On July 22, 2015, I began my journey from the relative quiet of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to the bustling city of Kinshasa, Congo. As a representative of our international ecumenical committee (CECCA), I was invited to travel to West Africa to attend the second-ever synod of the United Reformed Church of the Congo (URCC). Because we are in Phase II Ecumenical Relations with the URCC (a fancy way of saying that we are as close as we can get this side of glory), this is an important expression of our fraternal relationship. After significant hours in a plane, I arrived late on the evening of July 23 in Kinshasa, a city of thirteen million people—most of whom seemed to be on the streets as we made our way to the hotel in the city’s notorious traffic. People euphemistically refer to the multitude of dents on their cars as “Congo Camo.”
Having arrived a few days before the synod began, I was blessed to be able to get to know some of the families from one of the local congregations. During this time, the executive committee of the URCC had some pre-synod work to do. I was able to attend some of these meetings and offer some input. I was still coming up to speed and was more than willing to be a silent observer. Much of my silence was prompted by a reality that I continually bumped up against: I don’t speak French, French being the national language of this former Belgian colony.
One of the challenges our committee has faced in forming a meaningful relationship with our brothers and sisters in the URCC is the language barrier. Nevertheless, some of the Congolese brothers speak English, most notably, the chairman of the URCC, Rev. Kabongo. He helped me tremendously during my stay but was not always able to fill in the gaps as he was chairing the synod. Nevertheless, through his assistance, not only was I benefited during the synodical meetings, but also I was able to preach at the Zion URCC of Kinshasa the Sunday before the opening session of synod.
Members of an ecumenical committee are accustomed to dealing with docu-ments and positions in determining our affinity and fraternity with a fellow denomination. That is necessary and essential. And yet, it was in worshiping with these brothers and sisters that our common beliefs were fully experienced in congregational worship.2 Beyond the synod and the camaraderie that develops during these all-day sessions, Sunday worship cemented a closeness that could not otherwise have happened. Here too, I bumped up against the language barrier. My sermon was first spoken in English, then translated into French by Rev. Kabongo, and then translated into Lingala (the local tribal language) by the serving elder. Despite the division of tongues, there was a unity in faith as we celebrated the gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through a study in Luke 15.
If language was one of the issues that I kept bumping up against, poverty is the issue that this young federation continually bumps up against. The people are poor. Here’s the kicker: Kinshasa is the thirteenth most expensive city in the world to live in.3 That’s right. It’s more expensive to live in Kinshasa than anywhere in the United States or Canada. London is just above it in the twelfth spot. Dubai, with all their yachts and supercars, is far more reasonable at twenty-third. Have I made my point? Expensive!
The average Congolese citizen makes roughly $1.50 (US) a day. We sometimes soften the blow of a low number by factoring in a cheaper standard of living. I think I’ve proven that this does not work in Kinshasa. Hence, the poverty the church bumps up against is real, devastating, debilitating, and always present. This can be calculated mathematically. But in my time among the Congolese, you could see it experientially. It was always right there without even the decency to be under the surface. Nope, always in your face.
One of the ways that this poverty is debilitating and hampering the work of gospel ministry is through the URCC seminary. Africa is awash with untrained and ill-equipped pastors. The URCC understands this and sees the need for gifted men with honed skills who can faithfully and rightly divide the Word of truth. Therefore, they established their own seminary. Men have been attending and educated pastors have been teaching. They have a robust course of studies. Unfortunately, during this synod, studies had to be suspended due to a lack of funds and the inability of students to support themselves and their families. This is particularly devastating because there are already too few pastors for the many congregations that need to be served throughout the Congo. The effect of this isn’t hard to figure out.
Before my departure, someone asked me why the URCNA should invest our valuable resources into sending a man from Michigan to attend the URCC synod in Africa. My answer was and continues to be: it is our way of saying to a federation of churches, we value what Christ is doing in you and among you. It puts skin in the game. It says our commitment isn’t just lip service. It’s real and we want it to be meaningful. So we will pay for the shots and immunizations. We’ll pay for the visas and the tickets, and yes, even the bribes. We will face our fears of traveling to a country with a multitude of State Department warnings telling us not to. We’ll stumble and bumble our way through the language barrier. And we will even get sick for a few days. Why? Because this is our way of saying, “We love you. We support you. We are one with you. We praise God for you! We praise God with you!” Yes, we are there for the standard committee work of support and encouragement. But we also go because we recognize that there is a part of Christ and His kingdom that we cannot know or understand on our own and in isolation from others.
Being up close with the URCC also challenges us in how to better assist financially struggling federations. Most of our work in CECCA is done through spoken words and prepared addresses. But what happens when federations need this and more? How is the URCNA prepared to use our resources in a unified way for those with whom we have a unified commitment? Is our current system good enough to address the current need? Questions worth wrestling with.
Please commit to remembering our Congolese brothers and sisters in prayer. God has chosen them, in their poverty, “to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5). A glorious work is being done. Through this good journey a strong bond was further strengthened. Praise God! 1. French: good journey. 2. To see some of the worship service from this Sunday and the song that the brothers sang on my last day to send me off on my bon voyage, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSi99DTpjtY. 3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11680143/The-most-expensive-city-for-expat-living-is-in . . . Angola.html. Rev. Jason Tuinstra is the pastor of Bethel URC in Jenison, MI, where he has served for the past six years. He previously served congregations in Indiana and California.