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2007-03-20 issue:

Diamonds are forever

Mennonites in Congo and Mennonite Church USA learn together.

by Ron Byler

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On the road from Mbuji Mayi through the diamond fields, Reverend Benjamin Mubenga was asked by passersby if he was taking his white passengers to see diamonds.

Mubenga, president of the Communaute Evangelique Mennonite, said he was on his way to visit churches. Much later, his p1assengers, five members of the Mennonite Church USA delegation to Congo, agreed that Mubenga was helping to shape diamonds of a different kind—congregations in the Eastern Kasai province of CEM that serve Jesus in their communities.

The group was part of a church-to-church visit in Congo, Feb. 2-16, to help build new relationships between Mennonite denominations in Congo and the United States with the encouragement of Mennonite World Conference.

On the diamond trail, the delegation, accompanied by church leaders of CEM, traveled more than five hours in an SUV over rut-filled, washed-out roads to visit three Congolese congregations near Tshintshianku, just 60 miles outside Mbuji Mayi. They visited nearly a dozen parishes in total.

East Kasai is one of four provinces of CEM, the smallest of three Mennonite-related conferences in Congo, with 86 congregations and about 24,000 members.

Just under two-thirds of its members and parishes are in the East Kasai province the delegation visited. The delegation flew from Kinshasa to Mbuji Mayi, a city of about 2 million people and the headquarters of CEM.

CEM administers 60 schools with about 10,000 students. The church receives some payment from the government, but it is far less support than is needed to run the schools effectively.

In addition to training 25 new evangelists, CEM leaders said their goals include expanding their office facilities and building a health center, primary and secondary schools and homes for some of their leaders on the land surrounding the Dipumba parish in Mbuyi Mayi.

Leaders from churches in both countries agreed it is difficult to build mature relationships in which both churches can give and receive gifts. Mennonite Church USA delegation members repeatedly felt expectations in the parishes that the Americans had come to give them money, despite Congolese leaders’ assertions each time that the visit was about building friendships.

Leaders of both countries talked together about the gifts they think the other church has to offer. The U.S. church delegation said the Congo churches have vitality in worship, an understanding of generosity and endurance to remain faithful when times are difficult to offer American churches.

Congo leaders said their U.S. counterparts have political influence, experience in leadership training and resources to share.

“Our people can be motivated to be self-sufficient,” Mubenga said. “Our problem is how to get there to motivate them.”

Throughout the visit, delegation members saw economic generation projects, including rabbit breeding, bread baking, palm oil and grain producing. Congolese leaders said their congregations need to generate sources of income within the church rather than expect help from outside.

“Through your music and prayer, you’ve nurtured our spirits,” said Suzanne Lind, co-country leader for the Congo for MCC and a member of the delegation.

“You had the good will to visit your brothers and sisters, even in the far corners of our region, and that proves you care for us,” said Mubenga.

On the road back from Luputa to Mbuji Mayi earlier in the week, the 15-member SUV entourage jumped out of the vehicle to visit a diamond merchant who was a member of one of the CEM congregations. He showed them a handful of small, uncut diamonds worth more than $1,500.

Like these diamonds, leaders agreed, the initial gift-sharing efforts between Congo and U.S. churches are small, but the potential can be very valuable.

Ron Byler is associate executive director of Executive Leadership for Mennonite Church USA and a member of Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

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