ELKHART, Ind. (AIMM/Mennonite Mission Network) Messages of two Congolese Mennonite pastors, Adolphe Komuesa Kalunga and Matthieu Shimatu Kapia, have preoccupied David Moser since he met them at Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., on March 26.
Moser – pastor at Southside Fellowship in Elkhart, Ind. – encountered Komuesa and Shimatu during an open meeting where national, regional and local church leaders came to explore new models for relationships between African and North American congregations, part of Mennonite Church USA’s prioritization of global connections.
“I heard North American pastors speak of a cancer called materialism that has metastasized and is tearing their congregations apart. I heard the Congolese pastors share the challenges of surviving the cancer of ‘screaming poverty.’ We are two cancer patients who need each other,” Moser said.
An obvious solution presents itself, the practice of the first-century church where goods were distributed to anyone who had need. Yet, according to Moser, a gulf separates the churches on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Three Mennonite denominations in Congo
There are three Mennonite denominations in Democratic Republic of Congo. Communauté Mennonite au Congo (Congo Mennonite Community), begun by Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission workers in 1912 has 100,000 members. Communauté des Eglises de Frères Mennonites au Congo (Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo), dating to 1920, has more than 95,000 members. Communauté Evangélique Mennonite (Evangelical Mennonite Community) has approximately 21,000 members and was founded in the 1960s when Mennonite refugees fled east.
Adolphe Komuesa Kalunga, the national president and legal representative of the Congo Mennonite Community, is a pastor and a theologian who teaches at the Christian University of Kinshasa.
Matthieu Shimatu Kapia, national vice president of the Evangelical Mennonite Community, is a pastor and the former general secretary of the Congo Inter-Mennonite Organization (CONIM) that includes the three denominations.
Photo: Steve Wiebe-Johnson
The intense need of creating relationships to bridge the chasm so haunts Moser that he sometimes wakes up thinking, What first steps can we take?
Yet, Moser realizes the need for specialists to create healthy church-to church relationships.
“I think [the mission agencies] are the oncologists that will keep congregations from stumbling over the same mistakes we have made over the past 100 years in attempting new mission endeavors,” Moser said.
J. Ron Byler, associate executive director of Mennonite Church USA, acknowledged that mission agencies will have an ongoing role in future global interactions but emphasized that “it will take all parts of the church in the Congo and in the United States working together to develop new healthy relationships.”
Moser believes North American congregations desperately need the spiritual nurturing that Congolese congregations can offer.
“They know what it is like to have nothing left but God. We would do well to embrace this richness,” he said.
Komuesa and Shimatu endured a demanding itinerary that began with Mennonite World Conference’s General Council in Pasadena, Calif., from March 7 -16. From there, they traveled to congregations and Mennonite institutions in Kansas, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
Seven Congolese church leaders had been invited to build stronger relationships with their North American brothers and sisters. This visit grew out of a three-year-old desire formulated by the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly in Atlanta to prioritize awareness of the global Mennonite church.
After seeking counsel from Mennonite World Conference, Mennonite Church USA agreed to pursue a relationship with the Congolese Mennonite churches -- a good match because of the similar size of the two church bodies and because of the complementary gifts each church would bring to the other.
Mennonite Church USA Executive Leadership sponsored the visit with assistance from Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, Mennonite Central Committee (Congo), Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite World Conference. Several Mennonite Church USA congregations gave above-budget contributions to cover travel costs of the Congolese church leaders.
An unexpected complication arose when the United States denied visas to all of the Congolese visitors except Komuesa and Shimatu. Although their speaking schedule was modified, these two pastors valiantly tried to accomplish the work intended to be shared by five other colleagues.
“Each moment was the best one,” Shimatu said of their three-week visit, making special mention of the message on a culture of peace that he heard in Pasadena.
For Komuesa, being physically surrounded by members of the global Anabaptist church throughout his travels and observing how they could “tolerate theological differences” was a learning experience.
Jim Schrag, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, welcomed the Congolese church leaders to Newton, Kan., with a potluck meal and presentation.
“We want to develop a new relationship between Mennonite churches in the Congo and the United States that is not built on old assumptions,” Schrag said. “A new church-to-church relationship of the 21st century will begin between church leaders in both countries and then between congregations.”
In northern Indiana, Byler invited area conference church leaders to a breakfast honoring Komuesa and Shimatu. Mutual sharing about the issues congregations face in the two countries led Byler to comment that the challenges were “remarkably similar” with the great exception of the imbalance between materialism and extreme poverty.
Byler identified the parallel areas of focus as:
– maintaining an Anabaptist identity
– working for the unity of the body of Christ
– building a culture of peace in our churches, communities and nations
– equipping and training church leaders
Komuesa and Shiamatu expressed deep sorrow about how the North American Mennonite Church has abandoned them. Currently, there are no mission workers from the United States or Canada serving the Congo Mennonite churches whose membership totals more than 200,000 (see sidebar).
“In Ohio, a woman said, ‘I didn’t even know there was a Mennonite church in Congo,’” Shimatu said. “How can she not know about us? Congo has one of the largest Mennonite populations of any country in the world. It seems that North American Mennonites are asleep.”
While insisting that they didn’t want to judge North American Mennonite congregations, Komuesa and Shimatu did point out the discrepancy between the magnificent buildings that house congregations on one continent and Mennonites who die of hunger on another continent.
“We know that culture dictates the way people worship, so it is understandable that people in a culture of abundance worship in costly surroundings,” Komuesa said. “However, please, listen to those of us who live in miserable conditions. We celebrate our global Mennonite community, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
At the Silverwood meeting, representatives from local congregations, area conferences, church agencies and Mennonite Church USA identified the gifts they have to give to the Congolese Mennonite churches and the gifts they need to receive.
All representatives agreed on the need for increased relationship between Mennonites on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The Congolese pastors asked North Americans to become more aware of current events in their country in order to help them put pressure on their government and to be more informed in prayer.
Jim Bertsche, an Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission worker in Congo for 25 years and executive secretary of this agency from 1974-86, described the visit of the Congolese church leaders as “a little window through which [Americans] glimpse a world so very different from our own – a world of radical dependence on Jesus and exuberant joy in the midst of chaos, poverty, insecurity and hunger.”
In prayer, Bertsche asked God to not allow Mennonite Church USA to pull a curtain of indifference across this window and to grant the North American church the courage to seek ways of becoming genuine partners in mission with the Congolese Mennonite churches.