U-C: What I See

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Women in our partner churches of the Congo, by Jean Marie Peacock

Brothers and Sisters,

“Mbote, mama!” With these words in Lingala, we greet each other while we lean in to touch our cheeks together – first on one side of the face, then the other, then back for a third time. Here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I have rubbed cheeks with many sisters in faith as we show our appreciation, respect and affection for each other. Here, as in so many places, the women dominate the membership of the church, filling the majority of the pews. They serve with exuberance and faithfulness, often in the background of the life of the church, as men dominate the official positions of power and decision-making.

In every church that we have visited here, I have been inspired by the spirit of the women who lift their voices in song and fill the church with whistles and shouts of joy as they dance and move and engage their whole being in worship. I have been inspired by the exuberance, joy, strength and faith they bring to the life of the church.

Rick and I have been introduced many times this trip in worship services, where the welcome is overwhelming, but we both recognize that I often receive greater applause and cheers and shouts of approval, because the women of the church are responding to a woman pastor who is serving as the Vice Moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). A woman serving in such a position has not yet occurred here, but the women express hope that a change will not be long in coming.

Our partner churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo do ordain women as deacons, elders, and pastors. I have enjoyed meeting them and learning of their ministry. In the CPC (The Presbyterian Community of the Congo), I have been told that there are about 8 women who have been ordained as pastors in a denomination which has more than 1.25 million members, 8 synods, 53 presbyteries, and more than 700 pastors. In the CPK (The Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa), which is composed of 4 synods with about 6 presbyteries in each synod, there are about 20,500 members. The CPK has about 11 women pastors, and the first woman was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament 17 years ago.

I have also enjoyed talking with women who are in training in seminary and others who serve as leaders in the work of the Women’s Departments in both the CPC and the CPK.
The work of the Women’s Departments in both the CPC and the CPK are very significant and focused on the empowerment and development of women through programs of education, literacy, leadership training, and income-generating programs that support self-sufficiency. These programs, led by women for women and their families, include income-generating programs that teaching women to dye cloth, sew items that can be sold, cultivate gardens for food production, and raise animals.

In Kinshasa, we visited one of the women’s development programs to create small enterprises. We met with a group of 6 women had received a $100.00 loan to purchase the ingredients to make beignets (donuts). As they make and sell donuts, they give a percentage of their profits back to pay off the loan. A portion of the profit is returned to the group for the next purchase of ingredients, and the remaining profit provides income for each of the women in the group. They each make about $1 a day from the project. One woman was proud to show off a pair of flip flops that she was wearing, saying: "I was able to buy a pair of shoes.” Other women explained that the income they have earned has helped pay school fees for their children and provided other support for their families. As each $100.00 loan is paid back, a new loan can be made to another group of women.

As we approached the end of our trip this week, we enjoyed a special time of worship on Thursday. We joined the women from CPK churches who came from many parts of Kinshasa and the surrounding area to worship together as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the CPK. The worship service was planned and led by women. The first woman ordained as a pastor in the CPK, Zeba, preached the sermon. The worship service also included a history of the role that women have played in the ministry of the CPK. Mama Mboo, as she was introduced, was at the service and was identified as the woman who 49 years ago began to organize the Women's Department of the CPK. The story was shared of how she went door to door, talking with women, telling them that they could be as powerful as the men in building the church. She encouraged women to speak, pray, and evangelize on behalf of the church. Many women leaders of the church and the ecumenical movement in Kinshasa were introduced. There was also a drama, later in the service, that spoke of the power of women in ministry and celebrated the many ways the Women's Department of the CPK has empowered women through development programs. The drama included one scene, where a woman was dressed in a man’s suit and introduced herself as the next President of the General Assembly of the CPK. The congregation of women went wild with shouts of encouragement, applause, and appreciation.

A women's choir, made up of women from all the various churches, filled nearly half the church. They were led by an energetic woman who danced and moved like no other choir director I have ever seen. It was wonderful! She put her entire self into directing the choir and all the women of the church danced and moved and shouted as the choir sang. There were about 5 women on the drums, and others with shakers, keeping the beat as the choir sang. The joy, dance, and strength of song in praise and thanksgiving was palpable and inspiring.

At one point toward the end of the service, after we had celebrated the history of women in leadership in the church and had named so many women pioneers of the CPK, we had a time of silence to thank God for those who had gone before of us in faithful service. We also prayed collectively, with each person speaking her prayer until the entire church was filled with a cacophony of voices. I was reminded of Hebrews 12:1 which says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Joining my voice in prayer with sisters in faith, the sound of our prayers surrounding each other as we remembered the faithful who have gone before us, I felt enveloped in “so great a cloud of witnesses” and experienced the power and strength that comes from a faith that has been shared from generation to generation.

I give thanks to God for the experiences and people I have met here in the DRC who have shared their faith so powerfully with us, and I am grateful that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one body in Christ working together as partners to run with perseverance the race that has been set before us.

Yours in Christ,

Jean Marie Peacock

An open letter to my wife as I leave Kinshasa

Dear Kitty,

It’s dawn in Kinshasa, the last day of our trip. The birds awakened me early, as they have each morning here at the Methodist Presbyterian Hostel during the last week. If I had to choose a word to describe my feelings as I prepare to leave later today, I think it would have to be “ambivalence.”

That’s a dangerous word, because in our church and in our country I think ambivalence is too often associated with inaction. I hesitate to write about what I really feel, because I feel anxious that somehow my words will be taken by folks in the U.S. as permission to remain paralyzed by all the need that exists in the world. It seems like one of the highest values in our country right now is to have things presented in simple, black and white forms. We don’t tend to deal well with ambiguity, and there’s not a lot of patience with gray area. The difficulty here, as in all the places we’ve worked in Latin America – especially the U.S. border with Mexico - is that this is a country that specializes in gray area. The only thing that is absolutely clear here is overwhelming need. After that, things get a lot more foggy.

Maybe I should start with what I feel no ambivalence about. I’m convinced that we’ve made a good decision to spend our lives on the margin where contradictions abound and few things seem to be clear. God is here with the folks whose needs are so great, and I’ve discovered God again as I’ve spent time with the people of the DR Congo. God seems to love the messy ambiguity of hanging out with the people who are most at risk. My most difficult visit this trip was the one to the hospital in Mbuji-Mayi; a dirty, over-extended place where there are two to four women to every bed in the maternity ward, hundreds of people in the dirt yard out back who are waiting for care, and a staff of dedicated doctors and nurses who are over-worked and making a pitiful wage. I have a hard time being in a place like that – it makes me uncomfortable. It’s hard to imagine being desperate enough to send you or Teo there, or to go there for care myself. Even still, there is no doubt in my mind that God is there. Further, I’m pretty sure God calls us to dedicate our lives to being with people in places like that hospital.

I’ve always found it easiest to identify God, to know God, when I’m with people who have no choice but to turn to God. It makes me think of that song I learned in Nicaragua years ago that describes how God accompanies people in the difficult places where they are, red-faced and sweating with the Jesus who changes a truck tire beside the road on a hot day – the Jesus who works at caring for children when there’s not enough to feed them – the Jesus at work with folks doing the back-breaking work of the fields.

So here’s my ambivalence. The need is great, and the best way to respond is not at all clear. I think our principles about how our church does mission, and how you and I have always tried to do it as well, are pretty clear. We go attempting to be with people, to accompany them. We assume that we have a great deal to learn from folks on the margins. We expect to share our understanding of Christ’s love, even while we know that we are often surprised at all we have to learn from the way others have experienced Christ’s profound love themselves.

Here in the Congo, those needs are as great as in any place I’ve visited in my life. Perhaps more than any other place, the people of the Congo are not bashful about stating their needs. Though we have a strong and wonderful tradition of mission in this place, and in many ways Presbyterians have led the world in caring for God’s people here (and I’ve met some amazing retired missionaries who are visiting for the anniversary this week), in too many places I’ve visited the legacy of our mission efforts is a community of dependency that leads with asking the church in the U.S. “What will you do for us?” Even in our consultations with our PC(USA) partners, Church leaders have made it clear that their conviction is that if we simply make their desperate condition known, U.S. Christians will be compelled to send money and that money will make things better. Doug Welch, our regional coordinator for Central and West Africa, is told by our partners that he is one of them because he speaks their language, knows their customs, and is at home here. It is a heavy burden to bear however, because he is also told that he is responsible for the welfare of the church: that the weight of the great needs of our church partners here is on him. Even as they appreciate financial support in one area, they are already suggesting the next four areas where the need is great and it is the responsibility of the church in the U.S. to step up and do something about it.

I feel almost like a traitor when I write these words. Somehow, it feels as if I’m supposed to share only the joy and the excitement of the church here. There is plenty of that, too, and I’ve tried to share those stories as I’ve traveled this month. But I don’t think we gain anything by not talking about how hard it is to know how to do mission today. No matter how hard we work at being faithful to God’s call, there will still be more to do. No matter how faithful the people of God are in this place, the needs are likely to grow. In spite of our best intentions, mission is likely to remain a messy business in which the power imbalances will remain and the line distinguishing Christian service, fellowship and community from creating unhealthy patterns of dependency will be difficult to discern.

Still, we remain a people called to service because it’s a messy proposition, not in spite of it. God doesn’t allow us the luxury of isolation from need. Over and over again, the Bible calls us to be an adventuresome people who defy the borders of our own fear and complacency to reach out to others. And, as I’ve shared in my storytelling of the last few weeks, there are plenty of creative areas where we are accompanying the church here and can be a positive force for Jesus Christ and Christ’s values here in the Congo.

Of course, you and I have learned that we are most alive when we enter into the world of ambiguity. Though things are rarely clear on the margins, Jesus was quite clear that joy comes in service, in washing the feet of the disciples, in hanging out with outcasts, in healing the lepers everyone was afraid to be near, in caring for prisoners and orphans and strangers.

As I leave the Congo, I’m more convinced than ever that while the work itself is full of ambiguity and needs that will never be fully resolved, the invitation from God to spend our time doing this work is crystal clear. I feel lucky that we share that conviction, not just with each other but with our ever-growing community of friends around the world.

The sun is up now. We leave Kinshasa tonight at 9, and I’ll be home with you and Teo by late Sunday night. I’ve missed you both as I’ve traveled here, and I’m anxious to share stories and to catch up on your lives.

I love you,


Celebrating 50 years with the Presby Church of Kinshasa


This is a church that knows how to celebrate, just as it knows how to worship. Yesterday we did both.

The plan looked pretty good. We would gather at 8:30 in front of the soccer stadium and parade to the Protestant Cathedral a couple of kilometers away. By ten, we would start a worship service celebrating the Jubilee anniversary and the faithfulness of the people of the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa. The description did little justice to the actual event.

People began to assemble in the big, dirt lot across the street from the stadium at about 8:30. However, for the next hour and a half, the crowd continued to grow. Mostly, folks arrived packed like sardines into the backs of the old, beat-up vw vans that provide the only public transportation available in this city. One group arrived in a huge military transport vehicle that someone had commandeered, complete with CPK signs taped to the sides and palm branches attached to the front bumper. When the parade finally began to form, I realized that it was going to extend for well over a kilometer. It seemed like every Presbytery, Parish, school and clinic in the CPK was represented with smiling, singing, laughing folks carrying signs and waving small, paper banners printed with the CPK Jubilee logo.

When it was time to form up at about ten a.m., we were placed immediately behind the brass band that played energetically for the next hour and a half. Our delegation walked with the leadership from the CPK and all the pastors, most of whom were dressed in suits. When we arrived at the Cathedral Church forty minutes later, we were placed with the band on the wide front steps to greet the rest of the parade as it danced its way into the building. That took over almost an hour because the line extended so far down the road, and the music, whistle-blowing, chanting and singing was so loud that at times I had to put my fingers over my ears to get some relief.

Finally, the leadership processed down the main aisle of what I believe is the biggest protestant church I have ever been in. I joined the leaders on the stage. The building was huge; I couldn’t see the eyes of the people in the front row, nor could I distinguish any physical characteristics of folks in the back of the room. The sanctuary was comfortably filled – my rough count suggested that there were well over two thousand people present.

The music stole the service, of course, as it has in every worship service in which I’ve participated here in the DR Congo. One song that the CPK Women’s Choir had written centered around the refrain, “Jesu masiya nicolo na bikamua,” which translates “Jesus Christ is Maker of Miracles.” The final song was Handel’s “Messiah,” and they brought the house down. In between the procession and the benediction, there were speeches and presentations and singing and scripture that went on for four hours.

The sermon was offered by Japhet Ndhlovu, the General Assembly of the Council of Churches of Zambie. As my pastor, John Fife, would say, he shared a sermon “that’ll preach back home.” Because he spoke in English and paused for translation, I was able to take fairly good notes, and he gave me permission to share them.

The text was the call story in the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah. Japhet says that when God calls us, God wants us to respond humbly with the words “I will do it.” He insisted that God does not call us without telling us what to do. He also referred to the text from Psalm 92 about bearing good fruit that has been a theme for the anniversary celebrations all week.

Japhet addressed his remarks personally and concretely to the members of the CPK who were present. He said that the CPK and the Christian community are being called by God to bear fruit in the following ways. (What follows is a loose quotation.)

First, if you are married, take care of your family. Love your wife. Love your husband. You are called by God to take care of one another. Husbands, you do not have the option of saying to your wife that she is too old and leaving her to fend for herself. She is the spouse God has given you, and you must care for her and together you must raise your children to be good citizens. This is the foundation for a good church.

Second, if you are single, take care of yourself. Be responsible in your singleness. It is not a crime to be single, and you can be happy and responsible in your singleness. Especially in this day when the Aids pandemic is sweeping across Africa, we must take responsibility for our lives and our actions.

Third, God is calling us to spread the news of the Christian faith. Spread the Good News. Like Psalm 92, bear good fruit and stay fresh and green. We must commit to evangelism. The church is full of women and children, but we need more men. We must make a special effort to reach out to men and invite them into our churches.

Fourth, God is calling us all to preserve justice and righteousness in our countries. If righteousness is our mission, then politically we must see that our country practices a politics of justice and peace. As a church, we must be involved in educating people about their rights. It is the duty of the church to respect all human beings, and that work extends into the political sphere.

Fifth, God is calling us to solidarity and unity with one another. Stay fresh and green in your care for one another by being a united community with other Christians. We must find common ground in our commitment to fight for the rights of women. If we are united, we will conquer HIV/AIDS. It is a matter of having the will to stand together. We are called to act as if we are family, because that is what we are.

Sixth, God is calling us to the duty of reconstruction. We must bear fruit in development and reconstruction in a country where there is so much to be done. We must bring water to people without water, food to those who have no food, shelter to those who sleep in the streets. We must, as a church, stand against a culture of greed. Greed kills life. God wants us to have life in abundance, and we are called by God to work for development and reconstruction, and to stand against the immorality of overwhelming poverty.

Seventh, God calls us to daily prayer and to constantly study the word of God. If we wish to bear fruit, our actions must be grounded in prayer and study every day. In prayer, we adore God. We confess our sins and those of our nation. If we wish to be strong in the face of overwhelming need, everything we do must be grounded in prayer.

Like Jeremiah, we are called. We are called to bear good fruit, and to remain fresh and green and vital. I believe that if we keep these seven principles in mind, we will have healthy families, healthy churches, healthy communities, and even a healthy country. We will see justice roll down like the waters. God bless you.

I’m sorry that my transcript of Japhet’s words are rough, but I’m convinced that his ideas translate across borders and into our own reality in the United States. Participating in the celebrations of the CPK has convinced me that this church struggles just as we do. Their membership has flat-lined for a number of years and they are anxious about how they will hold onto their young people. There are battles about doctrine here as there are in every church I’ve visited in the world. (At the moment, their hot battle is over whether sprinkling is the only appropriate form of baptism or immersion can also be appropriate.) They don’t have enough resources at their disposal to effectively do the work they are called to do. Pastors are struggling to support themselves even while they struggle to support their congregations. Poverty is the overwhelming reality everywhere one turns.

In spite of all of that, there were two thousand people (from a denomination that only numbers 25,000) who gathered for vibrant worship yesterday. As we’ve worshiped this week, it has been obvious that God is alive in this place. Church remains the center of most people’s lives. Fifty years of history has not been an occasion to look back in a self-congratulatory way. Rather, it has been an opportunity for the people of this small, faithful denomination to look to the future and to insist that God is and always will be the first answer, the fundamental building block upon which everything else is built.

As I sat on the stage and looked out over a see of small, paper flags waving in response to the music of the choir, I was convinced that the women of this church are absolutely right.
Jesus Christ is maker of miracles. We can depend on it. We are called to give our lives to it.

Jesu masiya nicolo na bikamua


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Church Being Church: Responding to the HIV/AIDS Crisis


The building was of cinder-block construction and more than forty years old. The walls were whitewashed, but dirty, and the concrete floor was badly chipped and cracked. There were bars over the windows, but most of the window glass was gone. There were two naked light bulbs that dangled from the ceiling in a room that was about twenty feet wide and forty feet long. We were at the Women’s Development Center of the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa, and our small delegation was meeting with three pastors (one woman, two men) who are part of a team working to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The table around which we sat was covered with a pink, tie-dyed cloth; produced by the women in the center, it was a clear sign of the indomitable spirit of the women of this place. It was hot – very hot.

HIV/AIDS in this country and across Africa is a problem that defies my imagination. The DR Congo has roughly fifty-two million people, and close to three million people have HIV or AIDS. (As usual, I’m long on reflection but short on detail. If you’re interested, please go to http://www.pcusa.org/health/usa/healthinfo/hivaids/resources.htm for links to better statistics and information.) This is a problem that seems to touch every aspect of church life, and preoccupation about it has been widespread among the church leaders with whom we’ve met. It consumes the energy of health care workers in the church’s hospitals, medical training schools, and public health programs. It is a part of the daily routine of educators who respond to the needs of the children. It is a constant reality for pastors as they try to support families. It is a major concern of the women’s programs in the churches. It is a theme for those tasked with working with youth and young adults. One youth leader explained to me that they actually plan youth events for late afternoon each day because they know that is when teenagers are most likely to be involved in sexual activity.

I recently read a speech given by Rev. Nyansako-ni-Nku, who is both the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Cameroon, as well as the President of the All African Conference of Churches. He was invited to speak at the conference organized by the Medical Benevolence Foundation in Phoenix in April. Here’s how he described the problem. “The spectre of HIV/AIDS paints a catastrophic scenario in Africa. Many families have been wiped out, whole villages have vanished and communities have been decimated. Vital services are grinding to a halt because the work force has drastically dwindled due to HIV/AIDS. It has been estimated that about half of the world’s infected persons are living in the African region, which is also ridden by poverty and other big killers like malaria and tuberculosis.”

A little over a year ago the CPK commissioned twelve volunteers to help the church coordinate its response to the AIDS pandemic. The group included men and women who were pastors, lay people, and teenagers. They began by training one hundred volunteers to become organizers and community educators about this issue. The first step in the community is to convince church members that they should take the test to determine whether they have the virus. Though there is little access to the anti-retroviral drugs needed to treat the symptoms of the disease, it is critical to identify those who are infected and to ensure that they understand the disease and what it could mean to infect someone else. There are many myths about this disease and the educational task is huge.

One woman explained to us, “The church has identified the spread of AIDS as a theological problem.” The reasoning is that it is largely spread through human behavior, and changing behavior is the work of the church. “However,” explained the youth pastor, “the church has actually been part of the problem because AIDS spreads as fast as it does because no one wants to talk about sex, and the church is one of the biggest offenders.” This group sees the Bible as the best possible resource to guide their church and society in developing a response, and they insist that any response that doesn’t deal with what the Bible has to say about sexual intercourse outside of marriage is morally bankrupt. Worse, in this spot in the world it has clearly become a matter of life and death.

They take it a step further, however. After careful Biblical study, the team is convinced that the Bible has a lot to say about stigmatizing any group of people, and that the stigma attached with this disease causes as many problems as the disease itself. “Once again,” said Pastor Kapinga, “We turned to the Bible to learn about how we should respond to those who are infected with HIV/AIDS and are stigmatized because of it, and we discovered it is a rich resource.”

The team has met several times a month for almost a year to organize their response. Together, they have designed rough drafts of ten Bible studies, and two of the studies have been edited and are ready for use. They hope to finish editing the other studies over the next few months. With help from a church in the United States, they will publish the studies in one volume for the church. Then their promoters will go to work to train pastors and lay leaders in the churches on how to lead the studies.

There is another response to HIV/AIDS that I want to tell you about as well. Though I didn’t get to see this one with my own eyes, it was described to me by Presbyterian Mission Co-worker Caryl Weinberg, who works on helping the churches of Central and West Africa to respond to the crisis. The CPC program to fight AIDS – called “APCS” - works with youth groups around the Kasai region. They have developed a very effective program to do AIDS education and awareness in rural villages like the ones we visited in the Kasai.

The idea is simple, and kind of ingenious. They work with village leaders to hold workshops that are aimed at young people who come to learn about the realities of HIV/AIDS, including how it is spread and what the myths surrounding it are. As a part of the day, boys and girls soccer teams are organized and they are given free soccer balls. Soccer balls are a hot item and are hard to come by here, and it is a very good incentive for participation in the workshops. The hope is that the soccer teams will provide a vehicle through which continuing education can take place. A similar program is being promoted by SANRU, the non-governmental, rural health office that is working all over the country.

It would be easy to despair in confronting this problem. However, the people of God are creative, energetic, and smart. That’s a good thing, because the problems that confront God’s people are significant. Everywhere I go – in the Congo, in Colombia and Central America, on the U.S./Mexico border, and in communities across the United States - I see examples of what I refer to as “the Church being Church.” Those churches share a common approach. They assess the situation, pray continuously for God’s guidance and wisdom, and get started – no matter how overwhelming or intractable a problem may seem. I’m excited about the ways the PC(USA) is a part of God’s work here, and I dream that this important work of “Church being Church” will continue to fan the flames of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our denomination.

Please pray for our brothers and sisters who are ministering to those with HIV/AIDS, and for thousands of families that are struggling with this disease.


The Magical Moringa Tree


(I’m grateful to Presbyterian Mission Co-Workers Inge Sthreshley, who works with the Garden Project in Kinshasa, and Nancy Haninger, a nurse/midwife working with a pilot project in Tshikaji, for their work and for educating me about these projects.)

In my open letter to my son Teo at the beginning of this trip, I wrote about the problems of severe malnourishment that are evident among the children almost everywhere one looks in this country. By now, it should be no surprise to anyone that our partner churches, the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa and the Presbyterian Church in the Congo, understand this to be a direct challenge to the church. The most exciting response to that challenge that I’ve seen are the community health projects that center around the Moringa Tree.

Here’s why I think the tree is a miracle. The Moringa grows quickly in any tropical climate. Within six months of planting a seed or a piece of trunk, one can cut leaves from the tree to eat. The leaves can be eaten (kind of like cooked spinach), or dried, ground over a screen for several days, and ground into a fine powder that can be added to almost anything as a nutrient supplement.

Check out these statistics on the nutritious value of Moringa leaves, from a book called “The Tree of Life” published by Church World Services in 1999. “For a child aged 1-3, a 100g serving of fresh cooked leaves would provide all his/her daily requirements of calcium, about 75% of his iron and half his protein needs, as well as important amounts of potassium, B vitamins, copper and all the essential amino acids. As little as 20 grams of leaves would provide a child with all the vitamins A and C he needs.”

When the leaves are ground into powder and used as a supplement by nursing mothers or children who add one rounded tablespoon to their food three times a day, the results are even more miraculous. The powder is high in Protein, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron, and Vitamins A and C. The powder can also be baked into Moringa Cookies (that I’m told actually taste like cookies), and sold for a fraction of the cost of regular bread.

In Kinshasa, Inge tells me there are thousands of trees that have been planted. The first seeds are planted on the properties of Presbyterian churches, schools, and clinics. As soon as the tree begins to mature, the cuttings are offered to women to plant in their own yards.

I visited the pilot project up country at Tshikaji with Nancy, and got to meet with one of the promoters there. The project is housed in a nutrition center next door to Good Shepherd Hospital. The Center identifies children who are highly malnourished and invites their mothers (with their other children) to live at the center for a short period of time where their children can be offered a special diet and monitored for progress in their growth.

The Moringa project itself is energized by volunteers from the village of Tshikaji who are trained as health promoters. They have been trained to educate tribal leaders and the mothers in the village about malnutrition and how to help their children become healthy using the Moringa tree. Hundreds of the trees have been planted in and around the center, where there is also a small production center for the powder. As in Kinshasa, women are encouraged to take the cuttings from the trees to plant them in their own yards.

In the area around Tshikaji, more than sixty percent of the children meet the World Health Organization’s definition of malnourished. In Kinshasa, urban poverty is a grim backdrop to the problems of malnutrition that are widespread among the children. I thank God for the magic of the Moringa Tree and the wonderful church volunteers from the DR Congo and from the United States who are promoting its growth.

Mission matters.


Link to the PCUSA Congo site

Brothers and Sisters,

We’re coming down the home stretch. We will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the CPK with the women of the church on Thursday morning, and then participate in the big worship service that will be held on Friday. We leave to head home on Saturday night, and I’ll be back with my family in Tucson by late Sunday night – Tucson time.

I have a few more reflections about the trip that I will try to post over the next couple of days.

If you haven’t already found it, check out this link to get great information from the PC(USA) website.


Thanks to Mission Co-Worker Christy Boyd, who I’m told volunteered immense amounts of time to pull together the information for this site. I’ve been traveling with Christy’s husband, Jeff for the whole trip, and I met Christy last summer at the Peace and Justice Conference in Seattle. They live in Cameroon, and Christy put in many hours during her home assignment to make this site available.



Reflections on the role of the Church in the Congo


I’ve chosen to write about the following conversation using an alias for the person with whom I was speaking. Though I don’t believe he has said anything or I have written anything that could be considered problematic, the political situation in the DR Congo is extremely tenuous at this time, and I think it is wise to err on the side of caution. I’ve chosen the English name “David,” so as not to inadvertently point to someone else here in the CPK.

David is a young pastor and a professor at one of the theological schools here in Kinshasa. I’ve spent three days with him this week, and the more I get to know him, the more impressed I become by his analysis of the Church and how it must engage with the State. He speaks English quite well, making it possible for us to communicate directly without the help of a translator.

Last Saturday, David accompanied us on a hair-raising drive one hundred kilometers up onto the plateau of Bankana in order to visit churches in two small communities. The road was paved the entire way, but the potholes were deep, the drive was mountainous, and the road was often blocked by vehicles that were broken down. Public transportation in the countryside in that region seemed to be mostly on the huge trucks that were loaded with produce and other goods. The tires on most of the trucks were almost five feet high, and the top of the cab was typically ten to twelve feet high. Now imagine packing the trucks with bags of charcoal, or grain, or vegetables so that it towers at least twice as high as the cab of the truck, with goods tied onto the back of the load that extend another five to eight feet from the rear of the bed. Finally, picture people from the villages sitting up on the very top of the load or perched on the sides as the truck creeps along at ten to twenty miles per hour. There were dozens and dozens of these trucks, each loaded the same way. For a while, we counted the broken down vehicles beside or blocking the road, and they averaged one per minute as we sped along in our Toyota Land Cruiser.

Our driver spent the entire day (a total of more than seven and a half hours during which we held on in the back of the Toyota) with his foot pressing either the gas or the brake to the floor. We would speed along at sixty-five to seventy-five miles an hour, and then suddenly come to a screeching halt as we negotiated a particularly large pothole or found our way around another broken down vehicle. At the end of the day, one of my mission co-worker colleagues told me that he was a fairly new driver, who had just taken six months of driving school, which made me chuckle. Somehow “Driving School of Kinshasa” seems to me to be an oxymoron. Anyway, we said our prayers, God was the co-pilot, and we appeared to make it through the day without being implicated even in the death of a chicken or goat.

Now picture eight of us in the back of the Toyota having a discussion about theology, and me trying to scribble notes on a pad of paper, and you’ve got an idea of our day. Throughout our trip I’ve been trying to engage pastors and students about how they understand the relationship between faith and politics. This time, I began by asking David to talk about his favorite African theologians, and I struck gold. He became highly animated and we conversed about his ideas for the next two hours.

He began by saying that Africans must stand against the conventional wisdom that if they wait passively, God or their ancestors will intervene. The idea of the wisdom and active engagement of their ancestors runs deep in the culture and the psyche of the people here. David explained the theology he tries to cultivate in his students. “We assess our needs and resources, and we partner with one another to share our resources to change our situation and better our lives. Finding the keys to unlock those resources for the good of the people is the job of the Church.”

He suggested that one of the first questions that must be asked is “Why are we poor?” “Why, in spite of our best efforts, do we remain in crisis?” It is the job of the church not only to ask those questions, but to provide a genuine sense of hope for people who are in despair. “The hope must be real,” David said.

David succinctly described the problem that confronts the church. “We live in the Garden of Eden,” he said, “but we don’t have even the most basic access to the economy.” He reflected that ninety-eight percent of the people of the DR Congo are suffering, and there isn’t even a rudimentary respect for democracy or the will of the people. There has not been a democratic election here since the Belgians left and the Congolese first gained their independence back in 1960. Mobutu ruled this country with an iron fist for thirty years(1965-1997), and his rule – like the last ten years since he was kicked out – was characterized by violence, war, endemic poverty, and lack of access to basic education or a good job. “Political authorities have no respect for the people,” David said. “That’s why so many of us have our hopes pinned on the elections that are supposed to take place on June 30th.”

The current President is Joseph Kabila. He assumed power when his father, who took power by force, was assassinated in 2001. Two years ago, in an attempt to broker a peace accord and end the factional fighting that was going on across the country, Kabila was forced to accept four vice-presidents, each associated with a different faction. As one person here put it, “in this country, we know that one plus four doesn’t equal five, it equals zero.” There is widespread agreement among people I’ve met that the government is entirely ineffective and the violence continues.

So in light of the poverty, the continuing violence, the lack of meaningful space to participate in democracy, and the growing despair, what is the role of the church? When I put that question to David, he became quite energized. Off the top of his head as we bounced along in the back of the Land Cruiser, he laid out a meaningful plan for the engagement of the church in the political process. What follows is as close to a direct quote of his words as I could transcribe as we drove.

First, pastors must preach democracy. The word of God is created for everyone. The wealth of God’s world is created for everyone. One person cannot own what is everyone’s to share. That person can manage the wealth, but not own it.

Second, we must model democracy in our daily lives and especially in the lives of our churches. The church should be the training ground in democracy for our people, so that they learn how to participate and engage in the process.

Third, we must awaken our people - our Christians - to enjoy democracy and to offer their gifts for the betterment of the community around them.

Fourth, we have a problem, which is that being a politician here is synonymous with being a liar. If you go to a village and tell someone you are a politician, everyone will automatically assume that everything you say is a lie. As a result, Christians have been discouraged from getting involved in the political process, but that is exactly the wrong conclusion. We must stand against the web of lies by becoming involved in politics ourselves and helping to create a new thing.

Finally, we must be involved in monitoring the elections. People trust their pastors and the leaders in their churches. If we can provide them training in how to evaluate the elections and the democratic process, people will turn to them for help in understanding what is taking place. Even further, if our pastors are confident that we are moving in the direction of openness and democracy, they could go a long way toward reassuring people that there is hope and that it is worth trying to engage in creating a better government. In a country where violence is often seen as the answer, this is extremely important.

David said that the Word of God is preached in context. “Our context is a crisis that is no accident. This crisis was not created by God, it was created by people. The government is dying and the people are dying.” He referred to Jeremiah 28:11, in which Jeremiah prophesies peace for his people, suggesting that the yoke of the oppressive Babylonian Empire on the people of Israel would be broken within two years.

David went on to say that “our activities cannot be separated from their political consequences. A government must be evaluated by what it does to help the people have a better way of life. Since 1960, how many schools have been built by the State? What about hospitals? Where are the roads, or where is even the most rudimentary infrastructure to support our people? Where are our taxes going? The Church must use all means at its disposal to demand that the government take appropriate responsibility.”

Finally, David gravitated into a set of instructions about how to approach the elections that he and other pastors are trying to promote across the church. “We are saying to the people that we must say ‘no violence, but no mercy if the government does not respond to the will of the people.’ We want a clear accounting of what the government has done for us in the last two years since the new government was established. We intend to use our pulpits, television and radio to spread the message that the government must show its humility and be accountable to the people. Our people are nonviolent by nature, but they are weary of being lied to and they are restless. It is the job of the church to channel their energy in positive ways.”

As David spoke, I thought of church leaders I’ve met in Guatemala who confront such a similar history and a similarly intractable and overwhelming reality. How does the Church stand against a legacy of forty years of State sponsored violence and war? How does the Church create the capacity of people to build a democracy that demands transparency and accountability from its officials? How does one begin to help a people who have been so beaten down to trust the electoral process enough to engage in the process and to believe there can be a better future?

Here in a country where almost half the population is under the age of fifteen, in a country where the history has been conquest, colonization and corruption both by outsiders and by military strongmen who themselves were Congolese, in a country where unemployment is the rule and poverty is a way of life for all but a handful of the privileged, it is the job of pastors to try to create something new. If David is to be believed, that is a task that is being embraced by his students as they prepare for ministry. They deserve our respect, our prayers, and our active engagement to support them in this overwhelming task.

Peace to you, from a land that knows no peace,


Sunday, May 22, 2005

Worship in Kinshasa


I thought I’d take a few moments to describe another Worship experience here in the Congo. We’re back in the capital city of Kinshasa now, which functions as a port city on the Congo River even though it is several hundred miles inland from where the river runs into the Atlantic Ocean. The first several hundred miles of the Congo ascend sharply toward the plateau of Central Africa, and there are many waterfalls. A narrow gauge railway was built almost a hundred years ago to replace the earlier methods of moving supplies inland from the coast to this spot, as well as moving rubber and other goods down to the coast. In those days, all of those goods were carried on the backs of the slaves who provided the unbelievable wealth that primarily benefited King Leopold of Belgium.

We’ve also changed partners. Here in the city and the surrounding region, our primary partner is the Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa. This is a much smaller denomination, though it still has well over one hundred thriving churches, as well as significant public health clinics and many schools. The CPK is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this week, which is part of the reason we chose to come at this time.

This church was planted in 1955 by U.S. Presbyterian Missionaries who partnered with pastors from the Kasai region that I’ve been visiting in the interior. Their goal was to extend the good work of CPC into this large and growing population base of Kinshasa. Former missionaries John and JoAnn Ellington are visiting for the celebrations this week, and John tells me that part of the reason for working independently from the CPC when this church was planted was that there was interest in creating a United Protestant Church of Kinshasa, though that dream was never fully realized.

Yesterday, I spent the day at the Matete church, which is one of the three oldest in the denomination. They typically have four services each Sunday, though yesterday I attended only three. The building was built (I believe it was back in the sixties) with a very creative approach to mission partnership that I’ve seen several places as I’ve traveled in the CPK areas. Support from U.S. churches provided a large, steel supported, metal roof on a concrete pad, leaving each church to take responsibility to build the walls and finish the interior of the church as they desired. Matete is large; it has six bays of roughly twenty feet each between the steel support posts, and it’s probably at least forty feet wide. Old style ceiling fans hang from metal support arms that jut out from the walls. The building is packed with chairs and benches, and there is a large platform with the communion table, one step up from the rest of the room, and beyond that another step leads up to a chancel area in which there is a row of chairs (including a living room style, stuffed, fabric covered armchair in the center) for the pastors and worship leaders. This church has two pastors and roughly twenty-five hundred members.

When I arrived at about ten till nine, the 8:00 a.m., French-speaking service was already well under way. The room was about two-thirds filled. There was a praise band (traditional drums, full drum set with snare, and electric guitar and base, along with four male vocalists) that had the building rocking and rolling. The crowd was mixed, but I would say that it tended toward teenagers and young adults.

There were two choirs that each sang shortly after I arrived. This is hard for folks in the U.S. to picture, but when the choirs here sing, the congregation often gets inspired enough to stand and dance and clap. There is huge enthusiasm for the music, which I can certainly understand, since I’ve heard several dozen choirs and every one of them has been fabulous. During this service, there were three offerings taken. One was the “ten percent offering,” and there was a small wooden plaque that said “ten percent” placed beside the basket on the table. The second was the “offering of thanksgiving,” and the third was a special offering taken up to help two mission pastors that the church is supporting a thousand kilometers away – deep in the forest among the pygmy population. Each offering included the loud, up-beat music and dancing down the aisles that I’ve learned to expect in these churches.

The other moment in that service that really touched me was when a young couple was invited forward and their engagement was announced. There’s no other way to describe it; the church went wild. There were cheers, clapping, yelling, catcalls, and best of all, at least half a dozen women blowing whistles who danced around the couple as they stood on the platform in front of the church with broad smiles.

I preached in that service (translated into French), and then in the larger, Lengala-language service as well. I assured the congregation that many Presbyterians in the U.S. would be holding them in prayer this week as they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. I chose to return to the text on which I spoke at the General Assembly last summer, from the fourth chapter of Mark. I talked about partnership, and what it means for all of us who are disciples to “cross over to the other side.” I spoke of the special challenge to Christians in the U.S. to commit to crossing borders and stretching themselves to be in community with those who are different, and the ways in which the Congolese can become our teachers as we do so – and I asked for their prayers for our church of comfort as God moves us into the world.

But I also spoke about the special challenges of living in the Congo, and how disciples here are called into their communities to support one another as well. This isn’t news to the Congolese folks with whom I’ve been meeting; they understand the need to be deeply committed to one another and to support each other in raising their families in this difficult place (I’ll write a reflection on conversations about the engagement between church and politics next). As we prayed, we asked God to be present with these families as they arise to begin each day. With the women as they prepare meals and get their children ready for school. With those children as they go to schools that too often don’t even have desks, or books, or the most rudimentary teaching tools. With the men as they try to find work in a city of more than ten million and unemployment well above fifty percent. With the women as they walk dangerous, overcrowded streets to the market to buy food for their families. Finally, we prayed that God would bring their families safely back together each evening, and provide enough food so that no child would go to bed hungry.

When was the last time most of us in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. had to pray for such things in our own lives?

The second service, in Lengala, was packed. It lasted more than four hours and included six choirs (that’s not a typo – that’s six different choirs) plus the same praise band. In addition to my sermon (which started almost two and a half hours into the service), there were services to commission new elders, new deacons, and there was a graduation service to give diplomas to the first eleven graduates of the CPK sponsored school of nursing.

Later in the afternoon, there was yet another service to kick off the week of celebration with the CPK. There is much to be learned from these congregations. The hallmark of worship here is that it involves the mind, soul and body. People are up and dancing and singing for much of the time. Children are included – one of the choirs was the best children’s choir I’ve ever heard. People are clearly there because this kind of worship lifts them up and carries them through a very difficult week. One person told me that he believes people come here to worship because God helps them to forget how difficult their lives are. The women’s choir had written a song this week that had the refrain, “If Jesus chooses you, don’t be afraid. He is right behind you.”

This is worship that knows that we depend on God. There is no illusion among the Congolese people whom I’ve met, ninety-eight percent of whom are poor enough to live hand-to-mouth each day, that they can make it on their own. These are folks who turn to God because God is joy in the midst of suffering.

I find myself wondering more and more what it would take to reclaim that kind of experience of God in our church.

Please keep the CPK in your prayers during this week of celebration, as I have promised you will.


Thursday, May 19, 2005

To see photos from the Congo

Hi Folks,

The trip is going well. We are basically all healthy and learning a great deal.

It's very difficult to get photos out on slow, unreliable, internet. However, I managed to send three to my friend Erin in the office in Louisville, and I think she has posted them to the Wheres Rick website. We will try to get a few more up over the next few days.

Check it out at www.pcusa.org/wheresrick

Peace to you from a land of conflict and difficulty,


If the Mango Tree Could Speak: Development and the Church in the Congo

Evening – Friday May 13, 2005

Brothers and Sisters,

One evening earlier this week our delegation was invited to share a meal with a group of pastors and lay leaders from the Synod of the East Kasai in the city of Mbuji Mayi. We were seated in the yard in front of the home of Pastor Chibemba and his wife, Mama Rose, who had graciously prepared our meal. The sky was dark, and our gathering was illuminated by the light of a single, naked bulb run on a generator. The twenty-five of us fit easily under the spreading branches of three mango trees planted closely enough together to give the illusion of being one large tree.

Doug Welch is the PC(USA) Regional Area Coordinator for Central West Africa, and he is fluent in both French and Tshiluba. Mbuji Mayi is where Doug began his mission service to our church back in the late 1970’s. He’s bright, dedicated, savvy about the complex dynamics in the DR Congo and our relationship with our Congolese partners, and he obviously cares desperately about these people. He sat with me during our meal and translated a conversation with an old friend of his named Medi Kanda, who is responsible for the development work of the church here in the East Kasai.

Medi’s primary responsibility is food security, and most of his development work is among rural folks who make their living on the land. He and a small group of promoter/organizers resource 82 Associations of ten to fifteen people each – over one thousand participants total. One of their projects is a nascent palm oil project I’ve seen in several different places as I’ve traveled, developed with technical support from our Mission Co-Worker Larry Sthreshley and funding from the Presbyterian Medical Benevolence Foundation and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The numbers seem to be magic. MBF and PDA provide about five thousand dollars toward the seven thousand dollars needed to import seedlings from Costa Rica of a special variety of palm tree that will grow quickly and provide an oil harvest all year long.

Then, partners in Medi’s project help the members of the association to replant and care for the trees. Other plants like cow peas can be grown alongside the trees for the first couple of the years until the trees grow enough to begin to harvest the oil. Within five years, Larry tells me that the seven thousand dollar investment should be returning $40,000 to $60,000 per year after the cost of labor. There are significant local, regional and even international markets for the palm oil, and with a relatively simple production facility, it can even be converted into bio-diesel and double the value of the oil again.

Medi’s organizing also has other implications. As in every other country in which I’ve worked, high taxes on the poorest of the poor in this country cause incredible hardship. For instance, Medi tells me that farmers here are taxed twenty U.S. dollars on every 500 kilos of corn that they sell. There’s even a tax on owning a bicycle that theoretically goes toward road maintenance, though I have yet to drive on any road that has received care in years, and most roads in the rural areas are nothing more than a dirt path. The farmers hope that if they can get organized they will be able to speak with one voice to represent their interests in local and regional governments, and they are particularly interested in protesting the ever-increasing taxes.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve been impressed with these development projects and others. Christians are hard at work trying to make a difference here in the Congo.


If the Mango Tree Could Speak: Evangelism and Church Growth in the Congo


There’s more insight to be gleaned from under the Mango Tree.

After dinner, our conversation broadened to include the rest of the group, and Jean Marie asked her favorite question. Though their church obviously faces many challenges in a country that is both unimaginably poor and caught in seemingly never-ending cycles of war and conflict, their numbers continue to grow. What advice can they offer their sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) about evangelization and church growth?

In response, Pastor Chibemba offered these suggestions:

He said that we must start and end with prayer and that everything we do must be reinforced with prayer. “When we confront great challenges in my church,” he said, “we begin by forming groups to be in prayer about that matter, and we pray continuously for God’s intervention.”

Second, Chibemba suggested that we must share with people in their hardships. We must be with people who are in need and let them know that the God loves them, Jesus Christ died for them, and the Church cares about them. This is the work of accompaniment with God’s people who are most desperate and most in need.

“Next,” Chibemba said, “we must commit to real evangelization – the kind that trusts our lay people in the church to invite others to know Christ. We must give them more responsibility, not less responsibility.” Later, in another conversation, he elaborated on this theme by suggesting that if a pastor doesn’t train the lay people to share their faith with confidence, the church can only grow by the number of people the pastor can get to know personally. However, if the pastor commits to trusting the lay people, the work grows exponentially and the possibilities for church growth are limitless.

Chibemba stressed another important point that I think our pastors could learn a great deal from. He said that when someone leaves his church, he goes to meet with that person. He asks why they are leaving, and if they are angry, he tries to reconcile with them. He insisted that no one leaves his church without his following up to find out what has happened to cause them to do so.

“Another thing to remember is that one of our greatest strengths can also be one of our great weaknesses,” Chibemba added. “We are a church of tradition, and that can help us to survive over long periods of time. However, it is also a great danger. The danger is that many will block innovation, especially in worship, and our liturgy will become routine and boring.” Chibemba said he is constantly challenged, especially by the young people in his church, to keep worship alive and vibrant and interesting. He said that in his experience, renewing our worship will threaten many people, and they will oppose our efforts. “We must have the strength to overcome their opposition,” he said. “We will have to be strong in prayer, extremely wise, and strong-hearted if we are to keep our worship full of God’s spirit.”

Finally, Chibemba suggested that we should travel and experience other churches in order to find our own renewal. He said that their children were being brought up to be good church members, but they were leaving for more exciting churches and those other churches were reaping the harvest that their church had sown. “We had to try to understand what the kids needed, and then we had to be willing to change,” he said.

Wisdom from under the Mango Tree! Please continue to hold our delegation and the people of the Presbyterian Churches of the Congo in your prayers.


If the Mango Tree Could Speak - A Poem

If the Mango Tree Could Speak:

Many of you have asked for a copy of this poem that I often read when I speak in public. I thought it would be appropriate to share it as a blog entry in the context of two conversations I've had under a mango tree here in the Congo.

(a collaborative poem by The Owl and the Panther – a support group in Tucson, AZ for teenagers and young adults whose families were forced to flee violence and come to the U.S. when they were children.)

If the mango tree could speak, it would be honest.
It would tell us how it feels inside.
It would touch our hearts and we would know what is good and bad.
It would talk about my people and say how they live.
It would talk about my broken heart of memories, my broken heart of my past, my broken heart hearing people cry for their relatives.
If the mango tree could speak it would weep with the fear of thousands of years.
It would cry for all the suffering of the people.
It would say what happened a long time ago.
It would speak about what has been lost.
It would teach numbers by counting how many people it has seen killed.
It would tell how the people are suffering.
It would say that the children are strong.
If the mango tree could speak, it would be a storyteller,
It would be shy.
It would know great and sad stories.
If the mango tree could speak it would say that the people are beautiful and that they have love to give.
It would say "help the poor people."
It would sing
"Hope lives on, Peace can come wave it's banner in my leaves."
If the mango tree could speak, it would say "Do not cut me, please."
It would say, "I love you."
The mango tree would tell the truth.
(by: marge, marianna, amy, juana, mayra, walter, winston, george, cinthya, moslin, sandy, vicky, jennifer, alfonso, rina, edna, thelma)

Reflections from Bulape

The Mission Aviation Fellowship, (check out their website at www.maf.org) nine passenger plane circled the airfield in the village in Bulape, about 120 kilometers northwest of Kananga and on the southern edge of a Congolese rainforest. The sky was pocked with large rain clouds that Garth, the MAF pilot, had carefully flown through and around on the forty-five minute flight up from the largest of the mission stations and hospitals in the village of Tshikaji. As I looked down on the field, there must have been at least twelve hundred people gathered along the sides of the grass airstrip. Garth put the plane down on the front edge of the runway and used less than half of it to come to a stop in order to reduce the danger of landing with so many children and adults crowding the field.

No matter how long I live, I don’t believe I’ll ever have an experience that tops the welcome we have received here in Bulape. This is an Africa that I didn’t believe still existed in the year 2005 - though I’ve learned is actually fairly common: An Africa far enough removed from the outside world so that junk food and television still haven’t arrived and the visit of outsiders is still a novelty. As we descended the three steps from the rear of the airplane, we were overwhelmed with the crush of people. People everywhere – smiling and wanting to shake our hands. There was one tall village soldier for the king wearing a grass skirt with shells woven into it and two huge gourds that hung around his neck. He was carrying a long spear in one hand, and antelope antlers in the other. He turned out to be our protector and guide, shooing the children away to clear a path for us as we walked up the hill to the mission station.

And there must have been at least a dozen Chiefs dressed much like the soldier, lined up beside the runway to shake our hands and greet us. The women didn’t wait for us to come to them, though. They were singing and dancing as they gathered all around us to hug us and welcome us to Bulape. Many of the men were dressed in suits, many with clerical collars, waiting to greet us along with the village chiefs. The children were everywhere I looked - a massive sea of humanity. I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, truly speechless. I lost sight of most of the others as the crowd accompanied us and we walked up the road toward the station, our protector scattering the children away to clear a path for us as we walked.

For years, I’ve been hearing about the mission stations planted by Presbyterian missionaries here in Africa, but I had no frame of reference to help me picture one in my mind. I’ve now visited four of them, and I’m fascinated by the feeling I get of entering a Congo of fifty to one hundred years ago - mixed together with a sense of what African village life is like today. Each of the stations is planted in or very near a village, In Bulape, the village is less than a ten minute walk down the hill, and it has grown to nearly 20,000 thousand people who have moved here to be closer to good medical care, better schools, and greater economic options that come with a larger population base. There are close to five thousand children in the schools in Bulape and the other villages that closely surround it.

Back on the hill, there are several dozen buildings: a large church, substantial missionary houses from the old days, a hospital and nurses school, and a variety of outbuildings used for education, storage, workshops, and administration. There is even a tiny, now-abandoned hut that once housed the high frequency radio that missionaries used to communicate across the country. It’s no longer needed because one modernity has reached Bulape, a two-bar cellular telephone signal with Vodacom, the largest telephone company in the country. Even here in Bulape, our meetings and worship are occasionally interrupted by the sound of jingles and songs as people’s cell phones ring.

The buildings are built of bricks that were fired here at the direction of the earliest missionaries, and they have tin roofs. Many are now in serious disrepair, as it has been many years since the glory days of half a dozen missionary families that inhabited this place. In 1960, just before the Congolese gained their independence from Belgium, there were close to two-hundred Presbyterian missionaries and their families living and working in the Congo. Now there are fewer than half a dozen. The Congolese have done their best to keep up with maintenance on a few of the houses, but the expense is great and the resources are few. There is no electricity here, of course, though there are several generators in the station, one of which has provided electricity until about nine o’clock in the missionary house where I’ve stayed each of the last two nights. The Congolese call this the “Ross house” after Missionaries Charlie and Nancy, who I understand are working on the U.S./Mexico border in their retirement.

The hospital and nursing school are now entirely staffed by Congolese doctors, nurses and educators, though many of them speak wistfully of a time when they had the assistance, accompaniment and resources of the missionaries here. As I walk around the station, I can feel the spirit and the presence of the dozens of missionaries who have made this place their home and this work their vocation over the years.

Two evenings ago, one of the pastors who grew up here in Bulape took us on a walk through the village at dusk. As we walked, the crowd of children accompanying us grew larger and larger. The village is spread out over the gentle hills below the mission station. There is a wide street through the center of the community that feels almost like a boulevard, and many of the adobe style buildings that line the street have the names of small businesses painted on them. Women sat at small stands selling foods and spices and even New Orleans styles “benes” (small, ball-shaped, fried dough). The dirt yards had all been swept clean with palm branches, and I couldn’t see any garbage anywhere. Some of the lack of garbage is probably due to the fact that few processed, packaged items are sold here, but the pastor also told me that the chief is quite strict in enforcing a standard of cleanliness in each home.

In this village there are large empty spaces left between many houses that the pastor tells me are to leave room for ceremonial dances. There are also a number of churches, simple structures made of bamboo, mud plaster, and grass roofs just like the houses. There are three Presbyterian churches here in addition to the one founded by the missionaries at the top of the hill.

Last night before I went to bed, I stood in front of the house and looked at the Southern Cross. This morning, I awoke at dawn to a red fireball of a sun coming up from the east, right where the cross told me it would be last night. I am changed in ways that it will take some time to fully understand by my awareness of just how big the world is and how great the community of the people of God is all over the world.

Blessings on you from Bulape. Be confident of the prayers for you from your brothers and sisters of the Presbyterian Church of the Congo.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Presbyterian Church of the Congo


The PC(USA) has two mission partner churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Presbyterian Church of the Congo (CPC) covers all the Presbyterian Churches outside of the capitol city of Kinshasa. The other, called the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa (CPK), is limited to the region in and around the capitol city (I’ll be spending time with them starting later this week.).

The CPC has close to two million members, and it is a growing church. Just so you know, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has around 2.3 million members, and we’ve been losing members. You may want to take notes. :)

The office of the General Assembly is located in the city of Kananga, about six hundred miles northeast of Kinshasa. This week, I’ve been spending time in the regions of the West and East Kasai, where the CPC is quite strong.

Yesterday, I attended a church in Kananga called “Katoka – Nord” with the General Secretary of the CPC, a large, thoughtful man with a steady smile named Dr. Mulumba. When we arrived at the church at about 10:30 in the morning, they had already been worshiping for about half an hour. The church is a large (about forty feet wide and close to one hundred feet long), cinderblock, rectangular building with a tin roof. There were no windows, but the concrete walls had sections where the blocks had been left out, and the doors were left open for ventilation. It was quite hot. The church was full of benches and chairs, and the pulpit was on a concrete stage three steps up so that everyone in the building could see the pastor.

There were four choirs (that’s not a typo – there really were four). One was a women’s choir with about fifteen members, another was a small, adult choir of six men and women. Then, there was a group of about twenty-five teenagers, and finally, a children’s choir of around thirty-five members in which the kids looked like they were between eight and fifteen years old. Each choir sang at least two times, and the songs were amazing. This is the African singing you’ve probably heard – beautiful harmonies and booming, echoing voices. Each time a choir sang, they stood in a kind of a U-shape, with one or two persons in the middle directing the music. Before they begin, the director walks quickly around the U giving the opening pitch to everyone in the group. As they sing, the director faces the members of the church and uses animated sign language that really adds to the music.

Each choir, including the children’s choir, is created by asking the Session for permission to form. The directors come out of the group itself, even in the kid’s choir. Each group writes it’s own, original lyrics in Tshiluba, and they meet to practice several times a week. In fact, the children gather to sing together every afternoon at four p.m. There was also a small group of pre-teen girls who danced with several of the choirs.

When we walked in, the church was in full swing. There was a young man standing next to the pulpit who was operating a small mixer, amplifier and keyboard, and there were two large speakers, each sitting on two chairs stacked one on top of the other. The children sat quietly on the floor in the very front of the Sanctuary where they could see what was going on (that’s right – sat quietly for a service that lasted over three hours). However, they were very much a part of the service, and there were moments of great animation in which everyone in the congregation was up and dancing in the aisles.

One of those moments was during the offering, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in church before. In front of the pulpit there was a communion table at floor level. It had five plastic, green buckets sitting underneath it. There was also a wooden box beside the communion table that said we are called to give ten percent of what we have. Dr. Mulumba explained to me that the “first” offering was an offering of thanksgiving. The choirs were all singing, someone was playing the two big, wooden drums, and the offering began with a child standing in front of the communion table holding one of the buckets. All of the children, even the youngest who were just learning to walk, went forward and placed money in the basket. (I’ve only seen paper money here so far, the smallest is bill worth about one U.S. penny, the largest is a 200 Franc note worth about forty cents).

Then, a teenager stepped forward and held another bucket to receive the offerings of all the teenagers and young adults as they danced and sang their way forward. Finally, one of the elders held a bucket as first the male elders, then the women leaders, then all of the other men and women in the church danced forward down the two outside aisles, offered their gifts, and danced and sang their way back to their seats down the center aisles. The whole thing took more than fifteen minutes, but it was the most exciting, vibrant, alive offering in which I’ve participated in my life.

Dr. Mulumba explained to me that it is the habit of the CPC, at the direction of the General Assembly, to do a pulpit exchange once a year on Pentecost Sunday. The pastor who preached at Katoka-Nord spoke on the experience of Pentecost described in the second chapter of Acts. Though he spoke in Tshiluba, I was able to understand some of his sermon as Dr. Mulumba translated it to English. He described how the Holy Spirit helps us to recognize the difference between good and evil. It begins in our personal lives with the choices we make, extends to the way in which we are a church community (and how the Spirit allows us to be a church united, not a church divided), and to the country. Here he was quite specific. The DRC currently has one President and four powerful vice-presidents, and he asked the congregation whether they believed that could lead to a feeling of unity in the country. Finally, he spoke specifically of the elections “scheduled” to take place at the end of June, and told people they must beware those who would knock on doors to offer them money, goods or favors for their votes. “Think carefully,” he said, “about the qualities that will make a President someone who can unite our country.”

There were two other moments in the service I want to share. One was when a new baby was presented to the congregation for the first time. The mother brought the child forward and handed her to the pastor. Then, the pastor called all of the elders on the session forward, and he blessed the child. Then, as he walked around the circle of the session, each session member shook the child’s hand. It was a touching moment as the entire congregation applauded and the child was handed back to her mother.

When I was introduced, along with the other two from our delegation who were with me, each of us spoke. As my words were translated, they would laugh (even at my weak jokes made weaker by translation), or nod and murmur in affirmation. The pastor presented each of us with a gift as well, and two of us were asked to pray in English during the prayers of intercession and thanksgiving. I also presented a small, silver, Celtic cross given to me to share with another church by one of the members of the session of my home church, Southside Presbyterian.

After the service, we shook hands with hundreds and hundreds of people as they left the sanctuary. The women gathered in the yard outside the church and began singing again. Imagine the most energetic worship you’ve ever attended. Now multiply that exponentially and you begin to get a sense of the spirit that is alive in Katoka-Nord.

We have much to learn about church. As we shared a meal with some of the elders after the service, they asked us questions about our own churches. They marveled at the idea that worship could be contained within a one-hour service. They had a hard time imagining a church with only one choir, or in which the children’s choir sings only once a month. For them, it was clear, church is the center of their lives and their community.

I will try to post again later this week. Everywhere I go, people here in the Congo are praying for their brothers and sisters in the United States. Please keep the people of the Presbyterian Church in the Congo in your prayers as well.

From a place where the Spirit is alive on this Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2005


To Teo, from Africa

Dear Teo, (an open letter to my nine-year old son)

I hope you are doing well. I know that today is the start of your last full week of school, which is very exciting. I hope that you have a great week. Maybe you could take my email to Senora Valencia this week and share it with the other kids in the class. It’s a pretty long letter, so I was thinking that if you have time, you and Senora Valencia could cut up this letter into pieces and give it to the different kids in your class to read, and then you could tell each other about what you’ve learned about life in Africa. I’ll try to describe where I am so that you all can find it on a map.

I’ve been here in Africa for a week now, and I have lots of stories to share. Africa is a wonderful place, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a beautiful country. The roads here can barely be described as roads; they are mostly just tracks through the rolling hills and grasslands of the countryside. I’ve been traveling through the areas of West and East Kasai. The Kasai is a big river that runs into the Congo, which eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean. They say that the Congo has more water in it than any other river in the world except the Amazon, which I believe. When we arrived, we flew into Kinshasa, which is located on the Congo, and it was so wide that it looked like a lake.

I’ve been staying at a mission hospital called Tshikaji (you pronounce it “cheekahjee”) that is about twelve kilometers from the town of Kananga in the West Kasai. Even though twelve kilometers is only about seven miles, the roads are so bad that it takes about forty-five minutes to drive here. All the roads outside of Kananga are unpaved (except the ones on a big military base), and they seem like they are more potholes than road. I’ll attach a photo to this email that tries to show you a picture of the road, although the vehicle bounces around so much that it’s very difficult to get a picture. We drive around in Toyota Land Cruiser, which are kind of like high jeeps. We haven’t gotten stuck or had a flat tire yet.

There are very few cars here. When we drive along these roads in the countryside, the are full of people walking or pushing bicycles that are loaded high with things to take to market. Sometimes I see people riding bikes, too, but outside the city of Kananga it seems like most people use them as wheelbarrows. They tie a stick to the handlebars so they can push the overloaded bike from behind and still steer it. The women carry huge loads of things on their heads; yesterday I saw a woman carrying one of those big, fifty-five gallon, steel drums on its side, balanced on her head, and when we drove past her I realized it was about half full of some kind of leafy green plant she was taking to the market in her village.

There are kids EVERYWHERE. When we drive into a village, they come running toward the car and they wave and shout “Mouyo!” which means “hello” in their language – Tshiluba (Cheelooba). Before I left, Tracy Carroll gave me an article to read about a disease that many children in Africa have called “Kwashiorkor.” It’s an extreme form of malnutrition, which is what happens when you don’t get enough protein in your diet. Many, many children here suffer from malnutrition of one kind or another, which you can see because their bellies are round and extended, some of them have a kind of an orange tint to their hair, and when I ask them how old they are, kids who like they are about Jakelyn’s age (four years old) turn out to be seven or eight years old.

All of the kids are always smiling and laughing and glad to see us, though. They wear all different kinds of clothes. Many of the boys wear just a pair of shorts, and lots of the girls wear dresses. A couple of days ago, I saw a little boy in one of the villages who was dressed in a full suit: long black pants, white shirt, and a black suit coat. The kids don’t have many toys – not even soccer balls. I played soccer in the front yard of a mission hospital in the city of Mbuji Mayi (emboojee mahyee) with some boys who had a beat up old soccer ball that wasn’t fully inflated, and that was one of the first real balls that I’ve seen, at least among the younger kids. Other toys I see a lot are old, rubber bike tires or wheels with the spokes all out. The kids roll them down the street using a stick inside the tire to keep it rolling.

Most people make their money by growing food to eat and to sell to others. Lot’s of the men are pushing huge sacks of charcoal on their bicycles to sell to others at market. The charcoal is what most people use to cook over a fire, and a big bag of it in Mbuji Mayi costs about twelve dollars (people here use Francs and U.S. dollars – one dollar equals about 500 Francs).

Just like in Mexico and Guatemala, it’s hard to figure out how people can make enough money to survive. For instance, I talked to one woman who had eight children and a total of fifteen people living in her house. She said that they use a full bag of charcoal every week! Her family spends six dollars each week on water, and they have to use some of the charcoal to boil the water in order to make it safe to drink.

She said that she also spends about forty to sixty dollars per week on food for her family. The diet here doesn’t change much. Everyone eats “bidia” (beadeeah), which kind of reminds me of a corn tamale in Mexico. It’s served in a big lump (bigger than my fist), and it’s kind of the consistency of silly putty – but it tastes better. They break off pieces of it and roll it in their hands, and then use it to soak up any oil on their plates. Lot’s of people also eat rice, sometimes served with oil on it made from the palm trees here. There’s also usually a really, really spicy chili sauce (spicier than the hottest salsa), and leaves from a plant called “Manioc” that look like spinach when they are cooked. They also eat the root of the manioc plant, (which I think is also called “cassava”), and it kind of reminds me of potato – but only kind of.

The thing is, most people can only make about five to ten dollars A MONTH here. A teacher gets paid about ten dollars a month, and a doctor in one of the hospitals that I visited gets paid about twenty dollars a month. So think about how much money I said it costs for a family to survive. It doesn’t add up, huh?

It seems like most people make most of their money by selling something else. For instance, one woman might go to market and buy enough sugar or flour not just for her family, but for other people too. Then, she puts a little stand on the road in front of her house and sells the extra to other people for a little more money than she paid for it. Everyone picks a different product like that and does the same. Another way they do it is by growing more than they need of a particular food, and then taking that food to market to sell. The other day, I saw a woman sitting in her yard in a village in front of an old-fashioned, pedal sewing machine. I think she was probably sewing things for other people to make a little bit of money.

I think that’s all I have time to write today. Later today we will be flying in a small, single-propeller plane to another village that has a mission hospital, called “Bulape” (Boolapey). We have to fly, because even though it is only about seventy miles away (like the distance from Tucson to Nogales), it would take nine or ten hours to drive that far on these roads. Someday, I want to travel here in Africa with you so you can see all the things I’m seeing.

I love you very much,


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

First night in Kinchasa

Sisters and Brothers,

It's our first night in the Congo. We flew in at dusk, making a long, sweeping, 180 degree turn at the Congo River and making the final approach over houses that made me think of the City of Managua, Nicaragua. It took three hours to get out of the airport because one person in our delegation had gone to a visa services company, and they had arranged a visa for him across the river in Congo, and we're actually in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I finished reading "King Leopold's Ghost" as we flew from Atlanta to Paris to Kinchasa. I imagine I'm like many of you, in that I tend to focus only on those places that I have some direct experience of. There is so much hurt and beauty in the world, and I often feel that I just can't take any more in. I told my dad last week that going to Africa actually makes me a little nervous, because I'm just not sure I have enough time in my day, energy in my life, or even room in my heart for more of that suffering and beauty.

But you know what? Tonight when we got off the plane, our first stop was a little Presbyterian Church called Mikongo. As we pulled into the driveway, there were probably fifty people waiting for us - mostly kids. (Did you know that 48 % of the population of this country is under fifteen years old?) They were so excited to have us visit. The children sang - absolutely beautifully - and we just had a short serve of welcome. There is joy - and it is abundant in this place.

And I remembered that relationships with real people make this fun - not a task to be accepted - but a joy to be embraced. I've known that for many years, but I'm especially mindful of it as I arrive in this place.

I wish we could require every Presbyterian in the U.S. to have this kind of experience of God's community. I think we would have little time for so much of the bickering that seems to occupy our time.

If you haven't been outside of the U.S., outside of your comfort zone, to be with God's people other places in the world, I hope you'll consider this an invitation. I am humbled, tonight and so often in my life, by an awareness that God isn't finished with me yet. These are the places where I find myself open to those new possibilities and understandings that God has in store for me, and for all of us.

Tomorrow we go on to Kinchasa and the "Kasai" region of the country (look east and slightly north of Kinchasa on a map - I think).

Peace to you all.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Aimee's reflections from Ghana

Hey folks,

One more thing before I head for the plane. Last week I was blessed to be at the mission conference in the Presbytery of the Cascades. I met a third-year seminarian from San Francisco Theological Seminary named Aimee Moiso. She shared a powerful reflection on her experience at the gathering in Ghana of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. She has given me permission to share it with all of you. Sometimes when I copy large blocks of material into the blog, it messes up the punctuation. I apologize in advance if that happens this time.


Aimee Moiso
Cascades Presbytery Mission Conference
April 29-May 2, 2005

It’s a warm day. No, make that a hot day. And humid.

There’s a breeze coming off the gulf, and that helps a little. But it’s not exactly comfortable. Your sticky shirt clings to your damp back. You can hear birds squawking overhead and down on the beach below, and it smells like fish and sand and salt. You know the sea is there, and boats, and fishers with their nets and catch of the day. But you can’t see them.

All you see at first are the buildings painted a blinding white – the slave castles, they call them – and the officials wandering around herding people into various rooms. The central plaza area is surrounded by white walls on all sides. On the sea side, a row of cannons point out threateningly at any oncoming invaders. The whole open area slants slightly down to the left, toward the ocean. There’s a narrow walkway there that leads toward a big wooden door with metal hinges. The door of no return, they call it. Those who go through that door…well, the boats take them away. And they don’t come back.

You’re hustled into the first dark room. It’s crowded, even though the ceilings are high, and the walls are brown, and they smell dirty and sour. Near the ceiling there are three small windows, or rather three small square holes that let in shafts of daylight, much too far up to reach. On rainy days, someone says, water pours into the crowded room through the tunnels, soaking everything.

It’s a relief to be out of the hot sun, but the room is stagnant and musty and damp, and after a minute you’d think you might prefer the heat of the sun to the claustrophobia of this dark dungeon.

But for now, here you are in the shadows. The walls are rough hewn stone, and the floor is bumpy and uneven. You squint in the darkness, trying to make out the details. You glance at the faces of the others here with you, wondering what they’re thinking and how it feels to them to be standing in this hole. It’s hard to read their stunned faces.
You can still hear the birds outside, calling each other.

The slave trade is an ugly, painful part of human history. Our history. Over brutal centuries, 15 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, and millions more were captured, but died. On this trade in humans as commodities, wealth in Europe was built. Through their labor, sweat, suffering, intelligence and creativity, the wealth of the Americas was developed.
I lived in Maryland for four years, and during that time I visited some of the sites, like in Annapolis, where slave ships were unloaded and the human cargo was auctioned off. Perhaps some of you have seen those places yourselves.

But last summer, at the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, I stood in the dungeons in Ghana, West Africa, where the slaves were imprisoned before being loaded onto the ships.

What was most shocking wasn’t the rough-hewn walls or the dark chambers or even the plaque marking the “door of no return.”

The most shocking reality of the slave castles on the Ghanaian coast is that the traders and officers – many of whom were our Reformed ancestors – had built chapels literally directly above the dungeons where the slaves were held in darkness and squalor. Christians worshipped God, while below their feet those being sold into slavery languished in chains, and in horror.
It seems unthinkable. Utterly unthinkable.

But there we were, the delegates and guests from all over the world who had come to the General Council, seeing the truth with our own eyes.
But think of this.
I imagine that for the traders and merchants and the slaves themselves, the sight of these groups of Reformed Christians from Asia and Africa and Europe and the Americas touring together through the castles might seem equally unthinkable.

That these centuries later, Christians would come together from around the world to remember these horrors and to say never again.

That blacks and whites and Asians and Spaniards and Dutch and Cubans and everyone else would live together, and pray together, and worship together and try seek God’s will together.
The horror of slavery is truly unthinkable, and its ramifications continue to affect us in this country and around the world as we deal with the racism and inequality and poverty and prejudice that permeate our world.

But there is something truly moving about the fact that our Reformed family went together to the castles – to remember, to lament, and to recommit themselves to life together as brothers and sisters in one family.

This conference is about mission and what mission looks like in the 21st century. Our obsolete understanding of mission as charity has, fortunately, begun to give way to images of mission as partnership, as community, as learning and growth, as family.

Sadly, our global family continues to be separated by wealth and poverty, by life in fullness and life of tremendous want. We are still divided between those who worship in comfortable contentment, and those enslaved by the world’s economic injustice who still suffer and die. So hear now these words from your Reformed family.

As those who have met on your behalf in Accra, Ghana, we declare to you that the integrity of our Christian faith is now at stake, just as it was for those worshipping in the [slave] castle[s]. Confessing our faith and giving our lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ requires our opposition to all that denies the fullness of life to all in our world so loved by God.

In Accra, we recognized that living according to what we say we believe changes our understanding of mission today. God’s spirit called forth the church as a new community bearing witness to a new global reality and opposing the false claims of earthly gods.

God’s mission today involves your congregation and each of ours in fresh and challenging ways. This much we discovered for certain in Accra: more than ever, faithful mission requires our connection between one another as churches. The challenges we now face in proclaiming the good news will simply overwhelm us if we confront them as individual churches alone.

Our prayer is…that God may reveal in [all of us] in fresh ways how our faith is deeply connected to all of life. May none of us ever live our faith insensitive to brutal suffering and indifferent to cries from our world. May all of us know the power of God at work in our Lord Jesus Christ to overcome evil and offer to all the world life in the fullness intended by God.

Global issues of poverty, hunger, injustice, oppression, violence, ecological destruction and war are incredibly daunting topics for churches. They are overwhelming, debilitating if we face them alone.

But we do not engage in mission on our own. We are part of a global church. We are not alone.
And in the face of the horrors of slavery, I stood in a dungeon where slaves had died and heard stories of those who were sent away and never came back. But I stood with members of the Reformed family from Ghana, from Jamaica, from Germany, from China, from Australia, from Ireland, from Brazil.

And by standing together we bore witness to God’s power in our world, power to overcome evil and offer to all the world life in fullness. And we walked out together into the sun.

Headed for Africa


I am sitting in the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight out to Paris and on to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I will be traveling with Doug Welch, who covers that part of the world for the Worldwide Ministries Division, and vice-moderator Jean Marie Peacock. I'm very excited about this trip, and about all there is to learn.

I confess that I know little about Africa in general and the Congo and DRC in particular. I have always learned best by traveling and meeting people and hearing their stories. In preparation for this trip, I've been reading an amazing book on the history of the Congo called "King Leopold's Ghost." If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

As I travel, I will do my best to get to a computer and post at least a couple of reflections. I ask for your prayers, not just for those of us who are traveling there, but for those folks in our partner churches who are struggling to be faithful there.

Blessings on you. We'll be back in the U.S. on May 30th.