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Congolese Mennonite resiliency

5.3. 2017 Written By: John Roth 200 Times read

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Indiana) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Mennonite magazine. You can read the full May issue online and subscribe to receive more original feature articles and columns like this one. 

In June 1965, Norbort Khongolo and Corneille Malula, Congolese Mennonites from the village of Madimbi, were apprehended by a rebel group embroiled in a prolonged, violent conflict with the Congolese national army. Khongolo and Malula were lifelong friends. Both had attended the Mukedi Mennonite mission school, had served for a time as teachers and then returned to Madimbi, where they collaborated in several small business ventures and took active roles in local church leadership. But in the spring of 1965, an armed group moved into the region close to Madimbi. In an attempt to intimidate the villagers, the head of the militia drew up a list of local leaders to be assassinated, including Khongolo and Malula. According to an account preserved in the memory of the local congregation, both Khongolo and Malula pled with the rebel leader to spare the life of the other, arguing that their own death would suffice. In the end, both men were executed.

The story of Khongolo and Malula’s friendship, their love for the church and their senseless death—retold in The Jesus Tribe: Grace Stories from Congo’s Mennonites, 1912-2012—is only one of many similar narratives woven into the history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite churches in the Congo over the last century. And that story, in turn, is dwarfed by the magnitude of violence the region has suffered, going back at least to 1885, when European powers allocated the Congo Basin region to King Leopold II of Belgium. For nearly 25 years, Leopold ruled the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom. In order to consolidate his control, he established native paramilitary armies that terrorized local inhabitants, pitted tribal groups against each other and enslaved laborers on colonial rubber plantations. By the end of his tyrannical rule in 1908, millions of indigenous people had died as a result of disease, famine, forced labor or outright violence.

The legacy of those horrific policies has echoed through the generations.

In the 1960s, the revolutionary struggle for freedom from Belgian colonial rule left the country deeply divided. In the mid-1990s, ethnic violence in Rwanda spilled into the eastern part of the country, sparking the deadliest war in modern African history. The Second Congo War (sometimes called the “African World War”) eventually involved nine African countries, some 20 separate armed groups, and led to the deaths of 5.4 million people, with millions more displaced. The unresolved legacy of that war, along with ongoing competition for access to minerals, continues to fuel violence in the eastern Congo.

In the midst of these challenges, three Mennonite conferences in the Democratic Republic of Congo, numbering some 235,000 baptized members, have endured with remarkable resiliency, even as their members have shared deeply in the suffering around them. In December 2016, leaders of the Mennonite national churches appealed to Mennonite World Conference for prayer, fearing a new wave of violence when President Joseph Kabila postponed scheduled national elections. At the same time, the Center for Peacebuilding, Leadership and Good Governance, established by the Mennonite Brethren church under the leadership of Pascal Kulungu, has been leading a series of workshops for church leaders, young people and election officials under the banner: “Mennonites in the Congo say ‘yes’ to nonviolence and a culture of peace.”

On March 28, United Nations officials confirmed that the body of Michael (MJ) Sharp—a young Mennonite who had worked as a peacemaker in the central and eastern Congo region for five years with Mennonite Central Committee and the United Nations—had been discovered in a shallow grave. Sharp, along with his colleague, Zaida Catalan, and their Congolese translator, Betu Tshintela, were executed by unknown assailants in the region while on a U.N. fact-finding mission. The fate of their three Congolese motorcycle drivers is still unknown.

The many reports that have emerged since then of Sharp’s courageous work to reduce violence among the warring factions in the region are truly inspiring. His creative witness—like so many others in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition who have borne witness to the vulnerable power of love—will be remembered.

But as we do so, let us also recall the lives of Norbort Khongolo and Corneille Malula; let us remember Pascal Kulungu and the Center for Peacebuilding, Leadership and Good Governance; let us pray daily for the security of our Congolese Mennonite brothers and sisters and for all those in the world who live in fear; and let us not shrink back from the call to be peacemakers in a violent world, even if the cost is high and the weight of history seems overwhelming.

 

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Mennonite magazine. You can read the full May issue online and subscribe to receive more original feature articles and columns like this one. 

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