For about 15 years, Christians from the Democratic Republic of Congo, including those with roots in the Mennonite Brethren church, have been immigrating to the United States, forming congregations and reaching out to their neighbors and fellow immigrants.
On Aug. 16-17 in Cincinnati, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren National Strategy Team brought together leaders of 20 of these immigrant churches and 13 USMB leaders to talk about possibilities for connection and membership.
The current generation of Congolese immigrants has endured political, economic and social suffering. The Great African War of the past 20 years, which involved nine countries and 25 armed groups, has cost more lives than any other war since World War II.
As those present in Cincinnati reflected together on what the Congolese church is bringing to the West, faith in the midst of suffering was a common theme.
“These leaders self-identify as ambassadors of Christ, missionaries to the West, rather than refugees,” said Randy Friesen, president of Multiply, the MB mission agency. “Their spiritual boldness and faith in the gospel to transform lives are also gifts they are bringing with them to the established Western church.”
Don Morris, USMB national director, said the summit was a time to “hear the passions and yearnings of the Congolese for connection and belonging as well as their stories of current mission, church multiplication and strong desire to bring Christ to those who are lost.”
Rick Eshbaugh, conference minister of the USMB Central District Conference, said some of the immigrant churches are considering joining USMB district conferences.
“The hope of the summit was that we would sit face-to-face and learn about each other,” Eshbaugh said. “. . . We were able to build relationships and open our minds to the realities God has presented to us. This is the continuation of a story still being lived out.”
The first sending church
That story, as told during the summit, began with Aaron and Ernestina Janzen of Mountain Lake, Minn. They were the first MB missionaries who began work in Congo 100 years ago.
Many of the Congolese who spoke at the summit shared stories of their grandparents receiving the gospel from and being discipled by this first generation of mission workers.
Friesen spoke of this history and introduced Dan Strutz, pastor of Community Bible Church, the MB congregation in Mountain Lake.
“When I introduced [Strutz] as the pastor of the church that had sent the Janzens a century ago, the Congolese cheered,” Friesen wrote in a report on the summit. “We collectively acknowledged that mission has now come full circle. Those who once sent missionaries are now receiving missionaries.”
The Congolese leaders gathered around Strutz and his wife, Susanna, and prayed for God to renew the fire of renewal and mission in the MB church.
Putting down roots
The 52 Congolese participants came from two networks and 10 of the 14 states in which the USMB conference has had contact with Congolese immigrants.
One network includes Congolese congregations in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Claude Tambatamba of New Jerusalem Temple, a USMB congregation in Sioux Falls, S.D., is the liaison.
The second network includes congregations in North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Maine. Some have direct ties to MB congregations in Congo. Henri Ngolo of Kettering, Ohio, is the liaison.
A keynote speaker was Nzuzi Mukawa, sub-Saharan church-planting leader for Multiply, the MB mission agency. He encouraged the Congolese pastors to engage and integrate into their new country.
“You are missionaries sent from the Congo,” he said.
Tambatamba and three other Congolese pastors — Kayamba Lawum, Amos Esekwen and David Tshibambe — spoke of their experiences as part of the Congolese diaspora, challenged their fellow pastors to continue following Jesus and encouraged attendees to pursue association with a family of believers like the USMB.
In November the National Strategy Team will discuss how to partner with these congregations and their leaders.