U-C: What I See

Saturday, May 28, 2005

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