United Methodist Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda made his first trip to the most remote areas in the East Congo Conference to spread the word of God and see first-hand the “rural realities” facing United Methodists.
It was also the first time many United Methodists in the area had ever seen a bishop.
The East Congo Episcopal Area, which includes three annual conferences, is blanketed by forests. Access to some villages and cities is difficult, with many roads impassable.
With seven districts, the East Congo Conference covers a vast area with more than 340,000 United Methodists living there.
Unda said his visit to every district in the conference is a way of experiencing the realities of the area and evangelizing to the thousands of people living in these parts.
“As a pastor, I want to meet people of God who live there. I receive several reports from the pastors who come to the annual conference meetings who tell me about the difficulties they encounter in reaching the conference venue. (They talk about) the difficulties their women experience during childbirth due to lack of health facilities; difficulties related to the education of young children for lack of a school built of durable materials; and in the end, the inaccessibility of these places and the bad conditions of the roads.
“That’s why I decided as pastor and in my episcopal duties as a bishop to go out of my office to experience these rural realities,” he said.
Many of the United Methodist faithful in the region said they were strengthened to see the bishop in their local church.
“It is a great honor for us to receive the visit of our bishop for the first time in our local church,” said Musafiri Muzaniwa, a 60-year-old member of Samba United Methodist Church in the Kasongo-Samba District, which is nearly 250 miles from the bishop’s office.
The Rev. Martin Kasongo, head of evangelism for the East Congo Episcopal Area, accompanied the bishop on his visits.
“Most of these places are inaccessible, but the visit of the bishop to these places plays a big role in evangelization,” Kasongo said.
“There were groups of people standing on the road … (because) the bishop was coming down for greetings. We heard screams calling for The United Methodist Church in their village, and it was an opportunity for us as evangelists to speak and preach the good news,” he said.
He said there is a strong need for more evangelism in the area.
“We must go back there to preach, teach and win many souls to Christ and finally plant new local churches in these non-evangelized settlements,” he said.
Dr. Damas Lushima, health coordinator for the church in East Congo, also was part of the travel team and said he was deeply affected by the trip.
“With tears in our eyes, we had witnessed the deaths of women and children due to the lack of health facilities in villages like Shekango, more than 300 kilometers from Kindu. We understood by this that people of God are suffering and it was important that the bishop join us in this journey.”
Lushima said the trip was made possible with support from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Global Health unit, which equipped the team with a field Jeep to allow access to the remote areas.
The Rev. Paul Ndjeka, head of the church’s Christian education department, said the group traveled more than 618 miles during the late September/early October trip to four administrative territories in the Maniema province: Kailo, Pangi, Kasongo and Kibombo.
He said he was pleased by the enthusiasm and desire of indigenous populations to welcome United Methodist evangelism.
“To materialize this trip made with the bishop, we must return to teach, despite the inaccessibility. People are there, so we must go once more to stay with people of God (and) talk about the importance of Christian education and teaching Christ to children,” Ndjeka said.
Among the places the group visited was Tunda, where the first United Methodist missionaries arrived in 1922 to evangelize East Congo.
“I was happy when I arrived in Tunda to see all the big Tunda family who … set (the community) up to come and see me with songs, dances and gifts to meet me,” Unda said.
Father Tunda Pene Kasongo represented the Tunda clan during the bishop’s visit.
“I am the most honored person to receive the bishop as we prepare for the centenary of United Methodist evangelism in Tunda. Bishop Unda is our son. He is at home. He came to see these brothers and sisters. We are happy to receive him as a family. The party is as huge as in 1922,” he said.
“So far we keep the ring of covenant that the missionaries left us. That’s why you will not find anywhere else in Tunda other than The United Methodist Church.”
One of the trip’s main objectives was to see the progress of construction work at Tunda General Hospital, Lushima said. The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Global Health unit is funding the project.
In the course of his nearly 10-day journey, Unda took the opportunity to dedicate more than 10 churches built with the help of United Methodist partnerships and local contributions.
Unda said he needed to see the people and places with his own eyes.
“My eyes flow with tears when I see the people of God thirsty to see and receive their leaders. … Despite the state of the road, I asked God for strength and energy … I had to spend the night with all my delegation, even in the middle of the forest, as long as we knew where God sent us.”
Osongo Yanga is the director of communications for the East Congo Episcopal Area.