Congo has been known by many names. During the colonial period it was called The Belgian Congo. During the 1970’s, when we were there, it was known as Zaire. Now it is called The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We returned from Congo in the summer of 1978. We had been away from the States for four years, the last 3-1/2 years in the Congo. Traveling to the Congo was a big change, but the culture shock of our return was stronger. It took us several years to feel at home again in the U.S.
For most of the time in the Congo we were assigned to Bulape, a remote village in the northern region of the Kasai. We lived just six degrees south of the equator, on the edge of the massive rain forests of Africa. Bulape at that time was a large village of about ten thousand residents. The village could be reached by dirt roads, but much of the communication and longer travel was done by small airplanes that landed on a grass landing strip. Counting our family of four (Jean, me, David, and Jonathan) the village hosted between six and fourteen foreigners, mainly Americans. During the last couple years there, our family, the doctor (Stuart Anderson) and a nurse (Judy Comstock) were the only Europeans or Americans.
We were quickly absorbed into the life of the African church and the village. Hospitality was provided by the village chiefs and the local church. We felt loved and secure. As I look back on it I am amazed at how much trust and responsibility was given to us from the very beginning. This must have been secured by long relationships built over almost a hundred years of work together.
When we returned in the summer of 1978 we lived in missionary housing in Richmond, Virginia. For the next year I traveled and spoke about Congo and life in the Presbyterian Church of the Kasai. I also began taking courses in the Doctor of Ministry program at Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary). These two facets of my life helped me reflect on our time in Congo and how it had shaped me. It was an inner conversation that continued for many years.
One of my struggles was my desire to explain everything in relation to the intense life experiences of Congo. After the first year back I began to feel embarrassed about my own constant references to Congo. Eventually I chose to stop speaking about Africa so that I could root my life once again in the U.S.
When we were in Congo we were valued and sheltered by the community. Worship services were vital and lively. Even the offering was an energetic and jubilant part of the worship service. Music was loud and joyful. Resources were shared with any in need. The well-being of the community outweighed individual concerns. After a time it felt normal to be part of the group, and the individualism of Western culture took a background role. When work or travel was hard you sometimes had the sense that you were being carried along by the strength of others who were with you. Laughter, play, challenges and struggles were shared. Friendships grew strong and deep.
When we returned to the U.S. we felt that we had left one world and had entered another universe. It took us a long time to adjust. I spent many months comparing my African world with my American world. Now, many years later, I can understand it better. I brought back with me from Africa more that I took to Africa. I have a second lens through which I can view my experiences. Fortunately I have periodic encounters with Africans in the U.S. who are facing the same issues from the other direction. Living in a second culture deepens and enriches one’s life forever. For this I am deeply grateful to God and to the African church and community.