Congo–Wherever you go, there you are

The next day we return to the Mennonite Central Committee office to spend more time with the other MCC staff and learn about their work. Ben tells us about his work with the health centers around Congo, tells us his story, and his commitment to MCC ideals. Ben tells us that he moved from a major medical non-governmental organization (NGO)—with a big salary—to work for MCC because it pulled together his work with his faith (while touching his heart with his open hand).

Ben at the MCC office. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Our time with Ben is interrupted by news that the Bishop was waiting for us. We drop everything and follow the our escort through the hallways and up and down stairways. We first stop at the office of Pastor Milenge Mwenelwata, the second vice president of the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC), the organization that owns the large building where MCC—DR Congo is housed. Pastor Milenge had visited North America this past April as part of a delegation from ECC to meet with government officials in Canada and the US and officers in the United Nations. When their Canadian visas were delayed, the delegation visited Nina’s congregation, Florence Church of the Brethren-Mennonite, on Maundy Thursday and participated in a footwashing. Pastor Milenge also had dinner at Nancy’s home so he knew both Nancy and Nina. After a few minutes of lingering in Pastor Milenge’s office, we are told the bishop is ready for us. As I leave Pastor Milenge’s office, I move toward the bishop’s office when the translator stopped me and said, “No. Pastor leads the way.” So begins my introduction to Congo protocol and my ongoing bafflement of what is or is not proper protocol.

The bishop’s office is large and very chilly with two sets of sofas facing one another with two glass-topped coffee tables joined together at the middle. On the coffee tables are two wooden candelabra-like shapes filled with a variety of flags from around the world. On top of the bookcase behind the large desk piled high with files and papers is a wooden triangle with an American flag folded into it. I recognize this as a sign of prestige and power, yet I am curious about the story of that flag and why the bishop had it, yet I refrain from asking about it.

I sit next to the first vice president of the ECC and across from the bishop. I have no idea what the purpose is for this meeting, although I am grateful for the air-conditioning. But blended in with my bafflement, my innate resistance of important religious men begins to surface. I observe the deference that Pastor Milenge shows the bishop and the reticence of the first vice president next to me. I recognize this defiance as my own immaturity and I have an inner struggle of wanting to be polite while trying to squish my desire to be impolite. And, I am aware that I am invited to this meeting because I am an American and the bishop is showing deference to me. I also suspect that this meeting is undergirded by a hope for financial support, although nothing is explicitly said.

I spot the bishop’s red socks and immediately think of Kevin and the red socks I gave him for his birthday. I ask Suzanne to take a picture of the bishop’s red socks and explain that my husband loves red socks. The Bishop agrees to the photo which Suzanne takes. I am trying to be playful but not really succeeding. I wonder if my playfulness can cross culturally. Later, Suzanne tells me that it’s inappropriate to talk about bodies or body parts, especially to a bishop. She and I agree that I was probably subconsciously tweaking the bishop. *Sigh* I am reminded that I take all of me—the polite and the impolite parts of me—wherever I go.

The meeting lasts maybe an hour and the four of us leave a little baffled about the purpose of the meeting. It is the first of several cross-cultural moments that we don’t quite understand. Our primary purpose for the trip is to develop and nurture relationships across cultures and we are reminded that all relationships take work—and relating to our new Congolese friends we need to cross languages, cultures, histories, class, and our very selves that we bring with us wherever we go!

*Photo of the bishop by Nina B. Lanctot

3 thoughts on “Congo–Wherever you go, there you are

      • Maybe it is “self-important” religious people or “hierarchical” dictatorial religious people. I react adversely to both of these types, whether they are religious or not. I think we should show humility, particularly when we have power.

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