed old mission station of Bulape.  In under two weeks we had logged over 1,000 kilometers on Congo’s infamously deplorable roads.  We are thankful to have returned in good health and to have arrived home safely despite fresh dents on the vehicle and bruises on the body.

Kristi and I and members of the Department of Evangelism of the CPC;
we enjoyed travelling, working, eating together and laughing a lot!

Vehicle stuck in the mud in village of Shinateke, after flash rain storm;
Our winch saved us half a dozen times! 

We were privileged to first visit the port city of Ilebo.  Back during the Belgium period, Ilebo was called Port Franqui, named after a Belgium businessman. The name Ilebo is actually not a local Tshiluba word, but rather the Tshiluba-ized version of what Port Franqui was often referred to - “Il est bon!” (It is good!).  When we arrived at the police barrier to the city, we were met by dozens of women and church leaders who were singing and clamoring for us to get out of the car.  We then walked 2-3 kilometers with them to town amidst singing and profound joy.  It was the first time missionaries had visited Ilebo in over two decades.  We were told several times that our visit and our presence was a huge boost to the Presbyterian community in Ilebo.  Everywhere we went we were greeted with intense fanfare and joy-filled song.  We even crossed a river by canoe and rode on the back of motorcycles up and down hills and valleys to visit a very rural parish in the village of Bambanga where the whole town came out to greet us.  We felt like rock stars! 

Welcomed with joy at Ilebo city!
Traversing the Lutshuadi River to reach Bambanga
where the whole village came to greet us!

On our way to Bulape after three action packed days in Ilebo, we were stopped on the road by churches four different times, some of whom came long distances to greet us and escort us back to their parishes where we worshipped and ate with them.  Our presence was a gift and a boon to these rural churches. 

The women of the village of Bena Mulumba
welcome us waving flowers and palm fronds!

We enjoyed a short stay in Bulape where we conducted a Board Meeting for the Pastoral Institute.  At the end of the meeting, the Director of the school told us that he and the staff and students were ebullient that we had come just to visit them; they have often felt overlooked and forgotten.  We also spent time visiting and praying for local parishes and families and all of the local chiefs.  

Board meeting with the Pastoral Institute of Bulape

Our last stop was the city of Mueka, the seat of a large territory in the new Province of Kasai (capital is Tshikapa).  Unfortunately, we were not cordially greeted by the majority of CPC churches in the city.  In fact the church where we were planning to meet was barricaded by the youth of that parish.  The CPC Synod Executive of the region chose not to be with us and a disgruntled pastor went on the radio the previous day, saying that he and others did not recognize the authority of one of the leaders we were travelling with.  Sadly, despite all of our overtures, pleading and even humbling ourselves on our knees, this pastor and others refused to join us.  It was a sad reminder that we live in a broken world where relationships and church communities can so easily become fragmented by division and strife.  Thankfully, instead of shaking the dust from our sandals and leaving, we chose to stay.  Working with one CPC church in Mueka, we facilitated a healing and reconciliation workshop which blessed all eighty plus participants who came from all over the region, even from the remotest corners.  At one point during the workshop it felt like we were transported into the heavenly realms!  

Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshop held in Mueka;
members of different nations (tribes) serve one another and
pronounce blessings to each other at “The King’s Table”

The Incarnation is not some theologically aloof concept beyond our lived realities.  It is the actual reality of God with us through the ups and downs of everyday life.  Moreover, as God’s children we have the gift and privilege of incarnating God’s love and care to one another simply through our presence and service.  Here in Congo, that often means simply showing up and visiting people who feel forgotten.  Yes, we will not always be received with gratitude and joy, but neither was Jesus always received in such manner.  But, as the Apostle John relates,  “To all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12).  According to Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr, the Incarnation exemplifies God’s redeeming work.  It shows that God was saying, “It is good to be human, and God [is] on our side” (Rohr, 2008).    

Emmanuel, God with us! 
Happy Advent.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Exchange visit to Mbuji-Mayi

Last week our team for the savings groups made a trip to East Kasai, for the purpose of visiting women’s groups who have active income-generating projects, and also existing savings and credit groups. We have just started the savings groups in West Kasai, but our vision is that they will start in East Kasai next year, so we wanted to explore what was available in terms of savings, and also what the needs were. We had a great time of learning together, and appreciating the hard work that many people are doing as they seek to work cooperatively to care for their families and communities. Here are just a few highlights:

This women’s group has done various projects together, including working in
people’s fields, running a mill, and making soap.

Leaders of the women’s groups in all the congregations in Mbuji-Mayi came
together to share their successes and challenges, and also to hear an
introduction to the savings group methodology.

We sat with a group from the Anglican church, who have a few existing savings groups

This parish on the edge of town called Nzaba Munya has an active women’s
group who works a field together, operates a water cistern, and is generous
in helping the widows and orphans in their neighborhood.

A woman at the Nzaba Munya parish catches overflow water from their cistern.
The cistern collects rainwater from the church roof. They sell it to the community
as an income generating project – without this source of water, people
have to walk about 3 miles to get water!

Finally, we had a long, muddy drive home. It is about 120 miles from Mbuji-Mayi to
Kananga, but it was an arduous 8 hour drive. Glad to travel, glad to be home!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mount Carmel

Sure enough, it was 5:40am and the drumming and singing began.  I rolled out of bed, put on my jeans, a tee shirt and my fleece and found my way to the small chapel.  The antiphonal singing was almost angelic.  Coupled with the drums and body movement, I recognized that I was amongst African angels.  Mount Carmel is a Catholic Retreat center in Kananga.  It also serves as a seminary for those studying and preparing for the priesthood.  From time to time I go there for a couple of days of silence, solitude and prayer. 

The small, simple chapel at Mount Carmel

There are many things I appreciate about Mount Carmel.  First is the natural beauty.  Mount Carmel  is set on the side of a sloping hill and the views are expansive.  I love  walking in the peace of its downward slope into the valley, along a wide grass path with palm trees on either side.  This time I was thrilled to see a miniature Kingfisher with its bright orange and purple uniform flit in front of me, taking a seat on a branch only 10 feet away.  What a joy!  God of wonders. 

Kananga sunset wide
Sunset from Mount Carmel

The seminary students are another blessing at Mount Carmel.  They are so attentive and conscientious of all of my needs.   When I visited last spring these students kept coming to my door with various things I would need (candles, water for drinking, water for bathing, fixing my light).  On this recent visit I forgot a towel; when I expressed my need it was met in short order.  One of the beauties of these students is that they come from all corners of Congo.  I have met students from Lubumbashi, Bukavu, Goma, Kinshasa, Tshikapa, and beyond.  These students will spend ten years together learning theology and philosophy.  Every year they travel to a new region where they will live and study together.  They are trained and formed by older priests and “priors” who teach them, eat with them, and do life with them.  What an experience these young men are receiving!

There is the wonderful air of hard work and sustainability at Mount Carmel.  They have their own beautiful gardens where they grow their own food.  They raise pigs.  They also produce jam and wine which are sold in town.  The seminary students are busy each day keeping the place groomed and clean.  There is the aura of an industrious spirit coupled with peace and beauty and hospitality. 


When I go to Mount Carmel I am a visitor by definition, but I feel at home.  I am welcomed during the daily hours of worship.  I am always included in the morning and evening meals.  I am welcomed into “their world” for a brief period.  Even paying for my room and board is a very casual affair.  At the center of all this hospitality and love is Pere (Father) Matthieu.  Recently ordained to the priesthood, he has become a peer and friend.  He is always happy when I come and makes sure that I am cared for in every way.  He calls me “muan’etu” (one of us) and has even been willing to break theological and ecclesiastical tradition by serving me the bread and wine of our Lord (the Holy Eucharist).  While I deferred from accepting this generous gesture, I appreciate his ecumenical spirit and willingness to break down the walls that separate us even in our Christian traditions. 

It is places like Mount Carmel that provide the salve of healing and space which our bodies and spirits need as we serve in Congo.  I ask God’s manifold blessings upon Mount Carmel, a place where I witness the goodness and bounty of God.