U-C: What I See

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.