Among the hundreds of MB churches that dot the landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one stands apart. L’Eglise Mennonite du Grand Lac (EMGL) is a peculiar church for a number of reasons.
Unlike its sister churches in the west of DR Congo (started by North American missionaries), EMGL is the fruit of Congolese seed, tracing its roots to a band of church planters from the capital city Kinshasa only 13 years earlier. The pastor preaches at the main church in the city of Bukavu, and oversees six more congregations just outside the city.
Perhaps more atypical is the church’s location – 3,000 miles of untamed jungle removed from the nearest sister church. Perched high above Lake Kivu, Bukavu would be celebrated for its lush jungle and stunning vistas were it not an international focal point of violence. Since the onset of hostility, mostly stemming from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Bukavu has been at the crossroads of conflict.
For many in the church, their lives have been characterized by fear and suffering. As I joined them for worship, I could see this reality etched into faces.
We met in a makeshift tent awkwardly situated on the side of a hill. Wrapped haphazardly around an unstable wooden edifice were strips of off-white canvas marked with the familiar “UNHCR” characteristic of the countless refugee settlements in the area – no doubt an unsettling reminder for many in the congregation. The letters “EMGL” casually scrawled beneath a small cross on a hand-made pulpit were tiny indications this was not a refugee shelter, but a house of God.
Birthed into violence
It would be understatement to say EMGL has suffered hardship. “The church was birthed into violence,” says Dieudonne Kalamuna, a medical doctor and founding member of EMGL. A joint effort by DR Congo’s three Mennonite conferences, the church was planted in 1996, only months before the city was bombed and subjugated by rebel soldiers.
Kalamuna and his family were forced to leave the city under UN decree. He recalls hearing word that his hospital had been attacked and the patients massacred upon evacuation of the staff. Shortly afterward, he and his family returned to Bukavu where he continues to work.
During my three days in the city, I heard similar accounts from others. Another doctor, a teacher, a pharmacist – all spurned better judgment to remain in Bukavu and serve the church. “We were put here for a reason,” explains Dr. Josue, a church elder and Kalamuna’s colleague. He told me EMGL was given a mandate for peace when it was first planted – an identity the church has not forgotten.
More than a philosophy, EMGL’s theology of peace has a vital impact on the day-to-day life of its members. In 2006, when two of the church’s rural congregations were attacked, the church sprang into action to support the victims. Women had been raped, livestock stolen, homes looted and razed. With no help coming from the West, the church began to mobilize food, clothing, and labour, and developed programs to deal with the long-term consequences of brutality.
Crucible of poverty and violence
In its brief 13-year existence, EMGL has come to embody many of the traits of historical Anabaptist faith, with its priority for peace, justice, community, and service. Amongst these faithful Christ-followers, it occurred to me that this spiritual maturity has developed without access to the resources and theological training available in the West. EMGL members have been refined in the crucible of poverty and violence, and are now uniquely equipped to minister to their city.
The church is proud of its engagement in the conflict. Without the luxury of clinical training, they have developed programs for divorce care and trauma counselling – commonly needed in the wake of sexual assault. This is not to say they don’t need help from the West; in fact, they are desperate for it, asking specifically for leadership development, Bible training, and greater expertise in trauma healing and reconciliation.
As Pastor Mbuye closed our meeting by reading from Colossians on hope, it occurred to me just how vital this is to the survival of the church. In many ways, EMGL’s attempt to facilitate peace seems absurd. With a contingent of 20,000 UN troops unable to alleviate the violence, the impact of this small group of nonviolent church-goers seems trifling.
Nevertheless, they continue to sow seeds of peace – patiently and subversively – leaving the results to God.