Going to Church in Congo

Adam Graber wrote the following about Going to church in the Congo:

Leonard arranged for us a taxi to take us to his church. Leonard is an old man here in Congo, although I doubt he is more than 60. The median age in Congo is 16. Children flocked like sheep wherever we went. So here, a man like Leonard, has lived a long, hard life. He saw Congo when it was still under the Belgian hand. He remembers the days before revolt and civil war. He is among the few who remembers a Congo that was not so forlorn.

Despite witnessing the decades of decline and decay, Leonard has the smile of a comfortable couch, looks upon you with a long gaze and sparkling dark eyes, and holds your hand long after you’re done shaking his. Like other elder men I met in Congo, Leonard carried in his arms a tattered, hardcover notebook as though it were a small child. Inside it, he made notes, kept appointments, and wrote addresses that he would review later.

We bounced down a dirt street lined with painted, cinderblock walls. Doorways broke up their contiguity. In front of the walls, ran concrete gutters. The taxi dropped us off in front of a wall that read “Centre Evangelique Nebo.” I crossed the trash-dammed gutter on a bridge made from a car door. Through the opening in the wall, we found ourselves at the corner of the church sanctuary. The far wall, along the right side of the room, was also cinder block. It was the only complete wall. Along the left side hung something like large bed sheets. They were mismatched. One was colorful red, yellow, and blue. On it, was a print pattern with the words “Qui est Jesus?” and “Who is Jesus?” along with other phrases and languages. The words faced the dirt alley that ran between the church and the house next door. I imagined this was a sort of evangelism.

Inside, there were wood benches mostly, but we were sat in the second and third rows, in mismatched plastic, patio chairs. The pastor and other church leaders greeted us with handshakes. As they shook our hands they touched their forearms with their opposite hands, a gesture of respect. I took my seat in a baby blue armchair. The floor was dirt. I studied the ants climbing up and down the wall near a beam supporting the tin roof overhead. The sunlight slipped between the top of the wall and the roof.

I thought about the sanctuary of my church back home. It is a new building, and I had heard it once described as a “fully controlled sound and light environment.” Here, muffler-less cars grumbled past in the street behind us. Drums and cymbals carried across the street from what I presumed to be another church. The bed sheets looked like sails as the air pressure vacillated in and out of this space.

We were a little early—on time by U.S. standards. The singers were just arriving. A few women sat across the aisle with the children. There were maybe 10 adults in this sanctuary when we arrived. One pastor stood in the pulpit. He rested his elbows on the high pulput, almost at shoulder height for the man. He placed his hands on his head, half covering his face. His face was expressionless which I mistook for exhaustion.

A young man, about 20, milled about behind a keyboard situated on the concrete stage at the front of the sanctuary. Then, his voice rang out low and clear with a descending melody: “A Yahweh, A Yahweh Kumumba.” Like bagpipes begun with a drone, then followed by a flood of sound, the rest of the congregation—the 10 adults there—joined in. The young man strolled over to a standing wooden drum, and he began a rhythm. The rest was a capella. Their volume rivaled the sound system at my church.

Much of the music was a call and response. The congregation sang a chorus while one leader or another would sing out a solo over it.

I joined in with this chorus, clueless as to what I was singing. I struggled as I sang, though, to bend my spirit into a posture of worship. I needed to engage with it meaningfully before it could become real worship. I needed to understand what I was saying before my heart, or my head, or my mouth­­—something—could affirm it all. Yet, how often I sing words I know and still hardly mean. I sing those words because I know how to say them. But that “something” inside me doesn’t make the connection with them before they slip past my lips. I am not worshipping then any more than I am mimicking this African language. With all the tongues of men and of angels, I am but a clanging cymbal.

I glanced down the row to Leonard, sitting next to my dad. He was flipping pages through his notebook, studying old notes and scribbling new ones. As the worship wore on, more people trickled in, including many teens and some young adults sitting in the back, until there were 40-50 people in the sanctuary. A man in his 40s slipped into the row in front of us with his Bible and a notebook of his own. His tie was humorously short, falling to the middle of his chest.

The format was quite similar to a church service in the U.S.: worship, announcements, prayer, preaching, worship. Everything was in the local language of Lingala or in French, so I followed very little. The pastor had been standing in the pulpit with his hands covering his face this whole time. He said a few things and then paused, and I heard the chatter of many voices behind me. I bowed my head. It sounded like the voices of the entire congregation, praying aloud. From behind me, my uncle, who knows a bit more of the language than I, grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “I think they’re praying for us.” I was glad that God was not limited by language like I was. I listened to the chatter until it died out, the last voice took a few moments to finish. Then silence.

The man with the short tie stood up and took the pulpit. His chosen texts for the day were Numbers 27:1-9, John 9:1-3, and Hebrews 4:16. They were read from a Bible translated in the local language. I listened but did not understand. I read the passages from my English Bible and tried to grasp their connection.

I wonder how the spread of the Gospel would have been different were it not for the Tower of Babel. Latin would not have been the language of high liturgy, meaningless for the commoner. The arguments about translation would have had a whole different face. Even with one language, it may have evolved over time like Old, Middle, and modern English. Yet the Bible has been inherently translatable from nearly the beginning. Even most of the words of Jesus were not recorded in the language he spoke. It was written in Greek, but he spoke Aramaic. Already in the recording of those red letters, his words were translated, and interpreted de facto.

When the service ended, the chairs and benches were stacked. The sparse musical equipment was packed and hauled away. I was talking with a young man about my age, Jeremie, when I was handed a bottle of Coke. And as I held it, my server popped the lid off. We, each of us guests, were treated to this luxury, and I felt guilty being treated with a Congo pleasure that is not so rare in the U.S.

Arriving in Congo for the First Time

Adam Graber, Brad’s son, wrote the following about his arrival in Congo:

Debarking the plane at the airport in Kinshasa spilled us onto the tarmac. The sun was hot here, just south of the equator. The concrete was brown with oil and grease. I wondered if it was sticking to the bottom of my sandals. We followed the other passengers toward a building marked “Aeroport de Ndjili.” We formed two lines at the doors. Uniformed officer were reviewing passports and yellow cards. Unlike the States, diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid are realistic dangers. We had to show that we had taken precautions. They handed our papers back and stepped aside to allow us up the three steps into the building. Inside out of the sun, we stood in a second line in front of what looked like an old-fashioned theater box office, wooden with a plate of glass and a slot for papers (and cash, if it came to that). Behind it were the immigration officers. At that point, the first set of officers seemed to have no clear purpose, quite unnecessary in fact.

My dad’s first piece of advice to me before we left the States was “Be ready to flex and punt.” In Congo, standards and protocol are ad hoc. Authorities are ad hoc. Roads are ad hoc. Plans are ad hoc. Meals are ad hoc. In that sense, Congo was a bit like college. Actually, a bit like being a bachelor, too.

The immigration officer questioned me in French, and I muddled through as best I could. “Stupid American” can be quite useful when used appropriately. Traveling through the country in a week’s time required showing my passport to four or five more authorities. Each time I simply shrugged when they interrogated me en Francais. Not wanting to hassle with my stupidity, they signed the papers and let me on my way. It was for the best.

Before I knew it, two Africans were directing us past the baggage claim. I’d been informed ahead of time that we would need them in order to get our luggage without much hassle. Men stand around soliciting ad hoc employment from arriving travelers. For a fee. No uniforms. No organization. No corporate structure. No management. Each is his own employer.

They led us around to a door. Locked. They turned and appealed to the apparent gatekeeper nearby—the current “authority.” At the same moment, a third African appeared holding a piece of notebook paper. My last name was scribbled on it in large letters. That was enough validation for us. This was our prearranged contact. We simply hadn’t known that. When Pascal showed up, our two interceptors knew they were out of business. But they wouldn’t give up without making Pascal’s job more difficult. They harassed him for the next hour while we retrieved our luggage. They shouted and gestured, burned and sweated.

The baggage claim would’ve been a pretty sedate place—that is, like most baggage claims—without these vultures. I wondered, Who in the world decided one day, “I think I’ll go to the airport today and help people do something they could manage to do themselves but I’ll charge them exorbitant fees to let me do it for them”? Whoever he was, he’d created a monster. This was the first business venture I saw in Congo.

After our first run-in with the police, we drove from the airport to our hostel. I got my first glimpses of Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. There was trash everywhere. It was like living downwind from a landfill. I also saw a second business venture: public transit, ad hoc. While carpooling may be trendy transport in the U.S., it is a way of life in Congo. Nonetheless, the congestion and pollution in Kinshasa were stifling. Much more than suburban Chicago. Volkswagen Buses from 40 years ago and foreign subcompacts serve as much of the city’s public transportation. I estimated in one VW Bus to be carrying 18 passengers in four rows behind the driver. In the back of every Nissan, there were at least 3 passengers. Only once did I see a vehicle with only one person in it, a few with two, most with five, six, or thirty. I doubt that’s an exaggeration.

A day later we walked to a nearby market. There, I saw a traffic jam. Subcompacts were backed up for half a block. The drivers stood next to their driver’s side doors shouting at one another. At the front of the jam, two or three drivers seemed to be arguing with one another over what must’ve been a fender bender. I stood watching the exchange. I was surprised at the vitality of it. Every car in Kinshasa had its fair share of scrapes and dents.

“That’s a taxi rendezvous point,” one of my companions said, pointing at the traffic snarl. “This is a hub. The drivers pick people up and bring them here. Then the passengers switch to cars heading toward their destinations.”

I looked again. The chaos took on a new dimension. It was a taxi hub. Instead of arguing drivers, I saw a manager directing passengers and coordinating cars and drivers. People were constantly shuffling and moving, climbing into and exiting cars. Mass confusion was actually a highly developed and somewhat efficient taxi system. (Again, ad hoc.)

There are few sidewalks in Kinshasa. The city is lucky just to have paved streets. Kinshasa is probably the only place in the whole country to have them. For this reason, foot traffic and vendors clutter the streets and dart in and out of traffic. The mechanics shop is wherever the truck, bus, or car breaks down. And that may be the inside lane. Cars whiz past beeping exhausted horns at endangered pedestrians while mechanics fix flats, troubleshoot engine problems, and fill empty oil pans and radiators. Neither the oil nor the water will last long in those engines. They will either burn off or drip out over the next few days. Then, they will be refilled. Every driver is a mechanic, finding and fixing whatever the current problem is. The Congo probably has more mechanics than it has running vehicles.