ELKHART, Indiana (Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission/Mennonite Mission Network) – Charles E. Sprunger, 86, died Jan. 9 at Dock Woods Community of Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Sprunger served in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo with Congo Inland Mission (CIM) from 1957-1972. The name of the agency changed to Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission in 1975.
During much of his time in the Congo, Sprunger worked in education and evangelism, but his most notable ministry was to launch The Protestant Studio of the Kasai (Studiproka), a recording studio that prepared Tshiluba-language Christian programs for radio. Tshiluba is the main language of the Congo's Kasai region.
At the time of Sprunger's death, communication channels with Congo were blocked due to national presidential elections, so words of appreciation and condolences from Congolese Mennonites were not available.
Found in AIMM's archives, a letter from Reuben Short, CIM's executive secretary in 1964 when the studio was inaugurated, honored Sprunger with these words: "From what I know of other facilities and equipment, Studiproka ranks high. We are aware that this was largely through your ingenuity and effort. We are most elated with what has developed and are most grateful for the contribution that you and Gerry have made."
Sprunger was born in Mukedi, Congo, Dec. 2, 1932, to CIM missionaries Vernon J. and Lilly (Bachman) Sprunger. In 1950, he received his high school diploma from Central School in Lubondai, Congo. Four years later, he graduated from Bluffton (Ohio) College, now University, with a BS in biology.
In 1954, Sprunger married Geraldine "Gerry" Rieff. They spent their first three years together in Chicago where Charles studied at Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The seminary was relocated to Elkhart, Indiana, in 1958, and Charles completed a bachelor of divinity degree there in 1962 while on a one-year furlough.
The Sprungers traveled to Belgium for a year of French-language study before beginning ministry in Nyanga, Congo, in 1958. Charles taught in teacher-training schools, served as inspector of mission schools, and helped with mission administration.
In the Sprungers' second year in the Congo, they, along with all CIM workers, were evacuated to Angola during the social upheaval surrounding Congo's declaration of independence from Belgium's colonial power. Charles Sprunger joined many other CIM men who returned to the Congo without their families in 1961 to pick up ministries there.
When the country stabilized in 1962, the Sprunger family began a second four-year term in Mukedi, Charles's birthplace. His assignment there included being an assistant to CIM's legal representative. In this role, he served as a mediator between individuals and groups. He also began laying the groundwork for the radio ministry.
In January 1964, violence again swept across the eastern Bandundu region where Mukedi is located. Sprunger and another CIM mission worker were captured by rebel troops and threatened with death multiple times. They were eventually evacuated by a United Nations' helicopter.
This was the second time the Sprunger family lost their home and all their possessions. They relocated to Luluabourg where Charles began to dedicate his energies to the establishment of a recording studio. However, it wasn't long before the family was forced to evacuate yet a third time.
Rod Hollinger-Janzen, current executive director of AIMM, addressed Charles Sprunger's family at his memorial service. "You have experienced in your bodies, minds and spirits some of the anguish and struggle of the Congolese people, for Jesus' sake. I believe that this is what Scripture means when Paul writes in Colossians 1:24: 'I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.' God knows what you have given, and God will continue to heal, restore, and bless in his love."
Sprunger overcame all the setbacks and adversity, and in 1965, the first Tshiluba-language program aired on national radio. Within a year, 15-minute programs were being aired almost daily, both locally and nationally. Soon, Congolese collaborators began to take responsibility for the ministry and Muamba Mukengeshayi became the director.
Regular broadcasts led to correspondence from listeners, sometimes as many as 1,500 letters per month. Sales of Christian music cassette tapes helped subsidize the radio programming. Some of this music was heard in public places, and even in bars!
After returning to the United States in 1972, Sprunger settled in Pennsylvania and worked in electronics for Acrodyne Industries and Spectrum Communication Electronics. From 1975-1982, he served as pastor of Hereford Mennonite Church. Following this, he worked as a biomedical equipment technician in hospitals. Even after his retirement in 1999, he continued to work part-time for another decade.
An active member of New Eden Fellowship Church in Schwenksville, Sprunger sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, served as congregational chair, and as a trustee. He served on AIMM's board of directors and multiple other international mission commissions and local ministerial committees.
Sprunger is survived by his wife and three children: Kathy Harnley of Schwenksville; Joel (Linda) Sprunger of Highland's Ranch, Colorado; and Charlene Lapp of Telford, Pennsylvania. Grandchildren include Jacob Lapp, Jack Colmenero and Regina Turpin. He is also survived by three siblings: Wilmer (Kenlyn) Sprunger of Berne, Indiana; Jeannette (Tom) Bechtel of Goshen, Indiana; and Shirley (Vernon) King of Goshen. He was preceded in death by an infant brother, David.