MBUJI MAYI, Congo (Meetinghouse) – Prime-time television news, amplified guitar riffs and deep-throated traditional drums announced to the city of Mbuji Mayi that Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Evangelical Community of Congo) was celebrating their 50th anniversary from July 23-27.
These festivities, like the celebrations a week earlier of the church’s mother denomination, Communauté Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Community in Congo), combined worship with teaching and fellowship. An additional feature of the program in Mbuji Mayi was the ordination of 16 pastors, including the first woman to be ordained in this denomination, Mimi Kanku Mukendi (see sidebar below).
In his opening address, the head of the church, Benjamin Mubenga Wa Kabanga, introduced the 20 Mennonites from three continents who traveled to participate in the denomination’s 50th anniversary, as “real brothers and sisters – not strangers.”
Mubenga also said that Mennonite Evangelical Community, a Mennonite Mission Network partner, has remained true to the four tenets that it established in the beginning: evangelism, obedience to the authority of God’s word, holistic ministry and adherence to Anabaptist teaching.
“We are passionate about people coming to salvation,” Mubenga said.
Mennonite Evangelical Community shared Mennonite Community in Congo’s history until the time of independence in 1960, when interethnic violence erupted. Luba Mennonites, attracted to West Kasai province by jobs with Belgian rubber and mining companies, were forced to flee back to their home province, East Kasai.
Both denominations trace their roots to 1912 when Congo Inland Mission—now, Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission—arrived in the country and began ministry in West Kasai province.
Though the Luba refugees tried to maintain ties with the Mennonite headquarters in West Kasai, the polarized political climate, difficulties of travel and non-existent means of communication made this unworkable. In 1962, today’s denomination, Mennonite Evangelical Community, was born out of necessity imposed by these constraints.
CEM ordains first woman pastor
Although Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Evangelical Community of Congo) voted to ordain women as pastors in 1993, it took nearly 20 years for that decision to become reality when Mimi Kanku Mukendi was included among the 16 pastoral candidates receiving ordination on July 26, 2012.
Mimi Kanku Mukendi
“Women in the Old Testament, and until today, endured, and continue to endure discrimination, marginalization and injustice at the hands of men,” Kanku said in a teaching session a few days before her ordination. “However, despite the mistreatment, women have played very important roles in salvation history as prophetesses, queens and wise elders.”
Kanku said that Jesus repeatedly cast women in the role of evangelists, like the Samaritan woman through whom a whole village was saved, and Mary, who was the first person entrusted with the news of his resurrection.
“At Pentecost, women as well as men received spiritual gifts from God,” Kanku said. “By the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, women were invested with power to witness for Christ in acts and words.”
When church leaders laid hands on Kanku and prayed for her the day of her ordination, she said it was a tangible experience.
“The Holy Spirit came upon me in a way I never experienced before,” Kanku said. “I felt overcome by power.”
Belarman Ngalula Tshimanga, Kanku’s husband, is a government financial officer in Bandundu province, hundreds of miles from his family. He also serves as an evangelist for Communauté des Eglises de Frères Mennonites au Congo (Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo) because there are no nearby Mennonite Evangelical Community churches.
This flexibility in denominational affiliation within one family testifies to the fraternal relationships between the three Mennonite denominations in Congo.
In the short-term, Kanku will continue to pastor a congregation in Kinshasa where she lives with the couple’s two children, although denominational leaders soon hope to assign Kanku to a church location near her husband, so the family can be re-united.
Mennonite Evangelical Community holds fast to its Anabaptist identity, especially cherishing the peace stance, perhaps because the denomination has experienced so much conflict in the past half century. The words of an original song composed for the anniversary by highlife band, Orchestre Evangélique Mennonite
(Mennonite Evangelical Orchestra) of Sangilayi Bipemba, speak to this commitment to peace:Mennonites, let us be united…
Let us seek peace and sanctification without which no one will see God…
Let us love each other… [standing] against division in the church.
Mennonites, we are pacifists.
Mennonites, we are Anabaptists.
We are non-violent people.
Listen to audio clip
During the Golden Jubilee celebration, a troupe of Mennonite actors re-enacted the life of the early Mennonite Evangelical Community in scenes that echoed the account of the nascent church described in the first chapters of Acts, where sharing with those in need was an effective form of evangelism. The hospitality and generosity that allowed the refugees to survive, and, then, thrive as they became a church continues. This daily witness has helped the denomination to grow to 25,000 members in 110 congregations operating about 100 schools.
Despite the emphasis on solidarity and peace, division continues to plague Mennonite Evangelical Community. Efforts are being made by a mediator from the mother church, Mennonite Community in Congo, to reconcile the current leadership conflict.
Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission’s executive coordinator Rod Hollinger-Janzen chose to attend the event with the international delegation, despite the conflict, because he believes that support is essential when a person or a church is going through difficulties.
“Problems can more easily be solved when relationships are strong,” Hollinger-Janzen said. “To not attend this celebration is a punishment-based approach. AIMM and its partners prefer an encouragement-based approach.”
Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Africa, Steve Wiebe-Johnson, said that since its founding, Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission has always operated as a collaboration between North American mission agencies and African Christians.
“Through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, Mission Network is able to stand in solidarity with Mennonite Evangelical Community in ways that we cannot on our own. Walking through this time of crisis and holding up the vision for unity is one of the ways that North American Mennonites participate in the complicated reconciliation process,” Wiebe-Johnson said.
Dissention, past and present, could not dampen the spirit of praise during the Golden Jubilee, however. With joyful melodies and irresistible rhythms that compelled even North American Mennonites to dance, the Mennonite Evangelical Orchestra sang:
Mennonites, let us avoid those who separate us.
Let us gather around what unites us.
Let us walk all together, creating unity in our diversity…
We are the members of Jesus’ body.
The Mennonites, we are all Mennonites,
Praise, praise, praise the Lord.
Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at email@example.com, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.