Trained by WPS, Congolese Churches are Multiplying Rapidly
Driving at breakneck speeds down dusty, unpaved roads, we approach a military checkpoint. Ben, our regional WPS coordinator sits in the back of the aging Land Cruiser. His head has already hit the roof several times, as we hit pothole after pothole at high speeds. We stop at the checkpoint, and Noah, a local pastor and the coordinator of our work in Congo’s North Kivu province, gets out and talks to the soldiers. They quickly wave us through and we hurry on. 10 minutes later we approach another checkpoint, where the exercise repeats itself. We’re all covered in the fine red dust ubiquitous to East Africa, but the alternative is closed windows, and succumbing to the stifling heat. Cars don’t have A/C here!
We’re approaching Cantina, a town in the middle of a vast Congolese wilderness, teeming with militant rebel groups. Some are former perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide; some are factions of an Islamic militant group that fled Uganda. The Mai Mai’s, which translates to Water, Water, are perhaps the most feared group. They are Congolese nationalists trying to kill off all the foreign fighters in the area. Believing they possess magic powers and that bullets will pass straight through them if they are wet during battle, they always emerge from the jungle fearless and soaked in water.
North Kivu is in the midst of one of the longest-lasting armed conflicts in the world. According to the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, the conflict has its roots in the First Congo War that broke out in 1993. By 2004, most of Congo had regained peace, but in North Kivu, with more than 70 distinct militant groups operating, the prospect of peace remains exceedingly grim. The region is also home to MONUSCO, the largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission on the planet, and the only where UN forces may use aggressive force.
Back in the car, we enter Cantina, and our driver slows down — we’re out of the danger zone. The jungle thicket gives way to thousands of small mud homes with tin and palm leaf roofs. I don’t think there’s an electrical grid in Cantina. I’ve been there several times but have never seen a powerline. I also haven’t seen any other cars, but ours.
It’s market day! Women gracefully balancing bundles of produce on their heads are walking to the center of town, to buy, sell and trade. They bring cassava roots, corn or pineapples from their shamba’s to market, and later return home with basics like cooking oil, salt, and soap.
3 years ago, WPS started training a group of 8 local pastors in evangelism and community development. Prakash, our WPS consultant, Ben and I are in Cantina to visit Pastor Kilima, one of the 8. It’s the second day in a row we visit.
Yesterday, I was invited to preach at the dedication of a new church. What a joy to celebrate the expansion of God’s Kingdom with these local believers. 250+ people attended the 6-hour long service. The simple church building only fits 150, so a lot of people ended up standing outside, peeking in over the 4-foot pony walls. Half-way through communion, they ran out of cups and were forced to wash all of them and refill them. That’s a good problem to have for any church, especially a new one.
But today, we’re not here for a church service. The church that was dedicated yesterday, is the 9th church plant in 3 years under Pastor Kilima’s leadership. We’re curious about what God is doing here. How are so many lives being transformed?
When Pastor Kilima first attended our evangelism and community development seminar 3 years ago, he hadn’t even thought of planting other churches. In his own words, he thought Christianity belonged inside the walls of the church. But through the WPS seminars, the Holy Spirit unveiled a new vision of what the purpose of the church is, and how Christians should live. Something sparked in him!
Today, Pastor Kilima’s church isn’t a Sunday attraction anymore! Rather, it has grown into a living, breathing body of God’s people intimately concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbors. How so?
In Pastor Kilima’s own town, the church engaged the community and asked how they best could serve them. The community responded that they needed a school badly. Together with community members, they cut down trees and raised funds for a tin roof. Parents agreed to pay a dollar per month, so the church could hire teachers. 3 years on, the school has 504 students. They have run out of space and recently started using the church sanctuary for additional classrooms. Next year, they expect 600 students and every one of them will hear the Gospel daily.
Down the road from the school, in a valley on the outskirts of town, church members, in an effort to reduce the staggering rates of malnutrition and poverty in the community, set upon another new initiative — a community garden. They didn’t have any land, but God in His goodness gave them favor with a local landowner. He agreed to lease out a field for one year in exchange for one chicken. Today, the field is flourishing with hundreds of eggplants, producing new crops every two weeks. Like Jesus meeting people at their point of need, Pastor Kilima and his church now do the same.
A 15-minute drive down a dusty road we come upon the village of Central Pendekali. Pastor Kilima wants us to meet with Pastor Kambale and his wife Kyaviro. Discipled by Kilima, he commissioned and sent them out as evangelist church planters to Central Pendekali 12 months ago. Within 2 months they had built a home and a church with gritty determination and a few hand tools. Like Pastor Kilima they are also engaging the community using the same, simple “love your neighbor” approach we first taught Kilima. What we taught him, he taught them!
Kyaviro, who is a powerhouse of energy, wants to show us the latest community project she is spearheading. “It’s just down there,” she says and points down a hill. We naively follow her and soon find ourselves in the jungle. Walking in the jungle is nothing like the pristine walking paths I’m accustomed to in my hometown of Colorado Springs. Walking is part of it alright, but so is climbing, crawling and sliding. After what seems like ages, we arrived at an opening, sweat-drenched, exhausted and dehydrated.
Below us in a gorge, a handful of men are building an 8-foot dam. Two are using shovels. The rest are using sticks and their bare hands. “It’s the fish farm,” Noah our local coordinator tells me nonchalantly. I can’t believe it! 2 months ago, I gave him some leaflets on how to build and operate fish farms. They are already putting the finishing touches on the first 2.
Kyaviro has rallied their adopted community around this cause, and somehow, have raised enough money to purchase 1,500 tilapia fingerlings and build 2 ponds. Many community members have pitched in, and they will all share in the takings. Each family will receive fish, and some will be sold, and the profits split. That’s fantastic news for this impoverished community where I have seen several malnourished children, I think to myself.
If WPS was a secular development organization this in itself would be a wonderful success story in the making, but we’re not. We are deeply concerned with physical poverty but are most concerned with spiritual poverty. We want to “Spark Hope,” as our motto says, that leads to salvation and whole-person transformation. So how does one go from fish-farmer to born-again Christian? One doesn’t have to go further than the Gospels for the answer to that. Jesus touched people at their point of need, and in return, some responded to His love. As an elderly widow in a nearby village recently told me of a community project she benefitted from, “If Jesus cares this much about me, then I will follow Him.” And Jesus does care that much! He still stretches His hands out and meets people at their point of need — usually through the local church, His body in the community. Sometimes that outstretched hand looks like a fish pond, and sometimes it looks like a school or a neighbor handing you hungry family an eggplant.
In Central Pendekali, that caring outstretched hand of Jesus has already had an effect that stretches much further into eternity than fish ponds. Since opening their church 12 months ago, Pastor Kambale and Kyaviro’s church has grown to 38 members. Even the local village chief has surrendered his life to Christ and was recently baptized.
On the journey back from the fish farm I’m humbled and rejoice at what I have seen. Jesus still multiplies fishes and loaves! We may only have been that spark of hope to Pastor Kilima and a few other pastors, but they, in turn, have become sparks of hope to a few more, like Pastor Kambale and Kyaviro, who in turn have become sparks of hope to their entire community. What was once a small spark has become a powerful current giving hope to entire communities.
-  Stearns, Jason, Verweijen, Judith and Baaz, Maria Ericksson (2013) The National Army and Armed Groups in Eastern Congo: Untangling the Gordian Knot of Insecurity. Rift Valley Institute.
-  https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/dynamics-peacekeeping-budget-cuts-case-monusco
-  https://www.un.org/press/en/2013/sc10964.doc.htm