Bishop Gabriel UNDA Yemba, East Congo Episcopal Area; Bishop NTAMBO, Nkulu Ntanda, Katanga Episcopal Area; Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area; and Bishop William McAlilly, Nashville Area, prepare for the dedication ceremony of the new episcopal center buildings in Kindu, DRC.
“Aksanti Sana” to and from East Congo United Methodists
by Christie R. House
Expressions of thanks were heard and received all across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a group of bishops and general secretaries from the United States made its way to the eastern part of the country to discover the hopeful realities of the newest area of the UMC connection, the East Congo Episcopal Area. “Aksanti sana” in Swahili, “merci beaucoup” in French, “losaka efula,” in Otetella, and “thank you so very much,” expressed the underlying theme of the visit for the travelers and for their hosts. In this region of the DRC, still recovering from two decades of war, there is today much to be thankful for and to celebrate.
Bishop Peggy Johnson (Philadelphia Area) and Bishop William McAlilly (Nashville Area) and Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda (North Katanga Area) were joined by Yvette Richards, president of United Methodist Women in the United States and a member of Global Ministries’ board of directors, and three United Methodist general secretaries on this trip: Thomas Kemper (General Board of Global Ministries), Barbara Boigegrain (General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits), and Erin Hawkins (General Commission on Religion and Race). The Rev. Mande Muyombo, an assistant general secretary with Global Ministries, provided accompaniment and translation for the group. Rev. Mande organized this trip together with Bishop Unda Gabriel, East Congo Episcopal Area, so that members of the Council of Bishops could experience the mission and ministry of this new area of the UMC. This is the first such mission trip organized by Global Ministries with the Mission Engagement leadership team of the Council of Bishops. Annual exposure trips are being planned for the future.
Southern Congo Visit
The visitors first entered the country through Lubumbashi, in the southern region of the DRC, August 14, 2014, where they were met by emissaries of Bishop Katembo’s office. The bishop’s attaché, Ms. Shebele Kibambo, and a prominent businessman and member of the conference from Kolwezi, Mr. Kiboko Vano, hosted the group during a short stay in southern Congo. A trip to Jolie City, a building site along the main road between Lubumbashi and Kolwezi where a large UMC temple is taking shape, revealed a spirit of pride and ownership developing in the conference. This initiative of Bishop Katembo (Southern Congo Area) is meant, in part, to teach the church to be self-sufficient. Funding for the project is being raised entirely from within the DRC. This spirit was seen again in Lubumbashi at another building site, Mt. Zion UMC, in the Kenya section of town.
Between visits to churches, the bishops and general secretaries were taken to meet the Katanga Province governor, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, who also happens to own the Lubumbashi soccer team known as TP Mazembe. The governor was well aware of United Methodist contributions to civil society through health services and education, and thanked the visitors for their interest. For their final stop, the visitors spent the evening with all Lubumbashi district superintendents and lay leadership at the Jerusalem United Methodist Church.
Since the destination for the group was the East Congo area, the visitors were placed in the capable hands of UMC missionary pilot, Gaston Ntambo, for a flight in the Wings of the Morning Caravan. This refurbished plane, which uses regular fuel instead of the much more expensive aviation gas (AV gas), was recently acquired with funding from the Ohio and New Jersey conferences, along with many donations from other United Methodist members through Advance giving. A short stop in Kamina for refueling gave the group time to greet members of the North Katanga Episcopal Area and a number of North Katanga pastors and local authorities as well.
Recovery in Kindu
The welcome for the group at the Lubumbashi airport was impressive, and the Kamina welcome was warm and expansive, with many United Methodists coming out. But the welcome at the Kindu airport was nothing short of overwhelming, with truckloads of Methodist well-wishers converging on the air strip. This welcome included a motorcade, in which the visitors were slowly driven down the main streets while United Methodist members waved and curious bystanders stopped to assess the commotion. This welcome also included a trip to the Maniema governor’s compound, though the governor was not in town. The visitors met with the deputy governor, who said the group’s travel to Kindu expressed the love that United Methodists have for the people of the DR Congo and Maniema Province. The United Methodist Church in the DR Congo has been active for 100 years, he noted, with many programs of excellence, whether in evangelism or in social projects. He thanked the UMC for choosing Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba to serve the church in the East Congo region.
Although the few paved roads through the center of town were lined with people selling just about anything one could imagine, it became clear as the group traveled further out on the dirt roads into Kindu that this area of the DRC is still recovering from war. Much of the town and its surroundings were destroyed or looted in the mid-1990s, and the people had fled for their lives into the bush. United Methodist churches, parsonages, schools, and health facilities were not spared in the conflicts. This area, and much of the region east to Rwanda and Burundi experienced fighting from rebel troops seeking to overthrow the government, rebels from other countries that crossed the eastern borders, government soldiers fighting the rebels, and independent militias seeking their own gain amid the upheaval and confusion of the ongoing war. 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. Since the beginning of the war in the mid-1990s to the present, as many as 6 million people have lost their lives in this region, not only from direct fighting and conflict, but from the displacement, loss of livelihoods, loss of agricultural production, disease, hunger, lack of health care, and the severe effects of poverty that result from violent upheaval.
Bishop Unda and the East Congo Conference members took the visitors to see sanctuaries in the process of rebuilding. A Global Ministries grant of $20,000 has been used by the conference to seed reconstruction projects in all three of the annual conferences of East Congo—East Congo Conference, Kivu Conference, and Oriental and Equateur Conference. But the East Congo members must themselves make the bricks and supply the labor. Only about 20%, mostly in the form of metal roofing, which is expensive and difficult to obtain in Kindu, is supplied by the grant, while 80% of the project work is contributed by the local congregations in labor and materials. “Aksanti sana” was often heard as the bishops and general secretaries gathered with church members to survey the progress on their churches.
On this visit the general secretaries and bishops also had time to meet with groups of church members to hear their concerns, accept their thanks, and listen to their stories and suggestions for continued partnership. In an ecumenical setting, representatives from other faith communities met with the visitors, and while various speakers gave advice about what issues and projects needed attention, all the representatives spoke out of a great spirit of gratitude for the United Methodist influence and traditional work in the DR Congo.
Celebration for a New Home
On Sunday August 17, Bishop Unda invited the guests to take part in a dedication ceremony for three new buildings that will form the core of the episcopal center. Situated on a hill that overlooked the city of Kindu, this site had been a prime target for combatants on all sides seeking an advantage during the war. The remains of a school still haunted the site, where a new episcopal residence, office building, and educational building had recently been constructed. The conferences of the Nashville area had contributed more than $88,000 to the East Congo area, and the episcopal residence bore a plague with Bishop McAlilly’s name. The Philadelphia area conferences donated more than $16,000 to the East Congo area, and the educational building was named in honor of Bishop Johnson. The third building honored the General Board of Global Ministries, and it included a room named for Thomas Kemper. Global Ministries approved a $40,000 grant for the construction of offices in East Congo and in the other two annual conferences in 2013.
The dedication service was a dynamic celebration of all that this new area of the United Methodist connection has been able to accomplish in just two short years since General Conference approved its formation in 2012. It has made great strides in evangelism—gaining members while rebuilding health, education, and church construction programs. East Congo members were thanked for their dedication, sacrifice, and beautiful spirit of connection. Visitors were thanked for their prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Together, with gratitude to God, they will seek to build on this firm foundation to transform this part of the world.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
Jolie City UMC, a project of the Southern Congo Episcopal area. This United Methodist cathedral is being entirely funded from within the DR Congo. August 14, 2014, visitors arrive at the right.
Kindu, August 18--women's meeting. Yvette Richards (back row center, in purple) and Erin Hawkins (front row center, in yellow) pose with United Methodist Women meeting in Kindu at Cité Salama UMC. They were discussing priorities for the women's mission work in the East Congo Episcopal Area.
Dr. Richard Lesthu, World Health Organization, (center) has been working with UMCOR in East Congo area. Here he assists with a Imagine No Malaria net distribution to patients with Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area, at the Lokole Health Center, Kindu, DRC.
UMC General Secretaries, bishops, and a board member at City Jolie UMC in Lubumbashi, DR Congo. US visitors pose with DRC pastors and superintendents: Yvette Richards, UMW president and GBGM board member; Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area; Bishop McAlilly, Nashville Area; Thomas Kemper, GS General Board of Global Ministries; Barbara Boigegrain, GS General Board of Pension and Health Benefits; and Erin Hawkins, GS General Commission of Religion and Race.
All photos: Christie R. House