U-C: What I See

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