Ok, this is over 2 years later, but some things seem intended never to end. I had the great pleasure today to share this journey with high school kids in a World Cultures class at Manton High School (Manton, Michigan). It amazed me to see how much the story of DR Congo captured the imaginations of these students – many thoughtful questions, focused attention, to something with which they were totally unfamiliar, and probably had very little interest in when they entered the classroom. Having enjoyed 3 weeks with two dear friends from Congo during the last month, and now this day, I am humbled and pleased that the story has not ended.
One of my concerns, and the concern of our friends in Mbandaka, is how they can sustain the great progress they have made in being able to use English. They are discussing an English club where everyone gathers regularly and speaks only English. They are also considering whether the Post of Mbandaka could find a way to support on-going classes. But always in our mutual hopes and prayers is the thought that perhaps someone else from the USA will be moved to come and live among them for a period of time, sharing the gift of language. Needless to say, they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Indiana Christians in June; what a great opportunity to practice what they have learned! I will also be sharing a detailed report of my stay with Global Ministries, so that the larger church can be thinking about what might come next.
There is so much to process and reflect upon after such a major project. I am honored to have had the invitation, the means, and the energy to work with our Congolese partners for the last three months. They shared freely of their lives and their hopes. I understand in a much more profound sense the difficulties they face, and their deep desire to become a functioning member of the worldwide community of nations. The prayers and messages from friends who walked this journey with me, even though they were far away, moved me to tears; between their expressions of love and the care of my Congolese hosts, I never felt alone, and when things were tough, I was sustained by these communities. The whole project felt like a tremendous leap of faith, that I could somehow accomplish something worthwhile, even though I was so far outside of my comfort zone. If something good happened, after all, it was because I did not do this alone.A few people are already starting to ask, “What’s next for you?” I believe that everyone should go outside their comfort zone, on a regular basis – it is only when we are stretched that we discover exactly where our boundaries lie. But I also believe that God has created each of us to be a unique person. Each of us has a unique style, a unique way of thinking, an ambiance or milieu where we are our most authentic selves. This is the sweet spot, where we are most aware of ourselves as children of God. For me, this means quiet times, reflection, music, nature, beautiful things all around, the love of my husband and close friends. So coming home means coming back to that sweet spot, and for the immediate future, that is where I will be. More music lessons, a new instrument that will truly be my own; finding beauty and stories through a camera lens; quiet evenings with friends and family; a few weeks in a wild natural setting. By traveling so far, I have come to understand better just who I am. I’ve come home to the sweet spot where I can best hear the voice of God. And it is a precious place indeed.
A full week of saying goodbye to friends I probably will not see again – this is tough. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were final classes for English and computers, five in all. Saturday was the closing ceremony and a reception at Rev. Ilumbe and Rosette’s house. Sunday was my last worship service in Mbandaka. Today (Monday) people were dropping by to say goodbye, tomorrow lunch is at Rev. Bonanga’s, to say goodbye, and something’s on tomorrow night, not sure what. Wednesday I fly to Mbandaka, so there will be goodbyes at the airport. Rosette, Ilumbe, and Oscar Pekombe are flying to Kinshasa on the same flight, and plan to come to the airport Thursday night to see me off. Seeing old friends in Brussels on Friday, then more goodbyes. I’ll be very ready for some hellos on Saturday!
The closing ceremony for the English classes was actually another worship service, with everything except communion – procession, choirs, sermon, offering, prayers, the whole works. My sermon went OK, but I’m really glad I never had to make a living as a preacher – no pulpit presence. Which is kind of funny, on my own subjects (science, packaging, anti-counterfeiting), I can usually carry an audience pretty well. Moral: stick to what you know when you open your mouth.There was a lot of fun, too. Each of the classes had some of their members give presentations, showing off their English. One of the elementary classes had worked up a conversation with an inside joke or two. The second elementary class had one student act as me, drilling the students on what they had learned. The intermediate class provided a lesson on what to do if someone faints. The advanced class demonstrated their writing and speaking skills. Someone read the scripture in English, and there were two English prayers. Very touching to see how proud everyone was of their new skills.
And of course, there were marvelous gifts. Three different dresses, one from the class, one from a student who likes to sew, and one from the women of the Mbandaka post. I will look pretty sharp when I’m talking about DR Congo. A shirt for my husband Bob, because he was so kind to let me leave for three months, they have really worried about him being alone at the house (a situation pretty much unheard of here). And finally, there was a marvelous wood carving of four students (one for each class), at desks, with notebooks (to reflect the notebooks I had provided), and a blackboard, all in dark wood. There was also a woman, with her hand raised pointing to the board, carved out of white wood. The board read, “Mbandaka Post – First English Class”, and 2014 was carved on the base. As with all Congolese gifts, there is all sorts of symbolism in the gift, not the least of which is the use of the word “First”; they really hope there will be more!
This has been an extraordinary experience, and one I will never forget. I have had a much closer look at the lives of people I care very much about. Their lives are incredibly hard, but they are a warm and loving people. It’s something that more people should experience, to begin to understand what developing world challenges are all about. Anyone who comes should understand, though, that you will not go home unchanged. The term that is used in Congo is “pricked by the palm (tree)”, and it is very apt.
Having many of you share the journey with me has been of immense help in processing and interpreting this whole experience. I’ll post at least one more reflection on coming home, but this will not be the end of the journey. Already one church and one regional women’s group has asked me to speak about life in Congo, so the story will go on for a while.
Blessings and peace to all, wherever you are.
As many of you have guessed, Easter is a big occasion here in Congo. Similar to churches in the USA, crowds are half again as large as usual, or maybe even twice as large. At Mbandaka III, where I attended, there were 1330 people; at Bongondjo, Rev. Ilumbe reported 1888 people. Interestingly enough, on this day, there was no communion – communion for the week is celebrated on Maundy Thursday. There may be a practical reason as well; with all the new members, there are not nearly enough communion cups, and as Rosette said, if they tried to serve everyone on Easter Sunday, it would be a catastrophe because many would go without. Even on an ordinary Sunday, this sometimes happens.
The service began with a processional, the traditional processional song sung every Sunday, but on Easter several of the choirs proceed the pastors. This was followed by two hymns sung to traditional Easter tunes: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “He Arose”. Since the hymns are only sung once a year, not too many people know the words; unlike churches in the USA, however, there are no hymnbooks, but still the singing was spirited on the “Alleluias” and the chorus, “He arose! He arose!” The pastoral prayer followed.
The whole service is in Lingala, so it’s not possible to follow every word, but Rosette was beside me and helped me understand the gist of what was being said. After the prayers, the choirs began. There were two solo performances, one by an older man in Kikongo, and one by a blind Maman, assisted by three friends, who dashed about spraying the area with something – I’m not sure what this was about. Three choirs followed, including the choir of pygmy women who are great favorites with their energetic and unusual dancing.
A period of praise for God, with much singing and dancing by everyone for 10-15 minutes, preceded the sermon. I must have picked up some rhythm while I was here, a number of people were encouraging my dancing, and the preacher paid me a compliment from the pulpit – which would be extremely embarrassing in another setting, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence here for someone to be singled out. Just accept it and try not to be embarrassed.
The sermon, offered by one of the professors from the Theological Faculty (seminary) at Bolenge, focused on the role of the women on Easter morning. Using the Luke text, he reminded us that they rose very early in the morning; for that reason, they encountered the angels at the tomb. Peter came later, but he did not receive the good news – the good news came to those who came early. He used this to make a point that it is a Congolese habit to not pay much attention to the time at which church events are supposed to start; this is a lack of respect for God. If you don’t respect the time, you risk missing out on the good news. Interesting – like many sermons, a moral point is included.
Five more choirs – the senior choirs this time – with some amazing songs about various parts of the Holy Week story – Judas, Peter’s denial, the time from Gethsemane to the cross. I have some good video footage of the music and hope to be able to post a video of Easter music from Congo when I return.The offering (actually, 20+ specific offerings) followed. The Easter offering is the biggest offering of the year – people save for months for this event. It is shared, in principle equally, between the parish, the Post (region), and the General Church (10th Community – Disciples of Christ in Congo. In practice, this is a little flexible. I asked Ilumbe yesterday how the offerings went this year. He said not well – there is a government crisis in the province, and all salaries are held up for the moment due to some legal issues. This affects the economic situation in general, and the people are hurting, so the church will also suffer greatly.
This was the moment when I realized I was no longer just a guest. I was asked to hold one of the offering baskets with a friend, Maman Beya, the pastor’s wife who also cooks for us. I was not an interesting foreigner who was visiting, but one of the congregation who could serve in worship. What a blessing!
You who once were far off have been brought near . . . you are no longer strangers . . . but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.
Fair warning – this post is much longer than usual. I’ll have a regular post up after Easter worship. This is the text of a sermon I have been asked to give at the closing ceremony for English classes, which will take place on April 26.
Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-11 (Common English Bible)
Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
And don’t return there without watering the earth,
Making it conceive and yield plants
And providing seed to the sower and food to the eater
So is my word that comes from my mouth
It does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
And accomplishes what I intend.
Comme la pluie et la neige descendent des cieux,
Et n’y retourent pas, sans avoir arrosé, fécondé la terre,
Et fait germer les plantes,
Sans avoir donné de la semence au semeur
Et du pain à celui qui mange,
Ainsi en est-il de ma parole, qui sort de ma bouche:
Elle ne retourne point à moi sans effet,
Sans avoir exécuté ma volonté
Et accompli mes desseins.
When I retired from my work, the first thing I did was to come to Congo with Rev. Maman Sharon Watkins, Maman Sandra Gourdet, Rev. Rick Spleth, and others, to witness the signing of the Partnership Agreement with the Mbandaka Post. This visit changed forever my understanding of how God’s people could live out their faith. I found here a Christianity more alive, more hospitable, more Christ-like, and more profound than I had ever experienced before.
After returning to the USA, it was necessary to decide what to do when I no longer went to work every day. I chose to learn to play a small stringed instrument, a dulcimer from my native state, so that there would always be music near me. Another task was to learn to teach English, thinking I might teach the Burmese immigrants who are members of the church that meets in the sanctuary of our parish.
Some years went by. Your PSP and Maman Rosette, President of the Partnership Committee, came to visit Indiana in 2009. I led a group of pilgrims to Mbandaka in 2011. At that time, your leaders spoke to us of the urgent need for more of you to learn English, so you could better communicate with the rest of the world, and especially to hear English as it was spoken by an American. The Indiana pilgrims and I returned home, but this concern would not leave my thoughts.
I learned from the time that I was a small child that God calls people to do the tasks that are needed for the kingdom. I also learned that it did not go well for those who did not answer that call, such as Jonah. As a young adult, I came to believe that God had given me special skills in science and mathematics so I could work as a chemist, helping to create medicine that could help sick people get better. I loved this work, which I did for over 30 years; I learned new skills and became even better at the job.
But after retirement from this work, what was I to do? After the 2011 visit, more and more I heard a voice saying, “You must go back to Congo and teach English.” This was difficult – I did not believe I had the skills to do this job. I discussed the call with your leaders when they came to Indiana in 2012, and they said, “Yes, you must come.” So I spent the next year studying, gathering material, preparing to do something I had never done before, answering the call that would not go away.
During this preparation, I thought often about those who God called, and what skills they had for the difficult task ahead. I thought of:
• Noah, called to build an ark, something that had never been done before
• Abraham, who had to pack up all of his family and goods, and leave his native country
• Joseph, arrogant with his brothers, sold as a slave before becoming the leader who saved his people from famine
• Moses, who could not speak well, called to pronounce God’s commandment to Pharaoh and lead his people to freedom
• Deborah, a woman, who led her people to battle and brought peace to the land
• David, a shepherd, who became a great king
• Esther, a member of a captive nation, who became a queen and rescued her people
• Saul, who hated Christians, becoming Paul, that great apostle
• Peter, who denied Christ, becoming the leader of the church
Sometimes, the call was not even specific. Jesus said only, “Follow me.” Fishermen, a tax collector, and others left their chosen work to take up new tasks and spread the good news.
God does not need certain messengers to spread his word so that his will can be done. The Word of God has all power within it. God speaks, and the word goes forth and accomplishes its purpose, in whatever way it is sent.
But sometimes God chooses to use humans as a way to send his Word into the world. The power of the Word is not dependent upon the goodness or the skill of the human who carries it – thanks be to God! When we read the Bible, we quickly learn that most of his chosen messengers were weak humans, often unskilled, frequently sinful, sometimes failing completely before they succeeded. Yet God chose them, and through them His will was done. Truly, God is great, and can find ways to use every one of us who accept the challenge to allow ourselves to be used by God.
The Word of God goes out, and it does not return empty. We don’t know God’s plans, but like the Word, we are sent out. We may not know why we are sent, but if we are faithful, we can believe that God’s will might be accomplished through us. What is required of us is to answer the call, to allow God to use us in whatever way is chosen, to accept that in answering the call, we will be strengthened for the task. What is most frightening is that we will be forever changed, transformed, when we become God’s messengers.
We are each one of us called to be a blessing, like the rain and the snow. We nourish God’s creation and God’s people. I pray that in my time here, you have been blessed and nourished, given a new skill that may be of value to you. You may not know how you will use the new language you have learned, but be assured, if you are faithful, it can become a blessing to many. The power will not be your own, but the strength to spread the Word will come directly from God, if you will allow it. Now you must take on the task which God has given you; continue to practice, to speak, to learn more so that you will be a better messenger. Remember that as you are sharing your faith, it is the very Word of God that is on your lips.
Language, spoken and unspoken, is the way humans learn about others and about God. As you reach out to others, always leave room for the Spirit, who, when your language fails, will speak for you “in sighs too deep for words” (“par les soupirs inexprimables”) [Romans 8:26] . And do not forget that even if you “speak in tongues of angels, but don’t have love” (“parlerez les langues des anges, [mais] vous n’avez pas l’amour”), you are speaking words that will come back empty, because they are not God’s words. [1 Corinthians 13:1]
But do not be afraid to speak your new language, either. Our words are always imperfect, even when they are spoken correctly, because our understanding in this life is imperfect. Now “we see in a mirror, dimly” (nous voyons au moyen d’un miroir”) [1 Corinthians 13:12]. But in God’s time, we will see face-to-face. We will know completely, as we have been known (nous connaîtrons comme nous ont été connu), when God called us to be Christians. It is only in the final days that we will understand each other, and the Word of God, in all its glory.
When you encounter people who only speak English, and you share your words with them, do not become proud, because you are one of a few persons with whom they can speak. You must always remember that the words you speak, and the words you hear, are not yours alone. They are the very words of God coming through human voices. You must speak for all Congolese when you speak, and not only for yourself; and you must share the words you hear with others, because you are only a translator for the children of God. Speak truly, and gently; listen with your heart as well as your ears.
Use your English as often as possible to learn about the world outside of Congo. Listen to the radio; read books; use the internet when possible to find out what is happening around the world. Always try to see other cultures through your own eyes, not through the false images that you find in movies and on television. Get to know real people, not the actors who are pretending to be a certain kind of person.
Your gift now is language. Use it well; decide if what you hear is real or a false image; offer words of love; interpret for others so they can also become friends; speak words that help them understand that we are MOKO – one! And God’s Word, through you, will not come back empty, but will help accomplish what God intends for His people.
Go, be a blessing, like the rain, spreading God’s love throughout the world, for love is the one language that can be understood by all.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday (Sunday marking the entrance to Jerusalem), celebrated in Mbandaka much as we observe the holy day in the USA. Many people bring palm (or other) branches to church, and they are waved not only at the beginning of the service but also during many other songs of praise. Shouts of “Hosanna!” are sprinked throughout the service, more so than usual (“Hallelujah!” from the pastor, followed by “Hosanna!” from the congregation, then “Hosanna!” followed by “Hallelujah!” from the congregation, is an affirmation often heard in all services). Many of the songs from the chorales involved hosanna also. The sermon focused on the contradictory sequence of events during Holy Week. The same persons who worshipped Jesus in his entry into Jerusalem would be those who cried, “Crucify Him! Give us Barabbas!” later in the week – such is the feeble nature of the faith of many.
After a few weeks, I think I have figured out the normal order of worship. It begins with a processional song, often the same one, when the preachers, elders, and those serving at the table come up to the chancel area. This is followed by a short prayer calling us into worship, then perhaps another song by the congregation. After some brief comments by the worship leader, the Lord’s Prayer follows. The congregation is standing for all prayers except those of blessing for the communion. The pastoral prayer takes about 10 minutes, congregation standing and often a choir singing softly with a keyboard during the prayer.
Several chorales (choirs) are announced and begin singing in the order in which they were presented. This series is normally not the first tier, showcase chorales, but more of a warm-up group – still quite powerful. The scripture reading is next, followed by an extended praise period (10-15 minutes) with singing and dancing led by a praise band and involving the whole congregation, who are standing and praising God with singing and many hand gestures. After this comes the sermon, which will last 30-45 minutes. If Rev. Ilumbe is preaching, he finishes his sermon with a special song, created on the spot and accompanied by the keyboard and drums, and including much dancing and movement around the sanctuary. This is much appreciated by the church members, who sometimes reward it with small offerings.
After the sermon, several more chorales sing – these are usually larger, more experienced chorales and always seem to include a large chorale of young men and older boys, often as large as 30 or more. They include choreography and really animate the crowd. The offerings follow. There are always designated offerings for the women, men, and children; usually one for the choirs, with a member of each choir holding a basket – sort of a “vote for your favorite” time. Other offerings include those for the support of the pastor (no salaries here), the poor in the church, and sometimes other special projects. Announcements are next, including the week’s activities and services, a report on the number of men, women, and children present, plus the number of Bibles and songbooks, and finally a report on the offerings, which are quickly counted after they are taken. Holy Communion (the Sainte Cène) is observed, with singing as it is passed. A benediction is offered, and the worship leaders process out, followed by the congregation, dismissed row by row by protocols (worship assistants who function as our deacons do). The pastors shake hands with everyone as they exit.
Such is a Sunday worship. It generally takes four to four-and-a-half hours. Chorales normally sing two songs each, and there may be as many as seven or more chorales during the service. No one is in a hurry to leave, many stay around for meetings or visiting afterward. Women may gather at one of the parishes later in the day for prayer, and there are other services during the week. The church is a fundamental part of life for Congolese Disciples of Christ, and other activities are fitted in around it, unlike the USA, where the church competes with many activities for its members’ presence.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way;
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Sometime later, after others joined us for a while after the service, we headed back across the river. This will be one Sunday I will never forget. “Peace, like a river … .”
(Sad note – when we returned, we discovered that thieves had again broken into the classroom, stolen the two remaining wooden chairs, and burned many of the papers important to the Post. Thieves also attacked the pharmacy – nothing was taken, but the wife of the guard was injured by a thrown rock. “When sorrows, like sea billows roll … .”)
Whatever my lot – it is well with my soul.