That was then


The year was 1945. World War II had just ended 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 Clara, her husband, Frank, and two preschool boys left central Kansas Dec. 5, 1945, by train for New York City where they were to board a ship for the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. During the early post-war era, sailing schedules were not well established. The family waited until Dec 31 before they finally boarded. Two weeks later they landed in Port Said, Egypt. The next day they traveled by bus to Cairo. 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, disappointment and praying before they were able to get a charter flight south to Lagos, Nigeria. Two weeks later they got 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. 

Clara was my mother-in-law and the four-year-old son on that journey became my husband two decades later. A diary she kept of this exciting but traumatic time in her life offers insights into the difficulties Clara faced during months of preparation and the four-and-a-half month journey with three- and four-year old boys. Nursing the family through frequent illnesses and keeping the boys occupied during the 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. 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 e-mail is almost instantaneous. Cell phones are cheap and are everywhere. On my last trip to the Congo, I purchased a time card and used a local cell phone. I dialed my home phone number and within seconds my husband answered. 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 Congolese churches were primarily those men who, as teenagers, had worked in the missionary homes as house boys. In fact, last year one of the elderly men in Kikwit identified himself to my husband as the teenager who did the laundry for the Buschman family in those early years. He was grateful to father Frank for making 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 until now the membership in the MB Conference of DR Congo is 10 times that of the total membership in the Canadian and U.S. Conferences combined. Wow!

Foreign missionaries, with financial support from North America, accomplished this early mission work. Today things are different. The Congolese MB church is self-supporting, with its conference headquarters in Kikwit, an inland city of approximately 500,000 people. It has a network of Christian schools in a number of cities, including Kinshasa, Kikwit, Kajiji andTembo, and their surrounding areas. There are several good medical centers, including one in Kajiji that services the entire region. Another clinic in Kinshasa provides care to a slum area of about 100,000 people. Congolese nationals staff all of these ministries.

When Clara and Frank went to the Congo, the need for full-time, long-term missionaries was crucial to bringing the gospel to the people. Now the work of evangelization is done much better by Congolese Christians who know the language, understand the culture and are trained to do so. 

The early missionaries used education as one of their tools. At the recent education consultation held in Kinshasa 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 as well. This is a wide-open mission field. Local educators are excited about the opportunities, but they their schools must improve to have the greatest impact.

Over the years, missionaries and local Congolese educators had built up a good system of schools. Unfortunately, during a previous administration the Congo 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 and equipment, books for libraries and textbooks for children to use. They have requested help in providing updated teacher in-service training. At this point, computer technology is almost nonexistent in most schools. The lack of reliable electricity is a big problem.

Reaching children and their families for Christ is a high priority for the Mennonite Brethren churches in the Congo. Upgrading their schools is a key component in attracting children to their programs. This will require money that the local churches do not have. We need to see these contributions not as a handout but as a hand-up to our brothers and sisters in the Congo. It is not dependency. Rather, it is a genuine partnership in furthering the kingdom of God. We also need to find educators who are willing to go to the Congo and work with teachers to improve their instruction in the classroom.

At one time our denomination sent out full-time, long-term missionaries to evangelize and plant churches in Africa. That was then and it worked. Now, we need to step up to the plate to help the MB Conference of DR Congo with funds and short-term educators. This will help them in their quest to reach many more people for the Lord. This is now. Are we willing to do it?

For more information, contact MBMS International.


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