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Stories Out of Africa: Congo

by Elmer Martens

(For six weeks (Jan. 12-Feb. 21) I was in Kinshasa; for three of those I was accompanied by Rick Bartlett, my son-in-law, who, as assistant director for British Youth for Christ, has expertise in Youth Ministry and lectured and gave seminars in that area.)

On a Monday in January I was lecturing on "The Christian and War" in Kinshasa, Congo. That lecture was punctuated with the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns and the "boom" of mortar and even rocket bombs from across the river. The shelling, part of a civil war, was happening in Brazzaville, a city across the river in another country but only less than five miles away. We might have been safe, but others were not.

I came to Kinshasa on January 12 at the invitation of Dr. Nzash Lumeya, a former student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and founder/ principal of the Centre International de Missiologie. Sabena was the only European airline that still flew into Kinshasa. This city of more than five million was functional, but barely. Even paved main streets had large pot holes, making speed limit signs unnecessary. There were no buses. Telephones, for the few who had them, sometimes functioned but often did not. More than once I prepared lessons by candlelight because the electricity had gone off.

I spent six weeks teaching in Congo, in a school of forty students who were in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. About one-half of my upper-division class of sixteen were Mennonite or Mennonite Brethren. The following stories point to the spiritual and political climate in that country.

*Following a message given in the Kintambo Mennonite Brethren church (attendance 100), the pastor gave a call to conversion to which two young men perhaps in their twenties responded. I learned later that they had immediately been assigned to a discipler. Conversions are relatively commonplace. In the USA the church loses 3,000 members per day. In Sub-Sahara Africa, which includes Congo, the Christian church gains 16,000 per day.

*Since there are no buses, the average person in this city of 5 million relies on "taxi" service. These "taxis" are mostly beat-up cars, old jam-packed vans, or huge cargo-carrying trucks with persons sprawled about or somehow hanging on. Students were sometimes late for class because they had waited up to two hours for a ride. When I preached at the Batela MB church, the pastor was late for the 10 a.m. service, even though he had been waiting at the roadside since 6 that morning. Despite such inconveniences the churches I visited were almost always filled, sometimes packed. In a Baptist church where I spoke there were 500 in the French-speaking service; a service of similar size in the Lingala language followed, which in turn was followed by a small English-speaking service.

*Jean-Claude, one of the students in my class, married with three children, had helped plant a church in Belgium. Jean-Baptist, from the Central African Republic, was pastoring a church in the city. Dieudonne, Suza, Muller, John Massebi, Emanuel and Sublime had aspirations to be missionaries to the Batwas (pygmies), the Batakas in the region, to Muslims, and to such places such as Spain, Brazil, and Papua New Guinea.

*The youth I met had a zest for learning. One of the best things I did on this self-funded trip was to take with me our son-in-law, Rick Bartlett, who works with Youth for Christ in England. He lectured to appreciative student groups on the theology of youth work and on faith formation. He and I spoke on daily radio with translation into either French, Lingala or Arabic. The Mennonite "intellectuals" from the university also interacted well with Dr. Neil Blough, a visiting Mennonite professor from Paris, who spoke about Anabaptism and the current European Mennonite scene.

*A Mennonite Brethren nurse by the name of Jehoiachim, aged 50 and still with a family to support, had left nursing and was preparing for ministry. I found it hard to accept from him the gift of peanuts, mangos and bananas, since I knew his family had little. The unemployment rate in Kinshasa is around 90%. That people survive is a miracle.

*Yes, one can get a hamburger in Kinshasa for 20 Congo francs (=$7.00 US), but that is minus french fries and a drink. Downtown there are also Chinese and Indian restaurants good places to make contacts. At The Palm Tree restaurant, I listened to Leonard, a Mennonite, talk about the credit union which he heads. The next evening, this time over Chinese food, I rejoiced with a Canadian MB who was in Kinishasa for the fourth time in two years, to set up a Christian bank.

*At an upscale (for Kinshasa) restaurant, the TV monitor was showing a Christian TV program...not an uncommon sight, since the Christian influence in the city is strong. The cross-denominational witness is impressive. Evangelical churches are organizing to sponsor their own television program. A crowd of 80,000 gathered on New Year's Eve at the Protestant "Cathedral" for a praise service to God for His sparing of the city during the August 1998 rebel attack. Baptist and Assembly churches, even African Independent Churches, welcomed us and invited us for sermons and seminars.

*I had an invitation to speak at a leadership seminar in Kikwit, an hour's flight away, but was denied a travel pass to the interior by the government, probably because of the unrest in the eastern part of the country. The rebels there, largely Tutsis who are supported by Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, are warring in an attempt to unseat the current Congelese government led by President Kabila. Monies are diverted to that war effort, leaving few funds for social and development work.

Of the nine countries bordering Congo, seven are engaged is some kind of tragic war. I saw trucks in Kinshasa unloading scores of refugees women and children from Brazzaville with only small bundles of clothes to claim as possessions. Refugees came to my door and in broken English told of the horrors of war, of thirteen and fourteen year-old soldiers, of a pastor and evangelist killed, and most gruesome, of the shooting down in cold blood of 19 people meeting together in a house for prayer. At one point a pastor, jarred, devastated and exhausted, was given a couch in the house where I stayed so he could get some sleep. He had fled to Kinshasa to urge the Christians there to pray.

* We were safe, we were told, but down the hill from us a stray shell from across the river came through the window of a Mennonite Brethren home. A thirteen-year-old neighbor boy inside that home was killed. The son in that home was hit in the leg by shrapnel and taken to hospital. Later I met his mother, wan and worried. I sat on the veranda on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon angered by the shelling I was hearing in the distance.

*"What should I tell the people back home?" I asked. Said one student: "Thank those in the West for missionaries." Another said: "It is high time that Mennonite Brethren bring the gospel to the Moslems." "If you think of mission, take account of our aspirations in Africa for mission." "Partnership should focus on youth; we were encouraged by Youth Mission International." Another worried about the virus of secularism (as he put it) infecting the North American churches.

*Congolese, I sensed, feel isolated from the international community of nations, and Congolese Christians reach out for contact with other Christians. For that reason the visit by the singing group Esengo in 1997 to India, Japan, USA and Canada (members of which I met) was most significant. The several-day visit this year of a seven-member French-speaking European delegation, which included Annie Brosseau, editor of Le Lien in Quebec, was most joyfully received. So was the visit by Steven Nelson and Arthur Harder of AIMM and their promise to seek help for building church roofs. A question jokingly asked in quite another context on our way from the airport into the city keeps ringing in my mind: "Are we brothers?"