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Frightened by white faces


Serge Kaptegaine was forced to flee is home in eastern DR Congo because of his peace building activities. In Canada, he discovered the Mennonite Church – and the peace theology he intuitively practiced in his homeland.

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January 3, 2006
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — When Serge Kaptegaine walked into a Mennonite Church in Winnipeg one sunny summer morning, he turned to leave – frightened by all the white faces in the congregation.

It was his first church experience since arriving in Canada as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo just two months earlier. Kaptegaine recalls the two words from the pulpit that stopped him in his tracks: merciful peace. He sat down, suddenly eager to hear more.

Captured and held in Eastern Congo for 18 months and enduring “every humiliation you can imagine,” the 30-year-old French teacher confesses he had lost his faith in God.

Raised as a Baptist in a country torn apart by civil war, Kaptegaine had grown disillusioned with a church unwilling to work for peace. Aligning with friends in a make-shift peace team, Kaptegaine sought to bring rival rebels into dialogue with one another – a nearly unheard of venture in eastern Congo. It was during a trip to another village to arrange one such meeting that he fell into the wrong hands.

Sharing a hole in the ground with other captives and sometimes corpses, he somehow got a message out through a friend. A sympathetic priest bribed a guard, helped him escape, and spirited the soft spoken village teacher out of the country.

There was not a lot of time to make decisions. The priest recommended Canada – and specifically, Winnipeg. The priest had visited Winnipeg once. “It is a nice sized city for you,” Kaptegaine recalls the priest saying.

Before he was able to get word to his wife and two young children, Kaptegaine found himself on the doorstep of Welcome Place, a transition centre for newcomers in Winnipeg. A conversation with his settlement counselor about local churches led him to Home Street Mennonite Church – and his frightening encounter with an all white congregation.

Kaptegaine is a natural connector. His gentle spirit and compassion for others draw people in. Since arriving in Canada in April of 2005, he has found himself the humble and grateful recipient of much good will. He has an apartment and a job as a French teaching assistant at a Winnipeg high school. His has received some financial aid to help bring wife and daughters – whom he located in temporary housing in Germany – to Canada. On Christmas day alone he had five invitations to join with various colleagues and friends in celebrating Jesus’ birth.

But his soul remains restless. “My country, my people, need this Mennonite message of peace,” he says with a deeply rooted passion. “Where are the Mennonites in eastern Congo?” He has lost seven members of his family to the fighting, including his mother and sister. The conflict has consumed an additional 4 million Congolese lives.

“A businessman will not go into a country that is insecure,” he says. “But the church is not a business. The church, with its message of peace, needs to be exactly in the places that are not secure.”

He is grateful, to be sure, for his new home in Canada and sees here the possibilities for what his people back home need most: empowerment and personal transformation. International mission projects are good at helping indigenous people build needed infrastructure such as hospitals, he says, but hastens to add that, “Once my people have peace, we can build the hospital.”

Kaptegaine is so committed to peace building that he is changing his career. He has already become the coordinator of Hand in Hand for Peace in the Congo, a local Congolese group working to raise awareness of a conflict he feels the media has forgotten about. “I don’t understand why the media was so concerned with Michael Jackson issues. There is so much else, so many other stories to tell,” he told a Winnipeg Free Press writer.

He recently began part-time conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College. An able and articulate presenter, he has received numerous invitations to speak at local events – events that have also billed names like University of Winnipeg president Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, MP Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, and filmmaker Sacha Trudeau.

What Serge Kaptegaine has all along felt in his heart – the gospel message of love, peace, and reconciliation for all of humanity and creation – has for him become deeply rooted in a place far from his home. His story has just begun.

Working with other church partners, Mennonite Church Canada contributes $30,000 annually to ministry in DR Congo. Ironically, DR Congo has the third largest number of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ members in the world (over 194,000 according to Mennonite World Conference 2003 figures). The majority are located in the less conflicted western region.