It was in late 1998 when the General Board of Global Ministries in New York City decided to evacuate all United Methodist missionaries from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was in the mountains in the Mitwaba District when the call came on the district superintendent’s ham radio. I left in this ordered retreat.
Now in early 2010, I arrived at the border of the Mitwaba District at the village of Kyubo, greeted by a wave of United Methodists. Those who have visited communities in Africa know what these greetings can look like. Scouts met us several kilometers outside of town to relieve us of our bicycles. District and local lay leaders brought water and walked with us. United Methodist Women led the singing and dancing. An official delegation met us at the district border with gifts of flowers and doves. Hundreds of children were underfoot. This was all that and something much, much deeper personally. These were my people. I was their missionary. And even after a 12-year absence, they still thought of me as their missionary. And beyond that, my arrival represented the return of the greater United Methodist Church. Their long wait was over.
Since my leaving, these brave people have gone through the most under-reported human tragedy of the last two decades; 4 to 5 million Congolese killed and I was stepping onto this hallowed ground. As I stepped into the district, I saw the piles of remaining bricks of the burned out church. Eighty five percent of the village had been burned. (UN numbers) Then I was taken to the mass graves marked by three simple wooden crosses.
First the May-May (pronounced My My) came through burning and killing. Then government troops swept out the May-May, likewise burning and killing. The slaughter was indiscriminate and brutal; rape and machete being the weapons of choice.
Everything I know about the war in Congo I learned in the village. Village leaders taught me that when the regular Congolese troops were shown to be no match against the invading Rwandan and Ugandan armies, the May-May arose as the “saviors” of the Congolese people. (Think Khmer Rouge.) They were saving the people through a reign of fire and death. The name May-May means Water-Water. Spiritually high (and drugged up), the May-May believed that bullets passed through them like water. They were led by war lords who wore necklaces of human body parts. They terrorized the land. That being said, when the government troops finally displaced them, the village experienced death and destruction all over again.
With Superintendent Mulongo of Mulongo District and Superintendent Mutombo of the Mitwaba District, I had just entered what had come to be known as Le Triangle de la Mort (The Triangle of Death), also known as the Route Rouge (the Red Road). As we rode north, we saw village after village with the same story. Villages that at one time were things of beauty, now looked like the bush.
The task before us is daunting. A visit like this is a promise, a promise to return with real help. Friendly Planet Missiology is all about delivering the kind of help that moves a community toward self-sufficiency and our ultimate goal is to leverage local resources, but right now we United Methodists have a lot of churches, schools, and clinics to rebuild; wells to be dug; bicycles, farming tools, and mosquito nets to be delivered; and future leaders to be trained.
Bob Walters and his daughter, Taylor Walters Denyer, are the leadership and community development team of Friendly Planet Missiology. For more information, visit www.friendlyplanetmissiology.org.
This spring Walters finished a 1,000 kilometer (600 mile) bicycle tour of remote districts of the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo evaluating the state of The United Methodist Church with an eye toward two concerns: communities struggling to recover from the war, and communities who once had resident missionaries and now are struggling to keep those mission stations alive.