Three weeks after I retired from Eli Lilly in 2008, I found myself on a plane headed for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Even at the time, it seemed a very unusual way to start the next stage of my life. However, this was the beginning of what would be a very important part of my life in retirement.
Indiana had traditionally been connected with mission co-workers in a country for a 10-year period (Lesotho, 1986-96; Nepal, 1996-2006. Global Ministries recognizes that establishing relationships directly with partner church units in a country allows regions to discover a much more accurate picture of what church life is like in other parts of the world. For example, Disciples of Christ have been active in DRC since the 1890’s, when the first missionaries arrived. Today, there are far more Disciples in Congo (>1 million) that in the United States and Canada (app. 650,000). Realizing that we had much to learn about this historic connection, with help from Global Ministries, the Christian Church in Indiana (CCI) was seeking to establish a partnership with the Mbandaka Post of the Church of Christ in Congo/10th Community Disciples of Christ (CCC/10th CDCC). A committee dedicated to that work was formed, the Congo Task Force.
In 2008, Rick Spleth, the Regional Minster in Indiana, dedicated much of his sabbatical to leading us in forming that partnership. The trip in May 2008 allowed us to formalize that relationship in person. On this first visit, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins joined the Indiana delegation, returning to the country where she had served years before as a fraternal worker just out of college. Also with us, and incredibly helpful in interpreting what we would see, was Sandra Gourdet, Africa Executive for Global Ministries, and a former mission co-worker in DRC for 20 years. We spent a couple of days in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC and headquarters of the ecumenical Church of Christ in Congo (CCC). We learned that this organization of Protestant churches includes some 62 denominations and includes about 25% of the population of the country. The Disciples of Christ were among the most active groups in the founding of the CCC, and a Disciple, the Rev. Dr. Bokeale, served as its first president. Over 50% of the population are Catholics or other Christians, so the DRC is currently and historically a predominantly Christian country.
During this visit, a formal Partnership Agreement was signed for 5 years and renewed for another 5 years in 2013. A partnership logo was designed, and thanks to a grant, a video about the Partnership was created. DVDs of the video were shared with every attendee at the Indiana Regional Assembly in the fall of 2008. The witness and interpretation by Hoosiers who visited the DRC in 2008, 2011, and 2014, as well as the reciprocal visits of Congolese Disciples in 2009, 2012, 2016, and 2017 to over 40 Indiana congregations, strengthened the commitment, and in many ways transformed, the way Disciples in Indiana approach missional relationships, including solidarity and presence as a critical part of relating to Christians in other countries. They also learned much about the importance of joy in worship and the importance of sharing resources from the Congolese, who so freely give of the small resources that they have. The Indiana Region is now blessed to have a member congregation of Congolese Disciples who are refugees from the DRC.
I had the opportunity to lead a group who returned to Mbandaka in 2011. During that visit, our partners expressed a great frustration that communication was difficult for them, because so few of them spoke English and almost no Disciples in Indiana spoke French. This was also a worry because so much of communication on the Internet was in English. We considered various options, however sending more than a very few people to intensive English language training seemed unrealistic. I had begun to study Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and I was proficient in French (the colonial language of the DRC) due to training I received as a fraternal worker in Belgium in the 1970s. By the time our Congolese visitors arrived in the fall of 2012, I felt compelled to offer to come to Mbandaka to offer basic English training, even though I had never worked as a teacher, if they believed it would be helpful. The Congolese were very supportive, but I began to wonder how I had been led to volunteer. There were no funds for books, which in any case would have been in very short supply, no teaching aids, no lesson plans. The six months before my departure in January 2014 were intense, as I developed lesson plans, with help from a teacher friend who had taught a foreign language. I explored how we would have lesson materials available, since I would only have what I could carry in a large suitcase. Electricity was only available for a few hours in the evening, when a generator would run, so everything had to be printed during that brief time when the computer, tablet, and phone also needed to be charged every night. All lessons were presented by writing on an ancient blackboard.
But the students! I had requested that no more than 15 persons be in a class, but we added and added until there were 20 in each of two beginner classes, and an intermediate and advanced class were also offered (as well as a few students in some computer training, limited in number by the two computers I had managed to stuff in with my devices in a small carry-on). Classes met for 3 hours twice a week, not really enough but about all I could manage with four different classes. Students walked, sometimes for miles, or crossed the river to get to class, so start times had to be flexible. One student, the supervising pastor for a distant post, came 500 miles by motorcycle and canoe, staying 3 months away from home to be able to attend.
I learned so much about commitment, both to learning, but also to the life of the church and life as a Christian, during my stay. I lived with the family of the Principal Supervising Pastor (equivalent to Regional Minister), Rev. Ilumbe, and his wife Rosette. They are my family now, too. Seeing the daily struggle for clean water (fetched from a well a mile away), enough food, the effort to remain healthy, was humbling. In spite of the loneliness (I observed my 65th birthday there – just another day), fatigue, frustration at the difficulty of providing good lessons, and never speaking English outside of the classroom, my faith deepened daily, as I was upheld by God and the wonderful Christians around me, who enfolded me into their midst. Leaving was very hard, knowing that I might not see any of them ever again, yet we are joined forever in our love for Christ and the Disciples of Christ. They are my people, just as my American Christian friends are my people.
Susan McNeely is a member of Tapestry Church (Disciples of Christ) and in 2014, Susan served for three months as a short term volunteer term as an English teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Listen to an interview with Susan McNeely: