Grace in Unexpected Places: Our Encounter with the Church at Mabangara
by Charles Buller
The following story comes from a recent trip I made to Congo in an effort to continue developing a leadership coaching network for Congolese Mennonite pastors. Many of these leaders live and serve largely cut off from the typical support structures one might have in a more urban context. My visit this time around was, amongst other things, to simply connect with rural pastors and let them know they are not forgotten to the church in the west, and to hear about the particular challenges that can inform the network we are developing.
Our arrival at the former AIMM mission station of Nyanga the night before (March 13), was anything but a 'soft landing'. Earlier that day we had set out from Tshikapa thinking we had given ourselves sufficient time to make our destination before dark. A two-hour hold-up at a roadblock however, (apparently we had received “forged documents” from the license branch and now needed the “correct ones” - issued on the spot for a measly $50), put us miles a ways from Nyanga as the sun set. Into the dark we road on.
And then I heard it behind me: the deadening thud and accompanying squeal of motorbike-vs-pig. My traveling partner, Albert Mulamba, had T-boned a large boar and they both went sprawling. When we had picked up the pieces, the pig was nowhere to be found, and we had just lost one third of his fuel supply to a punctured external gas can. Albert had suffered surface injuries to his lower leg, but nothing to keep us from journeying on. By 9pm we were welcomed by the pastor of Nyanga’s central church. Later that evening I played the part of Mr Nurse for Albert's wounds, and by God’s grace, we both had a restful sleep.
Morning came all too quick however, and after a time of worship and sharing with area church leaders, we mounted our iron horses and rode on. By 11am we were sweating profusely as we muscled our motorcycles through yet another treacherous sand bog. Having sent word ahead by mobile phone, we he hoped to meet with a small delegation of church leaders located close to the Louangi River crossing. We just just didn’t know where exactly to find them.
Making my way down the long descent to the river, my wheel suddenly washed out from under me. Again. This time I went down hard, and found my left leg trapped under the bike. In this helpless state, I looked up to find several boys running toward me. It wasn’t altogether clear what their intentions were at first. To my pleasant surprise they had come to help lift the bike off my leg. As I stood up, I realized what my focused attention on the road had blinded me to just before the fall: 100 yards ahead was a group of people with palm branches in hand, singing and waving our welcome. As we pulled up, the group enveloped our motorbikes and redirected us along a freshly hoed, palm-branch lined road toward their church building some 200 yards away. Children and adults danced as we made our way, only to be met by an even larger rejoicing throng as we came to a stop in front of the church.
I pulled out my video camera and begin filming, all the while fighting back tears. I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of my unworthiness to be honored and received with such effusive joy and kindness. These dear folks, who didn’t even know me, had gone all out to make us welcome and show Christian hospitality. Together we marched into the mud-brick building which was their sanctuary. Albert and I were ushered directly to the seats of honor at the front. Others remained outside for lack of space.
The singing went on and on until finally, to shouts of ‘Alleluia, alleluia!’, the assembly settled down and we began an impromptu service with prayer, scripture reading and more song. Forty-five minutes later we were seated at the pastor’s table to a feast of their finest Bidia (manioc mush) and fresh fish from the Louangi River. The pastor commented, “No missionary has visited our parish in nearly 20 years. Today you have shown us that we are not forgotten!”
Given the many miles yet ahead of us yet that day, we said our final goodbyes and continued our descent to the Louangi crossing. A group of men from the congregation ran ahead of us the remaining two kilometers in hot sun to the roadblock guarding the bridge. They sat with us through another hour of formalities with the local police, explaining to them the purpose for our passage, and asking for leniency in the ‘tolls’ were were expected to pay. As we finally parted ways, I found myself weeping again. Here, in the struggle of life that is Congo I had encountered the very heart of God and had been shown the priceless gift of lovingkindess. I was reminded of the scripture found in Psalm 50:23, “As soon as you set your foot on the Way, I’ll show you my salvation” (Message translation).