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Celebrating the life of Ruth ‘Kamuanya’ Metzel

Retired mission worker served as an educator, organizer and goodwill ambassador in Congo and the US

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Mission co-worker Ruth Patterson Phipps Metzel was known for her radiant smile. This photo is from Congo, circa 1950. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE Ruth Patterson Phipps Metzel, a retired career mission worker with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), died at Sunnyside Presbyterian Community in Harrisonburg, Virginia on March 21. She was 93.

She was perhaps better known by her honorary Tshiluba name Kamuanya, meaning “Muntu muena luse ne Dinanga kudi bantu bonso,” which translates “a person of compassion and love for all people,” according to the Rev. Jean Willy Mukenge, who knew the Metzels well and worked with them in the Congo communities of Kankinda and Mbuji-Mayi.

Metzel served in Congo alongside her husband, the Rev. William S. “Bill” Metzel, for more than 30 years. She is survived by her husband, Bill, three of their four children, all four children’s spouses, eight grandchildren, three great grandchildren, her sister LaVelle Phipps Pool, a large extended family and many friends around the world.

Her loved ones say they remember the joy, strong will, faith, hospitality and love she always radiated to everyone she met. In Tshiluba, Bill’s honorary name, Muhindula, means “one who came back in a younger form.” He was given the name because he reminded people at Lubondai of a mission worker who had left the field about the time he arrived.

Ruth Metzel and Marguerite Bitye Eya, a fellow member of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and a native of Cameroon, work together to make clothing for children in Congo. (Photo contributed by Marcia Perry)

“I can’t say enough of how she cared about Congo,” said Metzel’s daughter, Sarah Metzel Adams. “I think she was speaking Tshiluba more than English in her last days. She had been the Tshiluba teacher for many new missionaries. It seemed written on her heart and she expressed her heart as best she could to the Congolese people. Besides teaching high school math, she started projects to teach women sewing, reading and writing. She helped in running girls’ dormitories, so they could go to school, and established a home and school for homeless street children.”

The Metzels established the home and school for street children as volunteers, returning to Congo when they were in their 70s to get these projects going.

After graduating from Mary Washington College at age 19, Ruth, then Phipps, taught math in Waverly, Virginia, and worked for the Federal Reserve Bank. In 1949, she set sail to work with church missions in the Belgian Congo, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She returned to the U.S. in 1952, earned a degree in Christian education and married Bill Metzel in 1954. They accepted a joint call to mission service, devoted to evangelism alongside the Presbyterian Church of Congo. After studying French for a year in Belgium, a requirement of the Belgian colonial government at that time, Bill itinerated through Congolese towns, working with lay preachers and helping to organize congregations and develop leaders. Ruth taught school for missionary children and African nationals. Their children, listed oldest to youngest, including their Tshiluba baptismal names: Kapinga Sarah, Kasai Jeffrey, Tshimanga John and Mishenge Kasonga Daniel, grew up in the Presbyterian mission stations of Lubondai, Bulape, Moma, Mboi and Luebo.

The Metzels’ son, Jeffrey, died in a plane crash off the Ivory Coast in 2000 at age 43, while on his way from Nairobi, Kenya, to Lagos, Nigeria. He was traveling in connection with his work helping governments of developing countries make agricultural policy.

The Rev. Bill and Ruth Metzel with their children, oldest to youngest, Sarah, Jeff, John and Daniel, in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1967. (Contributed photo)

In the summer of 1956, Ruth Metzel’s brother, the late Rev. William E. “Bill” Phipps and his wife, Martha Ann, visited Congo for a month. Martha Ann remembers the trip fondly, especially driving across western Congo. “We visited every mission station,” Phipps said. “It was a wonderful trip of a lifetime.”

Even after they retired, the Metzels continued to serve as mission volunteers with street children in Mbuji-Mayi, the third largest city in Congo’s Kasai Province. In one mission letter they shared that the home they were living in had water but no electricity, refrigerator or stove. “We’re living more simply … which has its advantages,” they wrote.

Mary Frances Hobbs said she knew the Metzels best through Bible study class at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. With Bill’s Bible knowledge and Ruth’s kindness, the Bible study class they were faithful members of continues today.

“Ruth and Bill faithfully came each Sunday to help with the class,” Hobbs said. Most of the members of the class came from a nearby adult home for people with mental impairments or disabilities.

“Ruth had begun the habit of bringing fresh fruit for the gentlemen and ladies each Sunday,” Hobbs said. “Sometimes she and Bill would sprinkle our Bible studies with stories of their times as missionaries in Africa. We were all amazed at their story about the time that they were harboring some ‘fugitives.’”

The so-called fugitives were the wives and children of seminary students trying to avoid conflict with armed men from another ethnic group. This was in December 1962, during Congo’s struggle for independence, the Metzel children said. Church members came to protect the house, blocking the doorways and the windows from the angry young men of a local ethnic group while seminary students’ wives and children from a rival ethnic group were hiding in the attic.

The students themselves had returned to their villages during Christmas vacation, probably to get provisions. The Metzel children remember singing loudly and banging on pots and pans to drown out the noise of the people in the attic. The local pastor, the Rev. Mishenge, blocked the entrance to the Metzels’ home. He told the armed men, who were from his own ethnic group, that his bond and obligation to these young Christians was stronger than any ongoing ethnic conflict and that they would have to go through him first.

“Mom used to tell this story to demonstrate the transformative power of Christian teaching to overcome deep-seated hatreds, including ethnic conflict,” John Metzel said.

Metzel’s niece, mission co-worker Ruth Brown (Tshiluba name Disanka, meaning “joy”), is Presbyterian World Mission’s community health facilitator with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana. Brown, who served as a mission co-worker in Congo for six years prior to her call to Ghana, described her Aunt Ruth as a “life force.”

“Aunt Ruth will always be an example of how we are to love our neighbors,” Brown said, describing an act of hospitality in the Metzels’ apartment complex from earlier this year, at a time before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

Ruth and the Rev. William “Bill” Metzel continued to serve in mission through their church and in their retirement community in Virginia. Ruth died March 21 at age 93. (Photo contributed by Marcia Perry)

“After Aunt Ruth was assigned a hospice nurse and was using an oxygen tank,” Brown said. “She and Uncle Bill discovered that 11 new residents had recently moved into their apartment complex. They had always hosted annual ‘block parties’ for their neighbors, so they sent out invitations to all of them to come to their tiny apartment for refreshments.” Brown said they did this to give the new folks an opportunity to meet and get to know one another.

“Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bill made cookies and provided refreshments and good cheer for all,” said Brown of her Shakena, a Tshiluba word for two souls who share the same name. Both she and her aunt were named after Metzel’s mother, Brown’s grandmother — Ruth Patterson Bondurant Phipps.

Adams agreed: “She was baking apple pie and chocolate chip cookies right up to the end. There was a container of chocolate chip cookies recently baked that was there for us in her last week, seeming to be there to carry us through, to cheer us up, to welcome us to be at home.”

Describing her mother’s last days, Adams said, “Even in her deepest pain, she whispered hoarsely many times, almost gasping, “Bimpe, bimpe . . .,” which is the Tshiluba word for “Good, good, it is good.”

“That’s what she saw in everyone. It didn’t matter where you came from, what you had done, how you looked or behaved, how smart or accomplished you were, how young or old — she saw you as good, good enough for her to do whatever she could for you even at the expense of her own comfort and needs,” Adams said. “It was easy for her to find something to praise in anyone, and she let you know it.”

On the day of and the weeks leading up to her death, her family said her smile would light up when those gathered around her would sing a hymn or when her son, Dan, serenaded her on trombone. She would thank each person who attended to her needs and wanted to know their stories.

In the U.S., the Metzels were called to Highland Memorial Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Virginia (1972–78), Third Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Va. (1978–81), and at the yoked churches of Francisco Presbyterian Church and Collinstown Presbyterian Church in Westfield, North Carolina (1991–94). In each community, Bill served as pastor and Ruth was a strong partner for Christian education, visitation and hospitality.

In-person gatherings in Metzel’s memory have been delayed until the current social-distancing regulations are lifted. At a later date to be announced, a celebration of the life of Ruth ‘Kamuanya’ Patterson Phipps Metzel will be held at Mount Horeb Presbyterian Church, 4517 Rockfish Road, Grottoes, Va., the same church her father, the Rev. Charles Henry Phipps, pastored for 20 years.

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