ELKHART, Ind. (Meetinghouse) – Though Jeremy Shue has roamed the world, he never received a welcome like the one offered by his brothers and sisters in Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I have traveled to many places on this planet, and Congo is like no other place I’ve visited,” Shue said. “Following a trip like what we experienced, I have a lot to process about life, church, culture, and what impacted me the most significantly from our trip – hospitality.”
Shue, a pastor at Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., was one of five members sent to represent the congregation at the anniversaries of two of Congo’s three Mennonite denominations. Communauté Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Church of Congo) celebrated 100 years and Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo), 50 years. A total of 30 Mennonites came from beyond Congo’s borders to participate in a delegation organized by Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, a Mennonite Mission Network partner.
In Mbuji Mayi, a city of three million, a jubilant multitude with palm branches and drums waited at the security barriers outside the airport to sing and dance an accompaniment as their guests walked the half-mile to church. Whole villages lined gravel airstrips in more remote locations.
Linda Hochstetler, also of Silverwood, said, “I’ve never seen such graciousness. The hospitality was incredible.”
From July 12-29, representatives from eight Anabaptist agencies [Sidebar 1] enlarged their understanding of the global Mennonite Church through visits to three Congolese cities – Kinshasa, Mbuji Mayi and Tshikapa, and numerous villages. They traveled by plane, pickup truck, motorcycle, dugout canoe – and occasionally persuaded their attentive hosts to allow them to walk.
Some members of the delegation were experiencing Congo for the first time. For others, it was a return to a former home.
Ben Hochstetler, son of Linda, had just graduated from Bethany Christian High School in Goshen a few weeks before the trip and wanted a new perspective on the world.
“I want to learn to worship in new ways and learn new ways to think about God,” Ben said. “I’m not going to be done thinking about all this when I get off the plane. I know I will make lifestyle changes, but I’m not sure yet what they will be.”
Among those returning “home” to Congo, Ray and Ruth Milhous were simultaneously celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with the Mennonite Church anniversaries.
In 1962, the Milhous newlyweds were among the first workers placed by Mennonite Central Committee in Congo. They wondered if anyone would remember them after an absence of nearly half a century. But as they were walking up the path to the Kalonda hospital, René Ntumba, a nurse who had worked alongside them for two years, rushed to meet them. Later, they were joined by another nurse, Sylvain Mudiandambu, who remembered repairing Ray’s shoulder that had been dislocated in a bicycle accident years ago.
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Congolese soccer and song
NYANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Meetinghouse) – When a Belgian school inspector needed to recruit singers for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, he entrusted the task to two missionary women, one of whom was Lodema Short.
Short served from 1947-1981with Congo Inland Mission, now Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, a partner agency with Mennonite Mission Network. Her musical abilities, her organizational skills, and her relationships with hundreds of students enabled her to choose, and then chaperone, the nine young men who performed in Belgium as the Happy Singers.
A nephew, Dwight Short of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., joined the centennial delegation that traveled to Congo July 12-29, primarily because he wanted to learn more about his famous aunt.
Dwight was able to videotape 27 interviews, four with Happy Singers members, in addition to having conversation with many of Lodema’s students, many of whom are pastors. “She would love to know that so many of her students have ended up in the ministry,” Dwight said.
The current principal of Lycée Miodi, Bernadette Manya Kikunga, was one of Lodema’s students.
“Mama Kanamu [Lodema’s Tshiluba name, meaning “respect”] worked very hard here at the school to train church leaders. Even the president of our church [Komuesa] was one of her students.”
Short hopes to write a book to share his aunt’s story beyond the family circle.
Short has another passion—evangelism through sports. Although the equipment he packed was bogged down by slow shipping throughout his entire stay in Congo, the four soccer balls brought by other delegation members attracted about 400 kids for a soccer clinic in Tshikapa. He worked with Robert Irundu Mutundu, the national president of Mennonite Youth in Congo who shares Short’s burning desire “to see kids come to know Christ and grow the church.”
In 2013, Irundu is planning to organize two soccer events and a basketball clinic in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city. Since Short’s departure, Irundu has organized a 20-player basketball team.
“We have a Bible study before we start to play,” Irundu wrote in a recent e-mail to Short.
These sorts of reunions were the highlights of the trip for Ray. What brought Ruth the most joy was again worshiping with her Congolese brothers and sisters.
“After 50 years of difficult life, the vibrancy of the church is a great reminder of God’s faithfulness,” Ruth said.
The Milhous couple now resides in Burlington, Vt.
Another emotion-packed homecoming was experienced by Marilyn and Rick Derksen’s family. They served in Congo from 1976-1998 with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission and, now, live in Seattle, Wash. Their three children, who grew up in Congo, introduced their spouses to former playmates and mentors. There was little down time for the Derksen family as a steady stream of well-wishers came to greet their friends and former co-workers.
“Our time in Congo after a 14-year absence exceeded our most optimistic expectations,” Rick wrote in an e-mail. “Our children and their spouses had such a great time that they are already starting a fund for another trip back to Congo in 10 years.”
Congo, a nation with vast natural resources, has one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes. Multinational corporations and a small percentage of elite Congolese benefit from mining diamonds and valuable minerals, while malnutrition affects approximately two-thirds of the country's population. Wars from 1997-2005 have added the deaths of more than five million people to the ravages of disease and hunger.
Yet, Congolese Mennonites offer themselves to days of full-bodied praise and exuberant hospitality.
“Everywhere we went, we were received not just with open arms, but with singing, dancing and feasting,” Jeremy Shue said. “As we were led through the village of Nyanga, hundreds of people in tow, I couldn’t help but think about one of the times we had a delegation from Congo visit Silverwood.”
In that instance, although Silverwood had invited more than 30 Mennonite congregations in the Goshen area to greet the delegation, only seven people showed up.
“What a shock that must’ve been to our Congolese visitors,” Shue said. “How do we welcome guests from around the world to our congregations? Even if we cannot speak their language, they get the message – I got it loud and clear in Congo, and I don’t speak French or Tshiluba.”
Beginning in September, Mennonite congregations throughout the United States and Canada will have opportunities to welcome two Mennonite heads of denominations, Benjamin Mubenga Wa Kabanga of Evangelical Mennonite Church in Congo, and Siaka Traoré of Eglise Evangélique Mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso). Mubenga and Traoré will be in North America to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. [See Sidebar at top of the story.]
Shue wonders what warm hospitality North American style will look like as churches welcome these two African brothers.
“Throughout the biblical story, God has used hospitality as a way of tearing down separations between people,” said Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Africa. “The anniversary celebrations in Congo were clearly a taste of the coming reign of God. I hope that the North American celebrations can echo the Congolese celebrations in glorifying God for the many lives that have been transformed through the years.”
* Note: Earlier articles translated the French word, communauté, in the names of denominations, literally, as “community.” Rod Hollinger-Janzen, executive coordinator of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, prefers to translate this word as “church.” He explained that the use of “community” is dictated by the national ecumenical body, Eglise du Christ au Congo (Church of Christ in Congo), which considers the totality of denominations as Christ’s body, one church. Each denomination is, then, a part of this larger unity and is called a “community.”
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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.