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California congregation commits to democracy, peace and human rights in Central Africa

Congo Mission Team meets with staff of Sen. Kamala Harris

by Doug Tilton | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Members of the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church Congo Mission Team (left to right): Sue Gibbons, Roberta Spalding, Dick Smithousen and Marie Smithousen. Not pictured: Herb Long. (Photo provided)

SAN FRANCISCO – Five representatives of the Congo Mission Team at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church (LOPC) recently traveled to Sacramento for a meeting with the staff of Kamala Harris, California’s new junior senator and former state attorney general. They were joined by two members of a Bay Area organization for Congolese nationals in diaspora.

LOPC, 20 miles east of San Francisco, formed a Congo Mission Team in 2012 “in response to the tragic conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly the suffering of women and children.”

The goal of the meeting was to let Harris know her constituents and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are concerned about the people of the Congo, and explain why Congress should have an interest in justice and peace there.

With roughly 70 million people the DRC is the second largest country in Africa, sharing borders with 10 countries. Despite vast mineral reserves, extensive forests and enormous potential for hydroelectric power generation — estimated to be half of the continent’s total — the DRC had the world’s second lowest GDP per capita in 2016.

Over the past two decades, militias and rival factions have clashed for control of Congo’s government and resources, which often end up in Americans’ cell phones and other electronic devices. More than 5 million people have died in this period as a result of fighting, poverty, dislocation and disease. Last year, Congolese nationals were the largest group of refugees seeking entry to the United States.

“We live in a volatile and highly interconnected world,” the delegation told the senator’s staff. “Social, political and economic dysfunction anywhere in the world can threaten the United States. In central Africa, where the U.S. government has been particularly concerned about the emergence of extremist and terrorist groups, it is essential to promote peace, human security, respect for human and civil rights, and broad political and economic participation.”

The Congo Mission Team focused the senator’s attention on a series of actions taken by the General Assembly of the PC(USA) expressing support for democracy, human rights and transparency in extractive industries in the Congo.

The delegation asked Harris to work for democracy, peace and human rights in the Congo by:

  • Maintaining strong U.S. support and funding for United Nations peacekeeping efforts and opposing any attempt to reduce U.S. contributions to the UN.
  • Supporting measures to promote free, fair and transparent elections and imposing targeted economic sanctions on individual Congolese officials who obstruct elections.
  • Working for retention and vigorous enforcement of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to ensure that minerals and raw materials are responsibly sourced and do not help finance armed conflict and human rights abuses.

Harris’ deputy state director, Melanie Ramil, commended the team for clearly identifying U.S. interests in the Congo, the actions they hoped the senator would take and potential allies in Congress and civil society.

In preparing for the visit, the LOPC team also communicated regularly with other members of the Congo Mission Network Advocacy Team — including Jeff Boyd, regional liaison for Central Africa — along with the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., to develop their key messages and to ensure that their message was consistent with the views of PC(USA) global partners in the Congo. They also spent several weeks planning their presentation and handouts with their allies from Congo Prosperity Catalyst.

Advocacy has become a key component of Presbyterian World Mission’s witness and integral to the work of many mission networks. “Often our ministry responds to symptoms,” said the Rev. Debbie Braaksma, Presbyterian World Mission Africa area coordinator. “Through advocacy, we can also address root causes and work for more lasting and sustainable change.”

The LOPC Congo Mission Team believes their visit has laid a foundation for a continuing working relationship with Harris’ office. “We were invited to connect with the senator’s international policy staffers in Washington and to talk to Sen. Harris’ scheduler about meeting the senator when she is in California,” team member Sue Gibbons said.


For more information on how you can engage in advocacy for justice and peace in the DR Congo, contact Debbie Braaksma ( or Phyllis Green (, convener of the Congo Mission Network Advocacy Team.

For more information on Ecumenical Advocacy Days (April 21-14 in 2017) contact Catherine Gordon ( in the Office of Public Witness.

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