In September, I watched online as a
United Methodist bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo pleaded with a sympathetic U.S. congressional subcommittee to help end the rapes and killings in eastern Congo.
Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda and other members of a Congolese delegation were visiting New York and Washington on an urgent mission. They wanted to persuade Congress and the United Nations to pressure neighboring Rwanda to end its support of the M23, rebel fighters causing havoc in the region.
Two months later, as today’s front-page headline in The New York Times observed, “Congo slips into chaos again…”
As a denomination, we need to pay attention to this crisis for a variety of reasons — to support our fellow United Methodists in the DRC, to honor our decades of mission and ministry there and to join the international call for an end to the continuous violence that especially has plagued vulnerable women and children.
Last week, with the M23 advancing, United Methodist Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba, who leads the East Congo area, said Goma and nearby villages “are not a place to live because of all the horrors that take place.” The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries responded with a message of prayer and support.
I remember a period during the 1990s, amidst the horror of the Rwandan genocide, when the Board of Global Ministries was helping United Methodists bring hope in Goma, Bukavu and Uvira.
Refugees from Rwanda and, later, Burundi, fled to what was then known as eastern Zaire and its residents were struggling to deal with the influx of 2 million people.
United Methodists from Zaire and several hundred international volunteers-in-mission offered assistance in refugee camps and worked to create the Goma Children’s Village to care for a small portion of the more than 100,000 lost, abandoned or orphaned refugee children from Rwanda. Local street children also were welcome.
United Methodists also established medical clinics in Bukavu and Uvira and built a large church in Uvira that also housed a school for refugee children. It was hoped that additional children’s villages could be set up in those two cities.
In early 1996, the United Methodist Committee on Relief received a $3.5 million grant from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to manage firewood cutting and distribute pharmaceuticals to Rwandan and Burundian refugees living in the region.
But ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus continued to flare up in the region. By the end of 1996, as a result of fighting between Tutsi rebels and the Zairian army, much of the United Methodist property had been destroyed or confiscated. A volcanic eruption in 2002 brought further misery to Goma.
Despite continued instability, local congregations have remained in eastern Congo and the church is considered a place of refuge and assistance, Congolese United Methodists say.
Equally as important is public support for an international peace process in a conflict-ridden area where most live in peril.