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Congo president looks to United Methodists to sustain spirit

6/29/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*

The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo is counting on the church to sustain the spirit of his people, according to a United Methodist official.

The Rev. Randolph Nugent, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, spent an afternoon in an "extraordinary meeting" with Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Congo's capital. They discussed how the church can assist the people of the African country with both the necessities of life and efforts at peace and reconciliation.

Nugent and several members of his staff, along with United Methodist Bishop Onema Fama of Central Congo and the Rev. Daniel Ngoy Mulunda-Nyanda, a United Methodist with the All Africa Council of Churches, met with Kabila on June 25. They also met with others from his administration and visited church projects while in Congo June 22-27. Kabila had personally invited Nugent to visit.

Congo is home to nearly 1 million United Methodists, overseen by three bishops. The denomination as a whole contributed nearly $2 million last year to support projects and missionaries there.

Nugent told United Methodist News Service that Kabila was "deeply appreciative for the church's presence, and he invited the church because he was concerned about the spirit of the people." In fact, he added, the president was more interested in the church's involvement in maintaining that spirit and its participation in the peace process than in any material aid the denomination could give.

That concern about keeping the spirit of the people alive was shared by other government officials, said Lorene Wilbur, a board executive on the trip. Those officials did not expect the board to interact directly with the government but rather with the people and churches, she explained.

Kabila is working to establish stability in a country that has nearly disintegrated after years of dictatorship and war. Known as Zaire under the 30-plus year control of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country had suffered a deep economic and social decline by the time his longtime foe, Laurent Kabila, began a rebel movement to gain power. Kabila took control from Mobutu in 1997 and changed the country's name to the Democratic Republic of Congo in his first official act.

But Congo's problems did not end, and by August 1998, Kabila was plagued by battles with other rebel forces that received support from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. In response, Kabila's troops received backing from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Although a ceasefire was signed in 1999, it did not hold, and conflicts were continuing when a bodyguard assassinated Kabila last January.

His son, Joseph Kabila, now 30, replaced his father as president. Nugent found him to be a "man with a deep spiritual commitment to life," concerned about his people, but "not at all taken with his power."

He also found Kabila to be familiar with the work of the United Methodist Church in Congo and said the president was "open to a global approach" to putting the country back on track.

Although much of the church presence is in areas still under rebel control, United Methodists have remained active, and the Board of Global Ministries has been able to use native mission personnel to do its work. "We now have Congolese in place to handle things locally," Nugent explained. "What a blessing. They're doing an incredible job."

But the needs are massive. Kinshasa was designed for 400,000 people and currently holds more than 6 million. Nugent and his staff visited a United Methodist layperson working as a doctor in the largest hospital there. The facility has no medicine and hardly any water. A refugee center in the city run by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) can provide only a small amount of food - not even subsistence level, according to Nugent.

"It's so clear that the country has just been devastated and yet at the same time is so ready to move forward," Wilbur observed.

She described a visit to an orphanage built by funds from the United Methodist Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty. Although the younger children "greeted us with song," they remained quiet and somber during the rest of the visit. The older children, meanwhile, performed a play showing how the war had affected them. "It was the most moving experience of the trip," she said.

As the only Protestant denomination with a presence throughout the country, the United Methodist Church is in a position to help both with reconciliation and reconstruction. In addition to dealing with immediate food needs, Nugent would like to see a long-term focus on health care, education and agricultural programs in Congo, along with an informational component to get United Methodists around the world to be "more engaged in the situation." In his opinion, "resources are available in our church to address these matters."

Peace also remains a chief concern. While Nugent was in Kinshasa, the church dedicated the "Dr. Randolph Nugent Hall for Peace and Reconciliation," where representatives of the warring parties were to meet soon for further negotiations.

Nugent and the Board of Global Ministries have supported the efforts of interfaith church leaders in the Congo to move the peace process forward. In January 2000, the agency hosted a visit of six religious leaders, including Onema, in New York. The group attended a special session of the U.N. Security Council about the situation in Congo.

El Hadji Mudilo-Wa-Molemba, head of Congo's Islamic community and part of that New York delegation, was among the leaders greeting Nugent in return in Kinshasa. "For him, to have an African-American come as the leader of the (board) delegation was very meaningful," Wilbur said.
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*Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York bureau.

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