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Congo Mission Network adapts to 2020’s changing landscape

One meeting turns into nine months of conversations

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A screen capture from the Congo Mission Network 2020 Virtual Conference Opening Session on Sep. 16, 2020.

LOUISVILLE — Like nearly every organization in the world, the Congo Mission Network was forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to adapt when it came time to hold their annual mission conference. But the network didn’t just adapt: it grew and will likely never go back to the old way of doing things.

This year’s conference was scheduled for October at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Generally, Congolese partner members travel to the network meeting, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise in the U.S., it was clear that they had to come up with another plan.

The group decided they would create a variety of videos and then have discussions around each topic.

“That soon morphed into, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could watch together, even though we were all over the world, and then have conversation that grew out of a shared hour together?’” said the Rev. Bill Reinhold, secretary of the planning team. “Very quickly it grew into six sessions over nine months.”

The network, along with its Congolese partners, began with a worship service in September with the Rev. Denise Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, preaching. On two Saturdays in October, there was a focus on health care. In each gathering, the group used the Confession of Belhar as a foundation for the whole conference. Health-care theology is on the agenda for November, followed by education in January and February. The series will wrap up in March with development.

Myers Park is holding space for them in October 2021 in hopes they will be able to meet in person again next year.

Reinhold said he doesn’t think the network will ever go back to just an in-person gathering again, because they have found it productive to have more people involved in the discussions. They plan to continue to stream parts of the event so more Congolese and Americans can be involved.

“We’re not going to drop what we’ve learned when we are able to get back together,” he said. “We’re missing the fellowship and the joy of being together in one place, but we feel like what we’ve been able to do compensates for that in many ways and we’ve been able to expand the possibilities for other things.”

They have learned by doing. One thing is that most of the Congolese are watching videos on their phones, so they had to make sure that the size of the text can be read on their small screens. If someone is speaking in English, they’ve added subtitles. The earliest lesson learned was that videos of all the presentations had to be done in advance. Live presentations just invited problems.

“We found a real gem in our new mission co-worker, José  Lamont Jones. He’s taken on the huge task of editing and polishing videos. We do them primarily in English and French, with subtitles. I can speak two of the major Congolese languages, so I will use a few phrases when I’m speaking live, but we’re speaking to people across several provinces and various language groups, so English and French reaches the greatest number of people,” he said.

Reinhold’s love of the Congo goes back to childhood. His parents were missionaries there. He arrived in Congo as a child in 1950 during the Belgian period, through the independence and the transfer of mission work from the American Presbyterian Congo Mission to the Congolese Church. He and his wife, Ginnie, went back to Congo in 1980 and he worked in Kinshasa for five years and another six years back in the interior where he grew up. They were evacuated in 1991 when the Central African war began and ended up in Jamaica for seven years.

He has been primarily involved in printing, publishing and theological education. He has been an active participant in planning November’s theme on theology along with one of his former students who is the rector of the Presbyterian University of the Congo in Kananga of which the Sheppards and Lapsley School of Theology is a member institution. The Rev. Dr. Simon Kabue Mbala will present a major lecture at the Nov. 7, 2020 conference.

COVID-19 has been a major challenge in Congo as it has everywhere in the world. There have been a total of 11,211 cases to date and 305 deaths. The country was on total lockdown for several months, which limited the spread of the virus in the country, and they’ve been able to avoid the huge number of cases seen here in the U.S.

Mission co-worker Larry Sthreshley was a major presenter in the second October presentation on health care. Because medical experts in Congo have been able to deal successfully with Ebola and other highly contagious diseases, the population adapted rather quickly to contact tracing and isolation.

Sthreshley directs one of the largest church-run health programs in Africa, assisting the government to provide medical care to more than 9 million people in 870 health centers and 50 hospitals in four provinces of the country. He and Reinhold grew up together in Congo.

Reinhold says he loves the Congolese and the ways the larger, extended family comes together and supports one another.

“Masks are not a political issue,” he said. “No one says, ‘It’s my right and I can do whatever I want to.’ In Congo, as in many other cultures, people recognize they are part of a larger whole, with a responsibility toward others. The connectivity and mutuality is quite strong. The Church sees itself as the larger family of Jesus and there to offer support — even to people who are not part of the member’s extended family.”

For more information about the Congo Mission Network, click on congopartners.org.


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