That was then, this is now
The year was 1945. World War II had ended just months before. Clara was busy packing and getting ready for a journey into the unknown, the Belgian Congo. She and her husband were to be missionaries there. For months there were medical and dental appointments, purchases made, and clothes sewn. Supplies for several years were crated for shipment. Deputation visits were made to many churches, including a long trip from Kansas to California.
Finally, on December 5, 1945, Clara, her husband Frank, and their two preschool boys left central Kansas by train for New York City where they were to board a ship for the voyage across the Atlantic. During the early post-war era sailing schedules were not well established. The family had to wait until December 31 before they finally boarded. Two weeks later, they landed in Port Said, Egypt. They travelled by bus to Cairo the next day. That’s where the real “fun” began.
At that time, there were no regularly scheduled airline flights into Africa from Cairo. It took six weeks of waiting, being disappointed, and praying before they were able to get a charter flight south to Lagos, Nigeria. Then, two weeks later, they were able to get another flight to Leopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo. Two weeks after that, they boarded a riverboat for a 13-day sail up the Congo River to Kikwit. The final day of travel took them by car over bumpy roads to the small village of Kafumba, which was to be their home.
The four-year-old son on that journey became my husband two decades later and Clara became my mother-in-law. Going through some boxes of family memorabilia, I came across a diary Clara kept of this exciting but traumatic time in her life. It gave me insight into the difficulties she faced during months of preparation and the four-and-a-half month journey with two preschool boys. Nursing the family through frequent illnesses and keeping the boys occupied during long days of travel or waiting must have been very difficult. That was then.
Last September, I made my first trip to the same country, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were going for one week so my husband and I packed light but we made sure we had our malaria medication along. We had pre-arranged airline reservations all the way. Our travel agent even booked a hotel room in Paris for an overnight stay while we waited for our flight to the capital, Kinshasa. Total travel time: three days. My trip was so much shorter and easier than Clara’s. This is now.
In her diary, Clara bemoans the lack of communication with people back home. Letters were few and far between. Phone communication was not readily available. Today, communication, both in the country and internationally, via phone and email, is almost instantaneous. Cell phones are cheap and are everywhere. On my most recent trip to the Congo, I purchased a time card and used a local cell phone. I dialed my home phone number back in the USA and within seconds my husband answered. How exciting! The hard part was figuring out the time difference, so I could predict when he would be home.
In those earlier years, the missionaries focused on medicine and education along with their preaching and teaching efforts. My husband, who lived in this environment, watched as they “grew their own churches.” On a recent trip to the Congo, I was told that the first generation pastors and other leaders in the Mennonite Brethren churches there were primarily those men who, as teenagers, had worked in the missionary homes as “house boys.” In fact, one of the elderly men in Kikwit identified himself to my husband during our visit as the teen who did the laundry for the Buschman family in those early years. He was grateful that the father, Frank, had made it possible for him to go to another town to get more education.
Through those early missionary efforts many Congolese became Christians and churches were planted. The churches grew. Now the membership of the Mennonite Brethren conference of DR Congo is ten times that of the MB membership in Canada and the U.S. combined.
The early mission work was done by foreign missionaries with financial support from North America. Today the MB Church in the Congo is self-supporting with its conference headquarters in Kikwit, an inland city of some 500,000 people. It has a network of Christian schools in a number of areas, including Kinshasa, Kikwit, Kajiji, Tembo, and their surrounding areas. There are several good medical centres, including one in Kajiji that services the entire region. Another clinic in Kinshasa provides care to a slum area of approximately 100,000 people. All are staffed by Congolese nationals.
When Clara and Frank went to the Congo, full-time, long-term missionaries were crucial to the work of bringing the gospel to the people. Now the work of evangelization is done much better by Congolese Christians who know the language and understand the culture.
One of the early missionaries’ tools was education. At the recent education consultation held in Kinshasa (see “Historic consultation held on education in Congo,” August), the participants agreed that Christian schools are again, today, a primary tool for evangelism.
Since church schools are seen as having higher educational standards than government schools, many parents, even the unchurched, send their children to them. Furthermore, the government expects church schools to teach good moral values and allows them to teach their religious beliefs. This is a wide-open mission field. Local education leaders are excited about the opportunities, but know they must improve their schools to have the greatest impact.
Over the years, the missionaries and local Congolese educators had built up a good system of schools. Unfortunately, during a previous administration, the government nationalized the schools, taking control away from the churches. They put in their own administrators who looted the schools of books and equipment so that, today, most schools are severely deficient in these areas. This is where Congolese leaders have asked for help. They need funds to replenish teaching supplies, equipment, books for libraries, and textbooks. At this point, computer technology is almost non-existent in most schools. The lack of reliable electricity is a big problem. Furthermore, they have requested help in providing updated teacher in-service training.
Reaching children and their families for Christ is a high priority for the MB churches in DR Congo, and upgrading their schools is a key component in attracting children to their programs. This will require money the local churches do not have. We need to see these contributions not as a handout, but as a hand up to our Congolese brothers and sisters. It is not dependency, but rather, a genuine partnership in furthering the kingdom of God. We also need to find educators who are willing to go and work with teachers to improve their instruction in the classroom.
At one time our denomination sent out full-time, long-term missionaries to do the work of evangelization and planting churches to help the MB conference of the Congo in their quest to reach many more people for the Lord. This is now. Are we willing to do it?