new Mennonite Life logo    March 2001     vol. 56 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Mennonites in the Congo

Jim Bertsche

By the late 1880s, the combined exploratory efforts of David Livingstone and H. Morton Stanley had laid the great heartland of the African continent bare to the outside world. A number of European powers rushed in to carve out their own colonial holdings.

Among them was King Leopold II of Belgium. Shut in on all sides by his European neighbors, he had dreams of empire and saw Africa as his opportunity to leave his imprint upon history. Laying claim to the area traversed by Stanley, Leopold declared it to be "The Congo Free State" (July 1885) of which he was the sole proprietor and authority. There followed an abysmal chapter of ruthless exploitation as his agents pursued their voracious hunger for natural rubber and ivory. High quotas were set and if they were not met, retribution was swift in the form of whippings, mutilation or death. Entire rural populations were decimated during that period.

Stung by international outcry, the Belgian government finally brought an end to the Congo Free State and brought that immense area under its own rule. In December 1909 they renamed it the Belgian Congo. King Leopold protested furiously.

In the meanwhile, Congo had come to the attention of a wide mix of Protestant Churches in Europe and North America. To the everlasting credit of these groups, a concerted effort was made to send emissaries of the Gospel to the African continent. Among the early arrivals were some Mennonites. This in and of itself is an amazing story. At the turn of the century there was, in central Illinois, a handful of Mennonite believers who had only shortly before been known as the Egly Amish and Stucky Amish. Born of a grass roots revival among Old Order Amish communities led by Bishops Henry Egly and Joseph Stucky, they early in the century renamed themselves respectively as the Defenseless Mennonite Church and the Central Conference of Mennonites.

Caught up in the enthusiasm and fervor of their newly discovered understanding that salvation came not of conservative hair and dress styles but rather of grace by faith in Jesus, they were reading Scripture from an entirely new perspective. They had discovered that the Bible had a lot to say about ministering and witnessing, not only to those close at hand but even to those in the "uttermost parts of the earth." Had they not been hearing about a continent called Africa halfway around the world where suddenly it was possible to go with a witness to Christ?

Undismayed by their lack of first hand information, a group met in the hamlet of Meadows, Illinois, in January 1912 and brought into being an inter-Mennonite mission board known as the Congo Inland Mission (CIM). Earlier that same year they had had fortuitous contacts with the Southern Presbyterian Mission Board which by that time had already had missionaries in the Congo for over a decade. They assured the new CIM Board that not only was there enormous need and opportunity for them there but that there was a large unoccupied region just to the west of them where part of the population used the same dialect. They would be happy to share literature and translated portions of Scripture for their use and to provide any sort of logistical support they could. Thus it was that by the end of that same year, the first pioneers of the CIM found themselves on the banks of the Kasai River in south central Congo at a place called Djoko Punda clearing a beachhead for a Mennonite mission venture in the heart of Africa.

A pattern of operation soon emerged, that of establishing mission posts in strategic areas which, in turn, became the hubs of networks of ministry reaching out in all directions to villages around them. Eventually eight such posts were created scattered across an area roughly equal in size to the State of Illinois. In the process CIM missionaries took up residence among five major ethnic groups while also making contact with four peripheral tribes. Two major Congo rivers came to be regarded as rough boundaries of the CIM field of ministry, i.e. the Kasai River to the east and north and the Kwilu River to the west. The Kasai river port, Pt. Francqui, marked its northernmost border while in the south it extended to the Angolan frontier.

Early on, the CIM Board stipulated that its missionaries were to relate to the people around them in a tribal dialect, this as opposed to using a trade language. Across the years, CIM missionaries made vital contributions to the revision and/or translation of Scripture in two major dialects of their field.

Prior to World War II, Protestant Missions were in Congo strictly on a toleration basis. Unable to deny them entry into the Belgian Congo, the colonial authorities nonetheless made it clear that they were considered to be "foreign missionaries" as opposed to their own Belgian "national missionaries." While Catholic mission personnel enjoyed preferential treatment at many levels including substantial financial help from various large Belgian business enterprises in the country, the Protestants had to make do with whatever funds they were able to generate on their own.

World War II, however, brought far reaching upheaval. Overrun by German troops early in the war, Belgian King Leopold III soon capitulated, this to the consternation and anger of the Belgian populace. When hostilities came to a close, the Belgian people forced the King to vacate his throne in favor of his son Prince Baudouin. On the occasion of the first elections, the Catholic Party, which had for decades dominated the political scene, was soundly defeated bringing into a power a coalition of the Labor and Socialist Parties.

Sweeping policy changes were soon inaugurated some of which directly affected Protestant Missions in the Congo. Fully aware of the long time preferential treatment accorded Catholic Missions, the new government put all Missions on an equal footing thus, for the first time, opening the door for substantial government subsidies for Protestant educational and health programs.

There was a moment of hesitation in Protestant Mission circles when this news first broke. Standing as they all did in the Free Church tradition, they wondered what the implications and complications of accepting these suddenly offered government funds might be. Before long, however, an overwhelming majority of the Protestant Missions, including the Mennonites, concluded that to refuse the offered subsidies meant blocking the greatly improved and expanded educational and medical services which the government was offering to the Congolese populations of their respective areas. This, they agreed, they could not and would not do.

The decade of the 1950s was an era of explosive development and growth among nearly all of the Protestant Missions in the Congo. Government help took many forms. There was generous subsidy for the salaries of African teachers and basic school supplies. In addition, two special funds were put in place by the government, one for the construction of teacher training schools and the other for the building of hospitals and maternity wards.

The Congo Inland Mission tapped into these funds in a deliberate and systematic manner. With subsidies to fund the training and placement of Congolese teaching staff, the teacher rosters quickly doubled, then tripled. Consequently the network of bush church/school centers reached out ever further from each of these eight hub stations. Known as regional centers, these typically would feature a series of stick and thatch school rooms plus housing for students and their teachers. In addition to the resident teaching staff there would also be an African evangelist or pastor. These centers, consequently, became islands of educational and evangelistic activity. Itinerating missionaries would make regular visits to such centers, checking on the schools and meeting with baptismal candidates from the area. Students successfully finishing their studies at these centers would be forwarded to the station of their area to enroll in the upper primary grades.

Comparable expansion of medical outreach was also registered during this period. Missionary doctors and nurses all were engaged in the training of Congolese surgical assistants, nurses and midwives. Isolated rural mission dispensaries were progressively created and staffed by such personnel.

During the 1950s, Mennonite Central Committee sponsored PAX and TAP programs which came to full flower. Via the PAX program dozens of young men found their way to CIM stations where they made great contributions to construction and maintenance programs and the transport of supplies. Some biked along grassy trails in the interest of SEDA, an experimental agricultural development program which, among other things, introduced village folk to the breeding and care of rabbits as a quick and cheap source of protein. Sleeping in their houses, eating their food and hunkering down at night around their hearth fires, the young PAX men achieved cross-cultural relations of trust and influence to a remarkable degree.

And in the CIM teacher training schools, the TAP volunteers spent countless hours in classrooms integrating topics of teaching techniques with French grammar. In informal moments with their students, they explained that their time in Congo was in lieu of military service, and that they served in the name of Christ.

Part of the educational mix was also a vocational training school with a focus on woodworking and construction. In time the graduates found their way back to their rural areas with a basic set of tools. Setting up shop under simple palm branch shelters, they soon began to ply their trade as Christian artisans not only supporting themselves and their families but also making sturdy furniture available to village folk at affordable prices.

In the midst of all of this activity, a central pastoral training school had also been built at one of the stations. Candidates were carefully chosen from among pastors and evangelists who had already served their church in ministry and who had demonstrated their love for the Lord and their commitment to his Church. They followed a three-year course of study focusing on Biblical materials, sermon preparation, Mennonite history and beliefs and methods of evangelism appropriate to their cultures.

As these graduates returned to their home areas to again take up their roles as evangelists and pastors of their own people, they quickly became major voices of proclamation. Combining their mastery of their own languages with their broadened understanding of Scripture and their love for the Lord, they tapped African lore, proverbs and awareness of their African world view in compelling messages of the "Good News." Missionaries often listened with rapt attention and admiration as they held large audiences captive to their messages and pressed the claims of Christ upon them. Their influence, coupled with that of hundreds of Christian school teachers scattered across the CIM landscape, contributed to rapid growth in church membership.

CIM field statistics for the year 1950 reveal the following figures:

  • total church membership 8,409 with 3,785 more preparing for baptism;

  • 294 rural schools with 9,704 students;

  • 28,362 people treated in mission dispensaries and 569 babies born in mission maternity wards.

    In the 1950s Mennonite church membership in the Congo grew by more than 270 percent. School and medical work expanded rapidly as well. Statistics for the year 1959 reveal the following:

  • 22,876 members with 2,489 in preparation for baptism;

  • 27,174 students in school;

  • 82,724 people received medical treatment of one kind or another while 4,154 babies were born in mission maternities.

    Amidst the excitement and optimism of the time, however, there were rumbles of approaching change. Although Belgian colonial authorities seemed to feel that they would still be in Congo for an indefinite period of time, disruptive dynamics were at work across the wide expanses of colonial Africa.

    In North America, a perceptive CIM Board recognized that major changes were in the offing and decided to meet them head on. In February 1960, in a truly historic gathering at Djoko Punda Station, a delegation met with all of the missionaries and a large cross section of African church leadership. At a time when Africans themselves were only partially aware of the powerful forces which were building around them, they were startled by the agenda laid before them by the delegation.

    Delegation statements ran essentially as follows: "From the early days, our missionaries have lived and worked among you. By God's help a large and growing church has been planted. Our missionaries have held positions of leadership and authority within the church as the Mission and Church worked side by side. It is now time that the Mission and the missionaries step back and make a larger place for you, our African brothers and sisters. We want to discuss new structures which will provide larger roles of leadership and greater responsibility for you. If in the future you want missionaries to continue to serve with you in your schools and church committees, it will be your privilege to invite them. In brief, we no longer envision our missionaries working among you under a CIM structure here in Congo. We now want them to serve under the umbrella of the Mennonite Church of Congo."

    After expressions of surprise mixed with gratitude on the part of a number of the Congolese delegates, attention was focused upon suggestions for structures, committees and church officers. Among other things they decided that their church would be known as the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo. Board members, missionaries and church leaders alike drafted and co-signed documents. They set dates for the next general assembly of the church and the consultation came to a close in a season of prayer which reflected the feeling that one and all had been party to a major event in the life of their church.

    Four months later, the Congo exploded in rebellion against the Belgian authorities. The rebellion culminated in the granting of political independence on June 30, 1960. The timing and thrust of the Djoko Punda consultation just a few months earlier could not have been better timed or more appropriate in its focus. Some missions were caught by surprise. Relations between missionaries and Congolese in these missions were strained. But the leaders of the Mennonite Church commented on numerous occasions that the CIM board and missionaries had taken the initiative to call them together and to broach a subject about which they themselves had thought little and which to some, at the time, even seemed premature. This fact stood CIM in very good stead in the troubled years that followed.

    As exciting as was the decade of the 1950s, my most rewarding years of service in Congo came after the Djoko Punda consultation of 1960. As a missionary body we had adopted a stance of servanthood and vulnerability under the leadership and authority of the Congo Church. A number of experiences and settings remain deeply embedded in my memory.

    One is the memory of experiencing the honor of being elected as a vice-president of the Congo Church by a delegate body in annual assembly and thus becoming a member of the church's administrative committee. In this capacity I participated in many meetings. The composition of the committee typically brought together six to eight Congolese and two or three missionaries. At a time in the broader mission community when mission/church relations were sometimes stormy and confrontational across black/white divides, meetings of the Mennonite administrative committee also featured spirited debates and the defense of conflicting points of view. But nearly always there was a white/black mix aligned on both sides of the issue at hand. Attention was focused on the item in question and not upon the pigmentation of skin around the table.

    Another notable memory is that of being part of a small group of church leaders engaged in the painful process of attempting to deal with sin within the Church or within the pastoral ranks. As difficult as it was, undergirding the experience was the rewarding realization that this was my church. It was my privilege to experience its pain and to participate in its struggle to preserve its integrity.

    A third blessed memory is that of standing on the banks of Congo streams with my wife Jenny and witnessing our three children, each in their own turn, being baptized by an African pastor and thereby becoming members of the Congo Mennonite Church.

    Above all, there are the memories of the times when Jenny and I were invited into the humble homes of African friends for food and fellowship. The floors frequently were dusty red clay. The roofs were often rusty tin sheeting; the ceilings, split bamboo mats. Not every doorway could afford a door; lengths of faded cotton prints suspended from string sometimes had to suffice to divide one room from the other. The battered table was a bit wobbly. Food consisted of a big ball of manioc cassava mush accompanied by smaller bowls of manioc greens and chicken in delicious palm oil gravy. Dessert, if any, were slices of fresh pineapple, or perhaps a banana and a handful of freshly roasted peanuts served with tea. As much as we enjoyed the African food, the high point of all such occasions was the love and acceptance extended to us. They desired to share their lives with us, and to give us opportunity to share ours with them. They were our African brothers and sisters in Christ.

    We will always thank the Lord that He saw fit to direct our steps, as a young married couple, toward Africa. We've been immeasurably enriched by the experience and we will always be grateful.