Bemba fled Congo in 2007 when his troops lost out in a power struggle with the existing President and the regular army. When he ventured out of Portugal where he had asylum and into Belgium, he was arrested and tried this past week for the atrocities. The court will render its verdict in 60 days. Everyone in Bangui is hoping for a "Guilty" verdict, as they said that the atrocities were incredible.
The church came to Bangui in the early 1990's through a senior missionary couple. Two branches were organized in the mid 1990's, but when a civil war broke out, the couple left and there has been no work there since then. The two branches eventually dwindled down into one. They have not been visited regularly by any church leaders.
I tried to rationalize not going to Bangui for several reasons. Everytime, the Lord gently reminded me of Jonah and Ninevah. I tried to find a companion to go on the trip, but all the church employees here and several other candidates all quickly said, "Thanks, but no thanks." Reading the U.S. State Department travel warning is good evidence of their reasons. But Sister Livingstone, that brave and incredible companion, declared, "Well, I'm not going to let you go there by yourself." So we packed our "camping out" gear, and off it was to Bangui.
The city is relatively gentle, and there are sections of downtown with office buildings that are pretty decent by comparison to other places we go. In reflection after visiting Bangui, it's certainly no worse than some of the cities where we have districts or branches in the Central Congo.
The above street scene is on the street where the church's chapel is located. A lot of dirt, dust, people walking, ancient vehicles (many of which don't work) and typical dwellings in Africa.
We stayed at the Hotel Central. Tripadvisor.com had a visitor's comments "#1 in Bangui -- only because there are no other options".
From this picture, you see that at one time this was a modern facility. The courtyard had palm trees and other landscaping. Even had a swimming pool. Darn -- we forgot our swimsuits. (But we wouldn't have ventured in, in any event.) There was lots of young people who used the pool in the afternoon. Note the gardener up in the palm tree, whacking down fronds with his machete.
Unfortunately, all was not modern in Hotel Central. Electricity is optional. It was operating when we checked in during the middle of the day. But we came back from our meetings to find the lobby area quite dark. The power needs of the city overpower the supply system in the evening, so there are extended blackouts for 4 - 5 hours.
Trying to find our room in the hallway, lit by only one candle, was an experience in braille reading. One candle for a hallway of about 140 feet.
Once inside our room, Marsha rummaged around and found her trusty headlamp. The next step was to find some food. Hooray -- here's some beef jerky that we brought over when we came. At least we won't starve.
More rummaging produced a loaf of bread we had carried with us, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam. So it was gourmet dining of PBJ's for dinner. Here Marsha is eating by the illumation of my flashlight shining over towards her.
After a meal of PBJ's, jerky and some dried fruits and nuts, it was time to read by the trusty headlight for a couple of hours. The power usually came back on just as we were going to bed.
One thing about Africa is that we have BIGGG mosquitos. Before you fall asleep you hear them buzzing around you, trying to figure out where the veins and arteries are, before they strike. This one ventured into the bathroom the next morning as I was dressing. I smushed him against the mirror and "got him". But not before he had gotten one of us. Look at the blood on the mirror!!
The chapel in Bangui is an old home. A wall between the living room and another room was knocked out, so we can hold about 60 or 70 in a large room for sacrament service. There aren't too many rooms to teach classes in, however. This building is getting very old and we will have to invest some money to either upgrade/repair it, or move to another location.
Sunday morning, and here come the members for the beginning of church services. Three cute, cute young children. You'll see them in the next picture.
Here they are, all ready for Primary. Because there aren't enough rooms for classes, Primary is held outside under a tree.
I received an application for a man to serve a mission from the Bangui branch about a year ago. Because of difficulties in getting there, he has been waiting patiently for his interview, and for some additional medical things to be done. Here is the future missionary -- Bro. Ferdinand LaGuerre -- he is 26 and will be the first missionary from this country in many, many years.
The faith of these people is amazing. And the stories of their life are even more so. The sister on the left is the Primary president. She was from Bangui originally, but had moved to Kinshasa where she married a man and had 4 children. He was killed in an accident at the airport, and her in-laws immediately evicted her and the 4 children from where they were living and took over the house. (This is a very common thing -- a widow has no rights.) She was forced to come back to Bangui to live with her family. She became a member of the church several years ago and now is trying to make a living by sewing and selling dresses. She would love to get a new peddle sewing machine, which would help her ability to support her family.
The sister on the right is the first counselor in the Relief Society (women's) organization. The president has been on a trip for a number of months. This sister is doing the work of about 5 people in administering and making sure that Relief Society is working well to sustain and support the women in the branch. Many times she has to conduct, teach the lesson, etc. But fortunately for her, Sister Livingstone came, so she turned the whole lesson period over to Marsha. This great companion who could hardly speak French when she arrived took all 40 minutes and taught them about the family.
The church has sent the members the DVD's of General Conference, etc., but they have nothing to show them on. At one time, they had a TV set and a VCR player, but thieves broke into the chapel and stole them. We had brought a computer projector with us, and the branch president said he had a portable generator that he could bring to the chapel. So on Monday afternoon (the only planes in and out are on Saturday and Tuesday, so we were available), we showed them several talks from April 2008 General Conference. They were fascinated with the images and sounds of the conference from the Conference Center. Can you imagine how hard it is for them to relate to that beautiful building which seats 21,000 people, with its massive organ (they don't even have an electronic keyboard), and the Tabernacle Choir? They were transfixed as they watched the talk of Pres. Monson and several others.
The talks were great, but there were two wonderful spiritual experiences with them. The first was that after a talk by Pres. Monson, I let the DVD continue to run and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang one of the church's hymns. The members opened up their hymnbooks, found the song, and sang along with the Tabernacle Choir. After that song, they wanted to sing more with the Choir. So we played three or four more hymns that the Choir sang, and they sang along with great joy. Even followed all the key changes that Mack Wilberg builds into all of his magnificent arrangements of the hymns.
The other experience was the "Solemn Assembly" proceedings. For you non LDS friends, the President of our church is sustained as a prophet, as we believe that he receives revelations from God for our day. The previous prophet of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, had passed away in January 2008, and in the April 2008 Conference, we had the privilege of individually standing and raising our hand to indicate our support / sustaining of the new President and Prophet, Thomas S. Monson. So I showed them this portion of Conference, and as each group of individuals, based on our age, gender and church callings was asked to stand and indicate our support, the members of the Bangui branch stood two or three at a time, and raised their arm to the square and sustained Pres. Monson, all with big smiles on their faces. Afterwards, those who remained gathered for a picture.
Here is another "tender mercy" that we learned during our trip -- the wonderful branch president, Roger Langue.
Pres. Langue was born and raised in Bangui, but went to university in the early 1980's in Strausborg, France to attend law school. While there, he met the missionaries and he and his family became members of the church. After receiving his degree he moved to Washington D.C. and practiced there for several years, but eventually knew that he had to return to Bangui.
He serves in the Cabinet of the country as a Special Advisor to the President. His vehicle (the only one among the members) is a 15 year old SUV that shows its age, but he has "PR" license plates indicating he is associated with the President and gets deferrance from the police (always an important thing to receive in Africa).
In doing the annual audit of the church financial records (we are "full service" visitors when we travel to distant locations), I noted his faithfulness in paying his tithing. A tithe to a member of the church is 10% of our gross income. I asked him if he paid a full and honest tithing, and he happily answered that he did.
Here's the real part of the story. I noted that when he paid his tithing each month, he also gave other amounts equal to roughly another 20% of his income to other possible areas of the church, such as Temple Construction, Humanitarian Aid, the General Missionary program of the church, and his local branch missionary fund, and other causes, including the Fast Offering Fund -- a fund where we fast from two meals each month and contribute the money we would have used for these meals to provide food, clothing and other needs for members of our church units.
I marveled at the faith of this man. Here he is in the middle of Africa. He attended the Swiss Temple when he was in France, and the Washington D.C. temple while there, but has not had the privilege to go to a temple for many years. There will probably never ever be a temple close to him in Africa, although we hope to have one in Kinshasa in the near future. But he is giving money to support the building of temples in other lands.
His country is one of the poorest in the world, and yet he is giving money to support Humanitarian Aid that the church provides when there are natural disasters or other needs elsewhere in the world. How great his faith is -- how great his willingness to share what he has with others.
When we go to places like Bangui, we hope and pray that we can bring the Spirit of the Lord with us and teach them things. And how often we are taught things far beyond what we were able to bless them with.
Our love to all of you - Don and Marsha