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From refugees to church planters, Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo celebrates 50 years

   
 


Benjamin Mubenga Wa Kabanga, president of Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Evangelical Community of Congo), blesses one of the 16 pastors who were ordained during the denomination’s Golden Jubilee celebration July 23-27 in Mbuji Mayi. White powder is a sign of spiritual blessing that family showered on the pastoral candidate during the celebration.

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Group of African children surrounding white male.
Willard Metzger, Executive Director, Mennonite Church Canada attended the Congolese Mennonite celebration of 50 years of ministry.

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August 24, 2012
- Lynda Hollinger-Janzen, with reports

MBUJI MAYI, Congo (Meetinghouse) –Prime-time television news, amplified guitar riffs and deep-throated traditional drums announced to the city of Mbuji Mayi that Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo) was celebrating their 50th anniversary from July 23-27.

These festivities, like the celebrations a week earlier of the church’s mother denomination, Communauté Mennonite au Congo (Mennonite Church in Congo), combined worship with teaching and fellowship. An additional feature of the program in Mbuji Mayi was the ordination of 16 pastors, including the first woman to be ordained in this denomination, Mimi Kanku Mukendi (see sidebar below).

In his opening address, the head of the church, Benjamin Mubenga Wa Kabanga, introduced the 20 Mennonites from three continents who traveled to participate in the denomination’s 50th anniversary, as “real brothers and sisters – not strangers.”

Mubenga also said that Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo has remained true to the four tenets that it established in the beginning: evangelism, obedience to the authority of God’s word, holistic ministry and adherence to Anabaptist teaching.

“We are passionate about people coming to salvation,” Mubenga said.

Celebration despite dissension
The two Mennonite church groups have a shared history until the time of independence in 1960, when interethnic violence erupted between the original inhabitants of West Kasai and Eastern Luba Mennonites who had been forced into the region many decades prior by the Arab slave trade in Zanzibar. To escape the new upheaval, Eastern Luba Mennonites fled back to their homeland, becoming refugees once again.
Both denominations trace their roots to 1912 when Congo Inland Mission—now, Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission—arrived in the country and began ministry in West Kasai province.

Though the Luba refugees tried to maintain ties with the mother church in West Kasai, the polarized political climate, difficulties of travel and non-existent means of communication made this unworkable. In 1962, today’s denomination, Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo, was born out of necessity imposed by these constraints.

Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo holds fast to its Anabaptist identity, especially cherishing the peace stance, perhaps because the denomination has experienced so much conflict in the past half century. The words of an original song composed for the anniversary by highlife band, Orchestre Evangélique Mennonite (Mennonite Evangelical Orchestra) of Sangilayi Bipemba, speak to this commitment to peace:

Mennonites, let us be united…
Let us seek peace and sanctification without which no one will see God…
Let us love each other… [standing] against division in the church.
Mennonites, we are pacifists.
Mennonites, we are Anabaptists.
We are non-violent people.

During the Golden Jubilee celebration, a troupe of Mennonite actors re-enacted the life of the early Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo in scenes that echoed the account of the nascent church described in the first chapters of Acts, where sharing with those in need was an effective form of evangelism. The hospitality and generosity that allowed the refugees to survive and then thrive as they became a church continues. This daily witness has helped the denomination to grow to 25,000 members in 110 congregations operating about 100 schools.

Despite the emphasis on solidarity and peace, division continues to challenge Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo. Efforts are being made by a mediator from the mother church, Mennonite Church in Congo, to reconcile the current leadership conflict.

Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission’s executive coordinator Rod Hollinger-Janzen chose to attend the event with the international delegation, despite the conflict, because he believes that support is essential when a person or a church is going through difficulties.

“Problems can more easily be solved when relationships are strong,” Hollinger-Janzen said. “To not attend this celebration is a punishment-based approach. AIMM and its partners prefer an encouragement-based approach.”

Hippolyto Tshimanga, Mennonite Church Canada Witness director for Africa, said that we all care about the state of the church in Congo, but most of the time our “shoulds” and “musts”  get in the way of a healthy relationship and act against our stated desire. Mennonite Church Canada has chosen the way of “healing and transformative accompaniment” modeled by Jesus in the story of Zacchaeus.

“When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today,’” Tshimanga says, referring to Luke 19:1-10.  It is that logic that motivates us to continue work in Congo together with Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo, Mennonite Church in Congo, alongside the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, and Mennonite Mission Network.

At the request of Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Willard Metzger, Executive Director,  attended the celebrations. "It is important that we display our support for our global sisters and brothers. Conflict does not disqualify the church from celebrating a significant, milestone anniversary and expecting the global church to join in giving thanks for God's faithfulness."

Dissention, past and present, could not dampen the spirit of praise during the Golden Jubilee, however. With joyful melodies and irresistible rhythms that compelled even North American Mennonites to dance, the Mennonite Evangelical Orchestra sang:

Mennonites, let us avoid those who separate us.
Let us gather around what unites us.
Let us walk all together, creating unity in our diversity…
We are the members of Jesus’ body.
The Mennonites, we are all Mennonites,
Praise, praise, praise the Lord.

Can legendary Congolese hospitality be re-paid?
Beginning in September, Mennonite congregations in Canada and the United States will have opportunities to welcome two Mennonite heads of denominations, Benjamin Mubenga Wa Kabanga of Evangelical Mennonite Church in Congo, and Siaka Traoré of Eglise Evangélique Mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso). Mubenga and Traoré will be in North America to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. [see sidebar below.]

Tshimanga wonders what Canadian-style will look like for these two African brothers.

 “Throughout the biblical story, God has used hospitality as a way of tearing down separations between people,” said Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Africa. “The anniversary celebrations in Congo were clearly a taste of the coming reign of God. I hope that the North American celebrations can echo the Congolese celebrations in glorifying God for the many lives that have been transformed through the years."

 

 

Group of African children surrounding white male.
Mimi Kanku Mukendi was the first woman ordained as a pastor in the Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo of Congo). She was among 16 pastoral candidates receiving ordination on July 26, 2012.

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Sidebar: CEM ordains first woman pastor
Although Communauté Evangélique Mennonite au Congo (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo of Congo) voted to ordain women as pastors in 1993, it took nearly 20 years for that decision to become reality when Mimi Kanku Mukendi was included among the 16 pastoral candidates receiving ordination on July 26, 2012.

“Women in the Old Testament, and until today, endured, and continue to endure discrimination, marginalization and injustice at the hands of men,” Kanku said in a teaching session a few days before her ordination. “However, despite the mistreatment, women have played very important roles in salvation history as prophetesses, queens and wise elders.”

Kanku said that Jesus repeatedly cast women in the role of evangelists, like the Samaritan woman through whom a whole village was saved, and Mary, who was the first person entrusted with the news of his resurrection.

“At Pentecost, women as well as men received spiritual gifts from God,” Kanku said. “By the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, women were invested with power to witness for Christ in acts and words.”

When church leaders laid hands on Kanku and prayed for her the day of her ordination, she said it was a tangible experience.

“The Holy Spirit came upon me in a way I never experienced before,” Kanku said. “I felt overcome by power.”

Belarman Ngalula Tshimanga, Kanku’s husband, is a government financial officer in Bandundu province, hundreds of miles from his family. He also serves as an evangelist for Communauté des Eglises de Frères Mennonites au Congo (Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo) because there are no nearby Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo churches.

This flexibility in denominational affiliation within one family testifies to the fraternal relationships between the three Mennonite denominations in Congo.

In the short-term, Kanku will continue to pastor a congregation in Kinshasa where she lives with the couple’s two children, although denominational leaders soon hope to assign Kanku to a church location near her husband, so the family can be re-united.

Sidebar: AIMM celebrations throughout North America:
Archbold, Ohio – Sept. 9
Ft. Wayne, Ind. – Sept. 9
Berne, Ind. – Sept. 14
Goshen, Ind. – Sept. 16
Mt. Lake, Minn. – Sept. 21
Normal, Ill. – Sept. 23
Landmark, Manitoba – Sept. 28
Newton, Kan. – Sept. 29

For more information, contact AIMM at 574-535-0077 or aimm@aimmintl.org.