Three years ago, Rick Eshbaugh, Central District Conference minister, began connecting with leaders in the Congolese immigrant community. Christians from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), including those with roots in the Congolese Mennonite Brethren church, have been immigrating to the United States for roughly the past 15 years, forming congregations and reaching out to their neighbors and fellow immigrants.
This summer the USMB National Strategy Team (NST) brought together leaders of 20 of these immigrant churches, four Congolese ministries and 13 USMB leaders for an August 16-17, 2019, summit in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“The hope of the summit was that we would sit face-to-face and learn about each other,” says Eshbaugh. “We exchanged information and answered questions. We prayed. We acknowledged God’s sovereignty…. But perhaps the greatest was that we were able to build relationships and open our minds to the realities God has presented to us. This is the continuation of a story still being lived out.”
That story, as told during the two-day summit, began with A.A. and Ernestina Janzen from Mountain Lake, Minnesota. They were the first Mennonite Brethren missionaries who began work in DR Congo 100 years ago. Janzen’s first wife died and was buried in DR Congo, as were many other pioneer missionaries of that era. Many of the Congolese who spoke at the summit shared stories of their grandparents receiving the gospel from and being discipled by this first generation of mission workers.
Randy Friesen, president of Multiply, the MB global mission agency, spoke of this history and introduced Dan Strutz, the pastor of Community Bible Church, the MB church in Mountain Lake MB, who was attending the summit on behalf of the Central District Conference Church Plant and Renewal Board.
“When I introduced (Dan) as the pastor of the church that had sent the Janzens a century ago, the Congolese cheered,” writes Friesen in an essay reflecting on the summit. “We collectively acknowledged that mission has now come full circle. Those that once sent missionaries are now receiving missionaries. The Congolese leaders gathered around Dan and his wife, Susanna, and blessed them, praying for God to renew the fire of renewal and mission in the MB church.”
The 52 Congolese participants came from 10 of the 14 states and two networks with which USMB has had contact. One network includes Congolese congregations in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, and Claude Tambatamba, of New Jerusalem Temple, a USMB congregation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, serves as the liaison. The second network includes congregations in North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Maine. These churches include some with direct ties to MB congregations in DR Congo and Henri Ngolo of Kettering, Ohio, is the liaison.
Both Ngolo and Tambatamba were involved in the summit program.
Ngolo joined Eshbaugh in opening and closing the summit. Claver Pashi, president of the Cincinnati Congolese Community, welcomed the group to Cincinnati and the summit.
The keynote speaker Friday evening was Nzuzi Mukawa, the Multiply sub-Saharan church planting leader who is from DR Congo. Mukawa encouraged the Congolese pastors to engage and integrate into their new country.
“You are missionaries sent from the Congo,” he said.
Tambatamba was one of four Congolese pastors who shared during the Saturday morning session. Other speakers were Kayamba Lawum, Amos Esekwen and David Tshibambe. They spoke of their personal experiences as part of the Congolese diaspora in the U.S., challenged their fellow pastors to continue following Jesus and encouraged attendees to pursue association with a family of believers like USMB.
The current generation of Congolese immigrants have endured significant political, economic and social suffering. The Great African War of the past 20 years that involved nine countries and as many as 25 armed groups has cost more lives than that of any other war since World War II.
As those present reflected together on what the Congolese church is bringing to the West, faith in the midst of suffering was a common theme, says Friesen. “However, these leaders self-identify as ambassadors of Christ, missionaries to the West, rather than refugees. Their spiritual boldness and faith in the gospel to transform lives are also gifts they are bringing with them to the established western church.”
Don Morris, USMB national director, says that the summit was a time to “hear the passions and yearnings of the Congolese for connection and belonging as well as their stories of current mission, church multiplication and strong desire to bring Christ to those who are lost.” Morris says the summit also was an opportunity for the Congolese pastors and MB leaders to “investigate potential for connection and membership, to provide fellowship and to inform those attending about USMB and MB agencies.”
Friesen and Garry Prieb, Multiply’s Africa church liaison who lived in DR Congo when his parents were missionaries there, provided an overview of the global MB family. Prieb was able to uniquely contribute to the summit thanks to his ability to speak French and Kituba, a Congolese trade language, his knowledge of the villages from which many of the immigrants come from and his personal connection with Congolese MB churches.
USMB’s Morris, Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation, and district ministers Terry Hunt, Tim Sullivan and Eshbaugh along with CDC’s Strutz gave an overview of the USMB districts and theology.
At the conclusion of the summit, participants left Cincinnati discerning what comes next. According to Eshbaugh, some of the immigrant churches are considering joining USMB district conferences, some church leaders are planning to attend fall district conferences and some NST members are planning trips to meet with individual churches.
The National Strategy Team will meet in early November, and they will be discussing how to partner well with these congregations and their leaders, say Eshbaugh and Morris.
With files from Helene Wedel, Randy Friesen and Rick Eshbaugh