The United Methodist Mission in Eastern Congo
by Gabriel Yemba Unda
In 2012 the United Methodist General Conference approved a new episcopal area in Africa, and Congo Central Conference delegates chose its name: The East Congo Episcopal Area.
The area defined by this conference encompasses the provinces of Maniema and North and South Kivu to the east—bordering Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda—and Oriental and Equateur across the northern part of the country—which borders South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The episcopal offices are in the city of Kindu, the capital of Maniema Province.
From the start, I knew that serving this area as bishop would be a challenge. The area has impassable roads, and often the only reliable mode of transportation is by airplane.
Across the episcopal area, I see people traveling on foot with loads on their heads and shoulders. These are the people I have been elected to serve. In the last two years, I have traveled across the East Congo Episcopal Area and ascertained the needs of the various ministries of the church. In partnership with the global church, we have been finding creative ways to meet those needs for the development of the church in East Congo.
In 1922, the first entry of Methodists into what is now the East Congo Episcopal Area came from the Wembo Nyama mission station of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, established in 1911 by Bishop Walter Lambuth and Dr. John Wesley Gilbert. Ansil Lynn and his wife, bringing their child, were the first missionaries to settle in Tunda, being soon followed by Earl B. Stilz.
Writing about their first year for the September 1922 Missionary Voice, Ansil Lynn reported: “We arrived at Tunda March 10th, and the first work on the mission site was begun the next day, opening up a straight path from the native village to the center of the proposed [mission] grounds.” At first, Lynn conducted worship services in the dirt roads. Then, in just two months, the missionary residences were built, an open, roofed worship space was erected, and a school was opened. “During our stay of two months,” Lynn wrote in May 1922, “a goodly number of men, women, and children have learned their letters and some are actually reading in the first reader. The workmen are given 30 minutes instruction each afternoon, after which the women have their school. Mrs. Lynn enrolled more than 60 [students] during the past six weeks’ term. She is greatly encouraged with the interest they show in learning to read. We have eleven mission boys enrolled and expect more as soon as we can get a sleeping-house erected for them on the compound.”
Five years later, in September 1927, Bishop James Cannon, who had oversight of the MECS Congo Mission in the 1920s, recorded his observations for The Missionary Voice while visiting mission areas across the country. Cannon wrote: “The African people must be evangelized by Africans. The great work of the missionary is to evangelize and to train a sufficient number of African men and women, who can carry on the necessary work. Native teachers and preachers, native churches supported and governed by native members, must be the goal.”
Yet it would be 42 years before the first Congolese bishop was elected to oversee the Methodist Church in what is now the DRC. Bishop Cannon was followed by Bishop Arthur Moore in 1934, Bishop John Springer in 1940, and Bishop Newell Snow Booth in 1941. In 1964, John Wesley Shungu was one of the first two African Methodists elected to serve as bishop on the continent of Africa. The other was Escrivão Anglaze Zunguze of Mozambique. Edith Martin, a missionary in Lodja, DRC, said of John Wesley Shungu in 1964: “I sometimes think that Mr. Shungu thrives on being in troubled spots, helping to bring peace. He spends much of this time reconciling man to man and man to God.” Indeed, just months after his election, Bishop Shungu narrowly escaped death when he returned from Kananga to Lodja to rescue his wife, their 10 children, and a number of other children in the Lodja Methodist secondary school. They were threatened by rebel forces fighting for power in the early years of Congo’s independence from Belgium, but Shungu was a survivor. In 1973, Bishop Onema Fama was elected for the episcopacy in this area, followed by Bishop David Yemba, who served as bishop until 2012. That year, I was elected to serve as first bishop of the newly constituted episcopal area. Bishop Yemba continues to serve as bishop for the Central Congo Episcopal Area.
Eastern DRC’s Recent History
The history of the Eastern DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR) before 2012 is that of protracted war. Beginning in 1995, this area, extending eastward to Rwanda and Burundi, experienced fighting from rebel troops seeking to overthrow the government, government soldiers fighting the rebels, rebels from countries across the eastern borders, and independent militias seeking their own gain amid the general confusion. While Kindu is now relatively safe and in the process of rebuilding, other parts of the East Congo Episcopal Area are still experiencing upheaval and displacement from militias that continue to destabilize the eastern border region. The main social infrastructures—such as schools, health centers, and hospitals—were destroyed by armed groups and rebellions.
Since the beginning of the war, from the mid-1990s to the present, as many as six million people have lost their lives in this region. They were victims not only of direct fighting but also of displacement, loss of livelihoods, loss of agricultural production, disease, hunger, lack of health care, and severe poverty resulting from violent upheaval and the consequent abandonment of farming activities.
What this means for The United Methodist Church on a social and humanitarian level is that there are still a significant number of vulnerable and internally displaced people, including orphaned children. Rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout this conflict, so we see many victimized women who are survivors of sexual violence. Amid this conflict perpetrated by outside forces, we also see interethnic conflicts and difficulties of cohabitation between different ethnic communities, even within the church.
The consequences of the social and humanitarian crises also affect the evangelization efforts of our church. We see a weakening of some local churches that lack consistent growth and close supervision. These social and economic realities have reduced the number of effective and committed church leaders in the conferences. Some leaders have even deserted their duties because of poor living conditions. They must find other work to support their families.
At present, we have a limited number of trained pastors. The years of war greatly disrupted daily life. People had to flee for their lives. Educational institutions were affected, and churches were destroyed. In addition, the churches in Bangui, Central Africa Republic, had to shut down because of civil conflicts erupting in that country.
Overall, we see that human development and public infrastructure in the Eastern DRC were both destroyed during wartime. Much of this degradation can also be seen in the destruction of our churches and hospitals, especially in one of our oldest strongholds in Kindu: the mission of Lokole. The East Congo Episcopal Area spans five different provinces—a broad region of activity that needs supervision but lacks roads and reliable public transportation. Travel by air is expensive and not always on a reliable schedule.
The rural population of Eastern DRC lives in a state of poverty, so people turn to rudimentary agricultural practices to survive. Health services, both public and private, are barely operational in this context, so HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other tropical diseases thrive in this climate.
We also see a decreasing level of education, with a dilapidated infrastructure. Many Methodist schools on every level that were destroyed during the war can still be seen standing—without roofs, open to the elements, and crumbling as the years pass.
Rise Up and Build
Amid these sobering realities, we believe that God is present with us and seeks to transform this church into a place of abundant life. By faith we act in this spirit, depending on God’s grace and promise to provide. Therefore, in this episcopal area, our leaders have called for a mobilization of all our congregations to rise up in order to rebuild the mission work of The United Methodist Church in this place. This is, without exception, a call to action for all of our members.
In the past two years, we have accelerated the training of pastors from a basic course to a higher level of advancement. In addition, I have appointed subject-matter experts to specific activities in the episcopal area, including agriculture, education, health services, leadership training, youth activities, women’s mission activities, evangelism, and higher education.
We have also sought to diversify our internal and external partnerships. We will partner in different areas of work with the DRC government, our global church friends, international NGOs, and private actors, where appropriate. So for Christian education, development of resources, United Methodist polity and teaching—church partners and UMC agencies would be appropriate. In developing health services or agricultural techniques, perhaps nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can be tapped for assistance. Likewise, the provincial or national government could be a likely partner for other programs or for building projects.
We seek to expand the work of our mission in those areas where evangelical expansion is possible and desirable. Particularly, the areas of Equateur and the Central African Republic are cutting-edge mission fields that can be better covered.
While we understand that the church is primarily a community of faith and that our strength is in our people, we also prioritize the modernization of our buildings and infrastructures. This effort includes not only the physical buildings but also the use of worship resources and new information and communication technology. We seek contact and relationship with the global church.
As East Congo moves forward with projects and empowerment programs, we also seek to consolidate our efforts and work on the continued development of faith communities where progress has been made. Chief among our priorities are strengthening and building the capacity of women for leadership in the conferences, providing resources for youth and preparing them for service, and inviting the UMC’s active participation in the health-care challenges that are prevalent among people in extreme poverty.
Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda (Gabriel UNDA Yemba) is the first bishop elected to serve the East Congo Episcopal Area. He was raised by missionaries and by his extended family because his mother died when he was just 8 months old. Ordained in 1971, he has served as a pastor and a chaplain of United Methodist schools, sometimes facing the threat of violence to do his ministry. He and his wife, Charlotte Unda, had nine children, but Charlotte died of malaria in 2007. He has served as a board member for the General Board of Discipleship, and he speaks Swahili, Lingala, French, Otetela, and English. This story was first published in New World Outlook magazine, November-December 2014. Used by permission.
United Methodist Women dance up to the offering plate to give their gifts during the Episcopal Center dedication ceremony. Photo: Christie R. House
The Rev. and Mrs. Ansil Lynn and son, William. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History
Bishop Newell S. Booth and the Rev. John Wesley Shungu, who later became Congo’s first indigenous Methodist bishop. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History
Willie and Earl Stilz, East Congo missionaries. Photo: Courtesy Bill Lovell
Bishop Gabriel Unda (center) introduces members of a United Methodist delegation to the press in Kindu outside the governor’s office. Left to right, Bishop McAlilly, Bishop Ntambo, Thomas Kemper, Yvette Richards, and Bishop Peggy Johnson can be seen in the photo. Photo: Christie R. House
The new episcopal residence, rebuilt and named after Bishop McAlilly (Photo: Christie R. House), in stark contrast to the old building, as it stood before renovations. Photo: Courtesy East Congo Episcopal Office
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