The other responsibility is to work with the local Congolese leaders. In the major cities, we have very mature and large groups of congregations, with superb local leaders. In the outlying cities, we have smaller congregations, which we hope will grow and match the strength of the large city groups. In 11 different cities in the two Congos and Cameroon, we make visits at least twice a year and often more frequently to help serve and strengthen the local members.
In mid-November, we visited 3 congregations in the city of Kolwezi, which is located about 900 miles southeast of Kinshasa. Kolwezi is a mining city with large copper and cobalt mines. It was founded in 1937, and in 1978 was taken over by rebels supported by neighboring Angola. Elite units of the French Foreign Legion brilliantly outwitted the rebels and liberated the city (thanks, Wikipedia).
So come along for a District Conference visit.
The journey to Kolwezi starts with a 1,000 mile flight to Lubumbashi, where we have a zone conference with the elders and inspect the new facilities rented by the two senior missionary couples. The former apartment didn't have water for 4 weeks -- they trucked it in, in 55 gallon barrels, and the electricity was sporadic. The new home -- a large former Belgian home which has a separate guest house in the back, will be a great place for these two couples -- one from Salt Lake City (the Park's) and one from Marion, VA (the Wassum's).
After the conference, we catch a little 16 seat plane for the one hour ride to Kolwezi. This is such a wonderful improvement -- prior to 2005, the presidents had to drive here -- a trip of about 10 hours over 150 miles of very rough roads. During one trip, the truck overturned, but fortunately no one was injured. The plane makes the trip far better.
Kolwezi is a city of about 500,000 on the rolling green hills of southeastern Africa. We circle once and let down for a smooth landing. We are met by the District Presidency, who are here in a rented car -- about a 1990 Toyota which has seen far better days, but not one person in the District owns a car. Fortunately a young wonderful member, Nicolas Monga, knows how to drive, and he chauffers us into town about 5 miles away and to where we will stay. The roads are typically African, but we are used to it and enjoy riding and talking with these great leaders.
As a three-time loser with back surgeries, a nice firm bed is always welcome. Unfortunately this one isn't -- looks like Marsha and I will have a lot of togetherness in the middle of this one for the three nights we're here. Still, this hotel has its own generator to provide electric power at night, so we will be able to read, heat water for our freeze-dried food, etc. It's very much a 5 star compared to the others in town, so we are grateful to be able to stay here.
A quick peek into the bathroom quickly signals that this will be a "catwash" visit -- no hot or running water for three days. But you carry lots of soap and deodorant, and you get used to sweaty clothes. Everyone else does, so why now us? So we are off to visit the new building that the Church is constructing for these saints -- it will be a Godsend to them after you see the present buildings that they are using.
This is the new District Center building under construction in Kolwezi. All the chapels here have a distinctive white steeple -- it will be on the other end. Everything is built out of cement and masonry as a wood building would give way to the termites in about 3 years. The buildings are by far the nicest building in the city and are a real landmark that everyone knows about, once they are completed. We have to fight the image of a "rich church", but teach them that tithing and sharing of resources by all of Heavenly Father's children is His way. This building has been under construction for about one year and will take another 8 months to finish. Speed is not a virtue to these people.
This is the chapel for the new building under construction. Along with the chapel there will be an adjoining cultural hall so that 600 - 700 people can be seated for a large meeting, and plenty of teaching rooms, offices for the local leaders, etc. Because everything has be brought in either by truck or railroad, the chapels are very expensive to build -- this one will be about $ 2 million. Thanks to wonderful members in other countries who faithfully pay their tithing, we can build buildings such as this for this first generation of African Saints -- and the day will come when their tithing will pay the cost of their own buildings.
SATURDAY CONFERENCE EVENTS -- Saturdays, we meet with the local leadership for two hours to evaluate how they and the branches and district are doing, then have a 1 1/2 hour meeting for the leadership. I take the men while Marsha will train the sisters. How she does it in her limited French is a miracle -- and everything has to be translated into Swahili. Her French is coming so magnificently, and the power of love speaks more than anything she can say. After the leadership meetings, we have another 1 1/2 hour session for all the adults, where we share the time with local members who have been selected to give talks. Their "discours" are always powerful and inspiring.
But before the meetings, we always tour the physical facilities.
This chapel -- a temporary location for the new Diur II Branch -- doesn't pass inspection. In the garage (where the Young Women meet on Sundays), there is an exposed junction box with bare wires for the 220 volt current. A little child could reach up and touch these and a tragedy would result. We'll ask the people in Lubumbashi in charge of physical facilities to work on this, as well as the toilet (only one in the whole building) that doesn't flush, and the electrical fixtures that need flouresecent bulbs. Always a list of things to do.
This is a typical first generation chapel that we have in Africa -- an older home that was purchased and renovated into a small but servicable chapel, that has a chapel for maybe 100 - 125 members and 6 to 8 classrooms. Our Saturday afternoon meeting was held in a chapel like this. About 2:30 it started to rain, and the water cannonaded off the metal roof for two hours. You had to shout to be heard over the roar of the storm, punctuated by thunder and lightning. But they paid rapt attention to all the speakers. In the first meeting, I spoke to the brethren about the blessings of going to the temple, and they felt the spirit urge them that this is something they should work towards. In this district of over 500 members, not one has been able to save the money so they can go to the temple in South Africa. But we will change all that -- see an earlier post on the blog about the Temple Patrons Assistance Fund and how it will help defray the almost impossible cost of these members to go to the temple.
The joy of these people in their lives after they become members of the church is incredible. The teachings of who we are, where we came from and where we will go after this life give them purpose and meaning for their lives. It's hard to get them to smile for a photo, but when they do, their smiles light up the room.
After the meeting, everyone visited for a while as it their custom. We were out in the street with the neighborhood kids who were fascinated by the "muzungu's" (white skinned people). They love to shake your hand and give you a big "Bonjour" or "Jambo" (Swahili for "Goodday"). For the first picture they were pretty reserved, but once they see their picture on the digital camera, they soon turn into world class hams.
SUNDAY MORNING CONFERENCE
The Sunday session of conference was held in an auditorium at a recreational complex originally built by the Belgians for their mining company called Gecamines. The complex was incredible in its day -- there were 4 tennis courts, a soccer stadium, a large outdoor pool with high diving boards (now empty) and several large social halls. The church rented one for the Sunday session of conference -- the priesthood had to come at 6 am to clean up the beer bottles and other garbage from the Saturday evening social event, and then deploy the white PVC chairs for the 350 or 400 who attended. Lighting was pretty minimal and a rented PA system tried vainly to carry the words of the speakers to all. This great couple arrived at 9 am for the 10 am start of the meeting. I asked him to speak for 3 or 4 minutes as part of my time, and he gave a wonderful extemporaneous testimony and story of his conversion.
This is the youth choir that sang. For some reason that we hope to change, they all like to have the same dress or blouse. In the church we don't want people to be precluded from participating because they don't have the money for the "uniform" that someone has selected. We try to gently tell them how lovely they look, but at the same time, perhaps they can use their scarce funds for other worthwhile purposes and not have a "uniform" for the district conference choir.
Finally, everyone heads for home. Because the auditorium where the conference was held is a long ways from the center of town, the members pool their hard earned money and rent a combi van to transport them. They get their money's worth -- about 25 crammed into this van.
As for us, it was interviews and then back to the hotel for one last evening meal of REI freeze dried food, another couple of hours in and out of darkness when the generator failed, and then back on the plane to Lubumbashi on Monday morning. There we interviewed missionaries for three hours, then caught the plane back to Kinshasa. One major airline recently failed, so the other two have more business than they can accommodate. Neither runs on time -- if you leave the day scheduled for the flight, it is a major victory. We joke that the name of one airline we use more frequently, Hewa Bora Airlines, translates into English as "Three Hours Late Airlines". But we made it back home after another successful and wonderful meeting with these great people in Africa.
When I think of the blessings that we enjoy in the United States, all I can say is that the next time you grumble a little bit because of some inconvenience, just think that nearly everyone hear would trade places with you in a second. And based on our experiences, you might want to trade to come here for a while, to see these great people.
Love to all -- Don and Marsha