by Stephen Quigg • Photos by Paul Jeffrey
The world's biggest head of broccoli--that's what my passengers saw when they first looked down on the canopy of virgin rainforest covering much of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The forest, stretching for hundreds of miles across DR Congo's equatorial belt, is huge by any standard. Over the remoter parts, one could easily fly for more than an hour without seeing a single road, clearing, river, or house--nothing but thick, deep, impenetrable forest.
Welcome to the world of the United Methodist Church of Central Congo. To be sure, only 30,000 square miles or so of the Central Congo Conference are covered by rainforest. The other three-quarters of the territory is a mixture of undulating savannah, patchy forest, and meandering river. If you looked long and hard enough, you could spot several hundred villages, a few sprawling towns, and even a city or two of notable size. But outside the limits of those cities, the number of miles of paved road could be counted by a competent first grader. That is as much a significant problem as it is a relevant symptom of underlying issues.
A MISSION OF ACCESS
One of the most incongruous sights in that expanse of wilderness is the arrival of a single-engine Cessna aircraft with the church's Cross and Flame symbol emblazoned on its tail. United Methodist planes have been flying in the Congo since the early 1960s. But even now, the sound of an airplane overhead is a siren call for a crowd of onlookers to gather at the airfield. And why not? The plane's arrival is bound to be the most exciting thing that happens all day, or perhaps all week. There will undoubtedly be mail from friends and family. There might be a new professor arriving to teach at the seminary. A sick relative might be coming back from the hospital, or maybe visitors are arriving from the United States.
Often the plane brings supplies for the school and medicines for the hospital. Sometimes there are even long-awaited salaries finally making their way into the bush. Regardless of what comes in on the plane, its physical presence is a reminder that there is an outside world beyond the confines of the village--the reassurance that, if things get really bad, there is a way out.
However, the most important thing that arrives in the plane is not in the cargo pod, the mail sack, or the passenger compartment. It is the person at the controls. Out of every United Methodist aircraft operating in DR Congo will emerge a Congolese United Methodist pilot. To a villager, that pilot is "hope" personified. In the African context, no professional--be it a doctor, lawyer, banker, or engineer--is held in higher esteem than a pilot. To a life lived in the midst of despair, nothing speaks hope louder than seeing one of your own walking down the path wearing a pilot's shirt with captain's bars.
LIVING IN ISOLATION
If you're reading this while sitting in a comfortable chair in the midst of Western society, there is little chance that you could even begin to comprehend what it means to live in an isolated village in DR Congo.
Still, perhaps a few illustrations might provide some insight into life in DR Congo's vast interior.
In the midst of all this, The United Methodist Church is alive--perhaps not always well, but definitely alive. Its pastors preach, teachers educate, doctors heal, and midwives bring new life into the world, even as its parishioners help usher the dying on to life eternal. In any village on a Sunday morning, the local church is the place to be. There is exuberance in the choirs' singing, joy in the women's dancing, and inspiration gleaned from the pastor's preaching. It is obvious that the Holy Spirit is moving in mighty ways.
Worship isn't limited by time; it simply lasts until it's over. While many Western churches wonder how to do worship and ministry without proper funding, many Congolese have found that a life stripped to its most basic form is where God and believers can experience the most precious and intimate fellowship.
Yet the context in which most Congolese United Methodists live and worship is incredibly difficult. Since most parishioners have little or no money, church offerings are pitifully small and pastors' salaries are proportionally minimal. Clergy have to make their living in some other way--most often as subsistence farmers--and be pastors as time permits. While church-sponsored clinics and hospitals may have qualified and caring personnel, supplying things as basic as a clean bed or a sterile bandage can be a real struggle.
Teachers usually have classrooms, sometimes have chalk, rarely have desks, and never have textbooks. Their government-paid salaries are equally rare, so parents typically scrape a few dollars together to supplement the teachers' income to keep them in the classroom instead of out on a farm.
SCARCITY IN THE LAND OF PLENTY
Tragically, the poorest of the poor in DR Congo live in the midst of incredible wealth. A list of the country's major resources is like a shopping list of some of the world's most sought-after assets. DR Congo boasts enormous reserves of copper, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, gold, tin, coltan (colombo-tantalite ore, an essential ingredient in cell phones), timber, wildlife, and hydroelectric power. So, if it has such world-class resources, why isn't Congo a world-class country?
There is more than enough blame to go around. Colonialism, years of rule under a ruthless dictator (Mobotu Sese Seko), local warlords, well-intentioned but poorly-performing aid agencies, greedy multinationals, invading armies--all played a part in DR Congo's poverty today.
By contrast, the three Congolese pilots of the United Methodist Aviation Ministries are doing their best to change what they can. Jacques Umembudi, Gaston Ntambo, and Rukang Chikomb continue a proud tradition started by missionary pilots nearly five decades ago--ministering to the needs of the Congolese people.
THE PATH TO INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP
Following World War II, thousands of military pilots and airplanes entered the civilian world. It wasn't long before missionaries realized what invaluable assets they represented. Planes were soon showing up all across the mission world, transforming once arduous travel into relatively short and simple flights. Methodist missionaries in Congo were among the early users of the new technology, and Methodist aviation ministries were quickly established and expanded in order to serve all of the Congolese church areas.
Unfortunately, two Methodist pilots, Burleigh Law and Stan Ridgeway, were martyred by rebels during the country's frequent uprisings, and rarely did a decade go by without a notable crash or two. Yet, in spite of the risks and challenges, Congolese youth started dreaming about becoming a church pilot.
Umembudi, Chikomb, and others began to work in the mission hangars. Their hard work won the approval of missionary pilots and church leaders. When the time was right, they traveled to the United States to earn their pilots' and mechanics' licenses.
Today, the entire United Methodist aviation ministry in the DR Congo is run completely by Congolese. Only a handful of church aviation ministries in the world can make that kind of claim. For The United Methodist Church in the DR Congo, it is a matter of intense pride and empowerment.
NAVIGATING THE DR CONGO
As desperate as life may be in the Congo, money isn't a simple answer to the problem. The country is littered with the carcasses of projects deserted or gone bad. Sometimes the infrastructure became so broken that projects couldn't be adequately sustained. Sometimes, too, a project succeeded while a well-connected missionary was in charge, but there wasn't enough support or enthusiasm in-country to keep the project going when the missionary left. And sometimes the project fell victim to the old Congolese truism that any "successful" endeavor will be taxed or harassed into unprofitability by the local authorities.
What the church needs more than money are the prayers, involvement, and encouragement of faithful Christians across the broader connection who can provide a hand-up and not just a handout. Yet, without outside financial assistance from friends and supporting churches, the ministries would shrivel up and die.
Meanwhile, The United Methodist pilots more than hold up their end of the bargain, doing their own repair work and maintaining their aircraft to professional standards. They deal with daily hassles from government and local airport authorities looking for creative ways to tax or fine them. They take tropical thunderstorms and challenging radio communications in stride. They negotiate with villagers for airfield repairs and are consummate diplomats when dealing with too many passengers and too much baggage for almost every flight. They maintain relationships with US churches a world away and converse in at least five languages with their constituencies on any given day. The development of a new generation of church leaders like them pays dividends long after the latest and greatest aid project is reclaimed by the jungle.
The building of relationships with churches, individuals, and businesses that can invest training, prayer support, and equipment, is truly the order of the present day.
Why do these pilots serve the church so faithfully when they receive plenty of lucrative job offers from commercial airlines? They do it for their love of the Lord and the people. While United Methodist pilots in the Congo won't solve all the woes of their country or their church by themselves, it is certain that those problems won't be solved without them.
Stephen Quigg is a United Methodist missionary serving as coordinator of the Aviation Resource Department of the United Methodist Aviation Ministries. He served as a missionary pilot in the DR Congo and earlier in Nigeria for a total of 20 years.
Date posted: Jul 01, 2009