A century of doing without

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

Centenary celebration (photo B. Modibale)

When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with a group of churches named CECCA/16. They were founded by the intrepid C. T. Studd. Those churches just celebrated their 100th anniversary. It was a big celebration. In keeping with my last post, I want to ask if you think of Africa as having churches 100 years old, or more? But that is not my subject today.

Isiro in CongoCECCA/16 is a regional church in the northeast of Congo in an area with the town of Isiro at its center. There are perhaps a dozen languages in the heart of the area covered by CECCA/16. The thing is, none of them have a useable translation of the Bible. The small minority who know French, the official language, use the Bible in French. Some others know regional languages spoken in the area – Swahili and Lingala – and there are Bibles in those. But none of the 250,000 members of CECCA/16 churches have a Bible in their heart language.

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)

Imagine if that were you. Imagine that you grew up in a church where the Bible was something you only heard in a language you did not know, or only mastered partially. Imagine that this was the case for all your family, all your friends, and all your neighbors. Imagine that access to the Bible was limited to a small elite in your church; that Bible studies were impossible. If you are a woman, you would be especially cut off from God’s Word because a lower percentage of women are sent to school. Then imagine that you live in this situation from your first memories, through raising your children, into your old age. Imagine that you see your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews growing into adulthood and even old age in that same situation.

CECCA/16 church members

CECCA/16 church members

Being a community of believers for 100 years without the Bible in anyone’s heart language – what is that like? Wouldn’t a person come to expect that the Bible is only for the elite? That it is normal that the only way one can know it is through what another person says about it? What would substitute for the comfort of cherished Bible verses? Wouldn’t pastors become more and more powerful? The church leadership be unquestioned? After all, on what basis would the people in the pews, without the Bible, question what the pastor says?

Or imagine that you grow up in a family where no one is a believer. Your neighbors go to church where a pastor reads from a book in a language they don’t know, but your father can tell you his, and your, beliefs about spirits, gods, in detail and in a language you fully grasp. When he sacrifices a chicken to the ancestors, he tells you what he is doing in your language and you understand it all. If your Christian neighbors ask you questions about your beliefs, you can answer them. But can they answer yours? Or do they have to run to their pastor?

Rev Nonziodane

Rev Nonziodane

CECCA/16 leadership, in the person of Rev. Nonziodane, asked Wycliffe to come and start translating the Bible into the languages of the people. Like many African church leaders, he grew up in the situation I am asking you to imagine. It is very real to him and he knows, all too well, the problems it creates. Going a century without God’s living Word is not an unusual experience for African Christians. We value your partnership with us, and with churches in Africa, to see that our African sisters and brothers in Christ have the same access to God’s living Word that has so shaped and reshaped our lives.

Sustainability in a cemetery

The current holy grail of organizations working to better people’s lives in Africa is sustainability. It is easy to understand why. When we lived in semi-arid Burkina Faso, there were many wells in rural villages that had worked when installed but then broke down and were never repaired. So there had been clean water for a while, but no more. The provision of clean water and its attendant health benefits was not sustained. I talked to a Kenyan economist who was in an economic development project that lasted several years and cost 10 million dollars. He told me that a decade after the end of the project nothing at all remained.

On the other hand, the growth of the church in Africa is a wonderful example of sustainability. Most congregations in Africa are self-sustaining. They grow and progress through their own resources and energies. In fact, Dayle and I are working to tap into that dynamism for Bible translation.

July 16 was the 80th anniversary of the death of C.T. Studd. His go-to-the-farthest-and-hardest approach shows in my favorite quote from him, ” Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” He trekked into what was then the Belgium Congo seeking the geographic center of Africa. It cost him. One doctor described him as a ‘museum of diseases’. But he kept going.

Ibambi graveyard and C.T. Studd's grave

Ibambi cemetery (top) and C.T. Studd's grave (bottom)

When I started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, learned that I would have reason to travel to Ibambi where Studd is buried. I couldn’t wait.

I got there as the catastrophic but little-known civil war in Congo was winding down. What Studd had started continued to grow after his death. By 1970, the area where he worked, like almost all in Congo, was overwhelmingly Christian. You will have to look a while to find a resident of Ibambi who does not claim Studd’s faith.

A local person walked me to the well-kept plot of about 20 graves including Studd’s, some fellow missionaries’, and early converts’. It was the best-kept plot in town. Talk about lasting impact! This man, probably forgotten or never known by many Christians today, buried in a forgotten place out of the sight of the world, has his grave tenderly cared for by some of the poorest, and most abused people on earth because more than 70 years after his death they still have fond respect for him and his colleagues.

I wish that it was okay to be envious, because that is sustained impact to die for – literally.
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