This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Given a chance to study, young widow perseveres

KALONDA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Behind the quiet, strong presence of Tshiela Kalonji at Kalonda Bible Institute lies a story of determination to study for Christian ministry despite many hardships.

​Tshiela Kalonji takes a break from her studies at Kalonda Bible Institute with three of her five children. — Charles Buller/MMN
​Tshiela Kalonji takes a break from her studies at Kalonda Bible Institute with three of her five children. — Charles Buller/MMN

A widow, Kalonji struggles to feed and clothe her family on her annual scholarship of $500 from Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission and the pennies she earns selling charcoal for cooking fires.

She participated in seminars Jan. 26-31 to develop future leaders of Mennonite churches.

Kalonji came to Kalonda Bible Institute three years ago with high recommendations from her church district of Mayi Munene.

Church leaders reported Kalonji had a tenacious commitment to support women in their daily lives and Christian growth, though she had lost all her possessions when Kamuina Nsapu fighters ransacked her village.

The Kamuina Nsapu rebellion began four years ago in the Kasaï provinces, home to many Congolese Mennonites.

Kalonji and her five children arrived in Kalonda without even one kitchen utensil. Some faculty members protested her enrollment, asking how she would have time to step into a pastoral role in a congregation.

Bercie Mundedi, the Bible institute’s director, defended Kalonji, arguing that she could minister in ways other than pastoring a congregation.

Kalonji’s first two years at the institute were plagued with sickness. Eventually, her mother came to care for her and to help with the children. When Kalonji’s mother died in December, her oldest daughter stepped up to care for the younger children while her mother was in class.

She’s now in her final year at the Bible institute.

Young leaders develop

The seminars realized a long-held desire of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission to invest in future Mennonite leaders. AIMM and Mennonite Mission Network have partnered in church leadership development for decades.

A team from the Africa Leadership Coaching Network led the seminars. When the network began in 2014, its seminars drew largely older, established church and community leaders. Now the organizers are more actively seeking out young adults.

Leaders in their 20s and 30s often resonate deeply with what they learn in seminars like “Multiplying Transformational Communities.” Topics include shared leadership in marriage, church and community life.

Network trainers also followed up with participants in last year’s trauma-healing seminar, which expanded church leaders’ ability to respond to members who lost homes and loved ones during the Kamuina Nsapu massacres.

Just getting to the seminars could be difficult. An accident during a motor-bike taxi trip over rocky terrain left one member of the coaching team bloodied and limping. Yet spirits lifted as the team entered Kalonda, welcomed by about 30 students in joyful song.

Food was one thing students didn’t have to worry about.

“With the breakfasts and lunches provided during the seminars by donations from our friends in North America, neither we nor our spouses had to think about where our next meal was coming from,” Mundedi said. “We could focus on receiving God’s word, which richly nourished our souls, our marriages and our ministries. Our stomachs are satisfied and hearts are full.”

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