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Presbyterian Church in Congo reimagines caring for vulnerable children

Now more youngsters like Serge can have dreams for their future

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Serge, a young boy in Congo, is learning masonry skills. (Photo by the Rev. André Manyayi)

LOUISVILLE — Serge is a young boy in Congo who lost both his parents. He started living with his grandmother, but when Serge misbehaved, his grandmother accused him of being a sorcerer. He was kicked out and forced to live on the street.

Serge could neither read or write, and there was no way for him to buy food. He stayed alive by stealing small fish from the market.

But, thanks to one of the ministries for vulnerable children through the Presbyterian Church in Congo (CPC), he now lives peacefully with his grandmother, attends school and dreams of a future, not his tragic past. Click here to hear about his journey and those of other reintegrated children.

CPC’s ministries find unaccompanied minors in the markets and on the streets, taking them to halfway homes while attempting to locate their families and reunite them. The transitional character of the ministries provides an alternative to traditional orphanages, but the center-based model is costly for an economically challenged country like Congo.

Donations from Congolese and U.S.-based Presbyterian churches have allowed the ministries to run on a shoestring budget, providing for the children’s basic needs. To look for a more long-term solution, CPC leaders organized a weeklong series of participatory workshops for a cross-section of CPC staff, mid council, and ministry leaders to identify a collaborative strategy. Unfortunately, a war disrupted the process, and a plan was never drafted.

Before COVID-19 hit Congo, mission co-workers Jeff and Christi Boyd visited with CPC Pastor Benoît Mingedi, who also works as a social worker and coordinates the Presbyterian Ministry for Vulnerable Children in East Kasaï. For many years, he has participated in a collaborative forum that brings together social workers from the State’s Department for Social Affairs (DIVAS) and from different religious communities and NGOs that all work in child-protection programs in East Kasaï. Pastor Benoît came to see how the CPC in East Kasaï could make its ministry for vulnerable children more effective by taking a church-wide approach.

The plan created a shift from a center-based shelter model to a community-based ministry where children are taken in by host families of CPC congregations. The main support would shift from Presbyterian churches in the U.S. and in Congo to self-reliance with full responsibility for the children’s basic needs by local congregations. The time and resources freed up by the new approach are redirected to timely tracing of the children’s families with the goal of reunification within three months of their arrival.

Another key element of the plan is to create a four-member volunteer committee in each of the CPC’s 192 congregations in East Kasaï, which not only ensure the churches’ support for the host families but to also raises awareness about children’s rights in their communities, as well as watching for and denouncing abuse. Together with the Catholic Church, social workers of DIVAS and local health clinics, these congregational committees would form a province-wide alert system as an important preventative component.

The closing of schools by COVID-19 presented an opportune time to reunite children whose biological families had already been located.

“Thanks to the prompt response from one of our supporting churches, Benoît was able to ensure the reintegration of 45 children from halfway homes in three CPC synods within a timeframe of just eight weeks,” said Christi Boyd, facilitator for Women and Children’s Interest. “This step not only prevented disruptions in the children’s schooling later on in the year, but it also allows a clear shift for the ministry’s new model.

Pastor Benoît Mingedi, at right, works closely with social workers from Congo’s Department for Social Affairs. (Photo by Christi Boyd)

In many cases, the traced families are poor and often hesitant to take the children back because of their inability to support their child’s schooling. Benoît works with schools to allow the students to study for free. Additionally, the educational scholarship program started by CPC, and supported by Presbyterians in the U.S., provides basic school kits for the children at the beginning of the school year and ensures their educational opportunities through secondary school. All of this educational support is crucial for a successful reintegration of the children.

The next step in the restructuring process was to identify host families and congregational volunteers in each of CPC’s four synods in East Kasaï and ensure the training needed to assume their new roles. The trainings are costly, but are a one-time expense for the church.

Christi Boyd facilitates a Presbyterian Church in Congo strategic planning workshop in 2017. (Photo by Jeff Boyd)

“We were able to secure funds for a first round of trainings in Mbuji Mayi through a grant from the Africa Healthy Women Healthy Families committee,” said Boyd. “A few donations have since started to come in to complete the trainings in Kabeya Kamuanga, Muene Ditu and Kabinda. I regret to not have been able to attend the first training event due to travel restrictions, but Benoît has kept me abreast through WhatsApp chats, pictures and videos.”

Jeff Boyd, who serves as World Mission’s regional liaison for Central Africa, calls the paradigm shift for this CPC ministry “revolutionary.”

“The plans are bold and courageous and have already invigorated all 192 CPC congregations in East Kasaï, who are eager to employ their meager resources to partake in this ministry,” Christi Boyd said. “I celebrate how our Congolese siblings in East Kasaï are preparing to open their doors and welcome in children without a home, feed and clothe them. They do not act individually but together as the Body of Christ for these overlooked and ignored children who are members of Christ’s family (Matthew 25:40, paraphrased).”

Christi Boyd said that as a denomination modeled after PC(USA)’s own connectional structures, the Presbyterian Church in Congo has created an effective way to “root out systemic poverty and respond to the symptomatic needs by acting corporately.”

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