Discovering my spiritual ancestors

Church history project in Congo lifts up women’s ability to lead

Michèle Sigg and Charly Ntumba Malembe met during the church history-writing workshop in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. — Mennonite Mission Network Michèle Sigg and Charly Ntumba Malembe met during the church history-writing workshop in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. — Mennonite Mission Network

For me, a Mennonite woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a church history writing workshop March 20-24 in Kinshasa was about more than learning my heritage.

After being selected for a leadership role, I now feel capable of assuming any responsibility in our Mennonite communities and society beyond the church.

The event was organized by Anicka Fast, in her role with Mennonite Mission Network as a specialist in church history and missiology for French-speaking Africa; and Michèle Sigg, executive director of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography; in collaboration with Maurice Matsitsa of the Lay Protestant Ministry of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo.

Its purpose was to equip Congolese historians to write biographies of the Mennonite men and women who contributed to the birth and growth of Congolese Mennonite churches, which now have more than 200,000 baptized members.

Forty people applied, but space was limited to 16 from the DRC’s three major Mennonite denominations: the Mennonite Church of Congo, Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo and Evangelical Mennonite Church.

When I received the registration forms, I hesitated to apply. But an inner voice told me, “Go ahead, Charly. Who knows? Maybe you will be selected.”

The day Fast contacted me with the good news, I cried tears of joy. I was one of five women chosen.

After an opening worship service, Sigg introduced us to our work with the story of Lydie Mengwelune of Cameroon (1886-1966). Mengwelune gave up royal privilege in the Bamoun Kingdom to follow Jesus. She endured persecution and became a church elder and powerful evangelist, leading to the conversions of many who had persecuted her.

Mengwelune’s story inspired us to learn the stories of our church mothers and fathers.

Sigg’s presentation on the ancient and medieval church in Africa shed light on a little-known chapter in our history. It was the first time I learned there were Black men and women who helped establish Christianity in Africa.

Fast intrigued us with the story of the Mennonite church’s beginning and fleshed out what we knew about the first mission station in Djoko-Punda. Because of her teaching, we are now able to give lectures in our communities on the history of the church.

As the workshop brought together members of three Mennonite denominations, there was a diversity of ethnic groups, languages and ages represented — proving to us we are one body in Christ Jesus. The group’s love and unity were tremendous.

Workshop organizers empowered women. Fast and Sigg modeled women’s capacity to lead. I was selected as “village chief” — a student representative and timekeeper for the instructors. This was my first time to experience a woman being given such authority in a setting that included men, women and church authorities.

I cherish the memory of leading in this way. I felt valued and cast off the inferiority complex that used to gnaw at me daily.

The spirit of the Lord was present in the songs each day and throughout all our training sessions. Fast and Sigg encouraged us to always remain Mennonite Christians in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our church leaders would like to see this history writing project continue. We, the students, have mastered the scientific standards of this training, and we are already at work in the field. We look forward to seeing our research published in a book by Langham Publishing and in the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

The workshop was made possible through collaboration with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, the University Center of Missiology, Mama Makeka House of Hope, Mennonite Central Committee and the Schowalter Foundation.

Charly Ntumba Malembe is a teacher, writer and member of the Mennonite Church of Congo. A version of this article appeared in the April Journal of African Christian Biography.

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