Read Ed Jones’ first post about his trip to the Congo: “The Ties That Bind: The Anglican Communion.”
Through the window of our tiny charter plane, it looked like a sprawling city on a picturesque lake. From a distance, it could have easily passed as the Swiss foothills of the Alps. But as we flew closer, Goma began to reveal more of its troubled self.
The roads were dusty and rutted, the land mostly barren. The streets were teeming with people. And what had appeared to be houses were little more than makeshift huts. The sides of the runway were littered with the carcasses of rusty airliners.
This is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the slice of central Africa made famous for Westerners by Joseph Conrad’s chilling novel, “Heart of Darkness.” Yet for all of the Congo’s otherworldly challenges, my two colleagues from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and I learned during a week in May that good things are happening there.
Children in classrooms with dirt floors and porous ceilings still dream of becoming doctors and priests. Women burdened by the chaos of millions of displaced families from two decades of war receive small loans from the church to start businesses. Priests, whose churches have been ransacked by “negative forces,” the term for the militias that prowl the bush in this border area between the Congo and Rwanda, vow to go back and start over.
Hope survives in the Congo.
One of the many amazing things about this trip to me was how a country that is among the poorest in the world can still offer a welcome that is the most joyous I’ve ever received.
Men, women and children packed churches all over the cities of Goma and Bukavu to greet our small contingent, which included Buck Blanchard, the director of mission and outreach for the Diocese of Virginia, and Carey Chirico, who works with outreach, children’s education and world mission at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg.
Women offered warm embraces. Children raced to touch you. I could hardly walk anywhere without a boy grabbing my hand and walking beside me. Carey was a magnet for the women and children, and Buck was a rousing cheerleader for the spirited congregations.
Even those who lost their parents at a tender age show a spirit of resilience.
At an Orphans Project north of Bukavu, 27 girls, from 11 to 16, stood up one by one to tell us their stories. Many had been raped. At least three had children from those rapes.
“I was kidnapped and had been begging before I came here.”
“My father is blind. they cut off the leg of my mom. I am 15.”
“My father was killed. My mother was crippled.”
And yet there they were in a church learning how to sew, studying to be tailors, building a new future.
Our host for much of our trip was Bishop Bahati, the Anglican leader of the Diocese of Bukavu. He’s a man with a deep faith and a baritone voice to go with it. And, like so many other Congolese we met, he retains a joyous sense of humor despite the immense challenges he faces.
As we prepared to dine at the bishop’s house one evening, the power went off, as it did several times a day.
“It’s the Congo,” bellowed the bishop from the darkness of his living room. There was a lilt in his voice.
–By Ed Jones, Editor; originally published in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star