Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Inspiring youth, Independence Day, and the DRC

Fifty-seven years ago on June 30, the Democratic Republic of Congo won its independence. While I won’t go into a political history right now, I will celebrate Independence Day by telling you about my generation and how amazing they are.

Congolese youth are artists, talented photographers and musicians. They are teachers of elementary students and ESL learners. They are preachers and leaders and peacemakers. They are aspiring doctors.

They are aware of their socioeconomic status in their country and their country’s status in the world. They are thinkers and doers. They are innovators and prayer warriors.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Blackman Bausi recording with Skye. PC: Katelyn Skye Bennett

My friends, Congolese men and women in their teens, twenties, and thirties, are hilarious, too—just ask me about Charles sometime. They are humble, kind, and very passionate. They are dedicated students and worship leaders and evangelists and creatives. They are uncomplaining friends, patient mamas and brothers and husbands.

They are amazing.

I wish I could tell you about each of my friends in detail – Victoire, Blackman Bausi, Patricia, Patrick, Clarice, Dieum, Sumaili, and so many other dear ones. You could meet some of them or get to know other incredible Congolese youth by visiting Un Jour Nouveau (Africa New Day) in Goma, actually. UJN is always happy to have visitors.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Some youth at UJN after Sports Sunday at church. Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Organizations like UJN in Goma and Congo Initiative in Beni work with and employ these youth for social change and a better Congo. They teach Christian leadership and peace in a country tarnished by suffering yet underlaid with resilient beauty. They are part of Congo’s ongoing history.

I’ll say it again: my generation is part of our country’s history. The youth are making change.

Today we celebrate the freedom we have from colonialism. Today we celebrate our victories. Today we remember what we have accomplished personally and as a nation, and we strive forward towards a brighter future.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Me and one of my best friends, Dieum. Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Happy Independence Day!

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Les Worshipers repetition, UJN PC: KSB

Masauti ya nyumbani (Sounds of home)

Every night I fell asleep to the sounds of my neighbors partying, the dance music audible through the thin walls and crimson drapes. Every morning a rooster awoke before the sun and squawked along with my morning alarm. I usually crashed at 20:30 and rose at 5:45 to prepare for the long work day at Un Jour Nouveau, a Goma-based Congolese organization “equipping men, women, and children to transform the culture of Congo through Christ-centered education, reconciliation, and leadership.”

“Siku muzuri,” I’d greet the smiling guards, Carlos and Jonathan, before crossing the road to Mama Esther’s house for breakfast. The sun gleamed off Lake Kivu and illuminated the vibrant foliage and bright flowers in her yard, where I waited for my driver, Fabrice, to take me further into our smoky city of one million. We’d drive over gray-brown rutted dirt roads, past blue Vodacom signs and red Airtel stands, around the turnabout with its statue and construction and occasional military presence, by the pastry store and banana booths to the Center. Fabrice would play “Alpha Omega” by Gael until we arrived.

Then English classes and staff prayer and lunch and piano lessons and worship practice ensued, filling my day with countless people and immense joy. Praises from Les Worshipers, the church choir, echoed off the rooftop and across the street (see video below). It seemed someone was always playing a keyboard or picking on the guitar, and the afternoons were bright with the sound of children’s voices. (I was often one of the people playing guitar and singing, whether in English class or choir repetition.) The sun set by 18:00, I went home for dinner with the family, chatted with my crazy wise and hilarious housemates and began the cycle again.

Goma is a home to me. Charles’ questions and chuckle, Denis’ melodic voice singing “Nakwimbea leo nafuraha” in church, Happy Fanny yelling my name across the yard, Mama Julienne’s Swahili at lunch hour, Jenni’s hearty laugh, Dieum playing “Napesi” on keys — these are some of the sounds of home. I don’t know if I’ll return to UJN and all the particular voices and people I love so dearly, but I do plan to return to Congo. And I cannot wait.

 

Me and my family when they dropped me off in Wheaton for my freshman year of college.

This is my last…

Many college seniors count their “lasts” – the last chicken tender night at the cafeteria, the last general education classes they put off for three years, the last spring break road trip with the roomies, the long-awaited last set of finals. I do not know what collegiate lasts will most strike me, but I am preparing myself for some larger lasts.

I hope to return the Democratic Republic of Congo soon after I graduate. I hope to live there permanently or until God moves me elsewhere. I recognize that I do not know God’s timeline for my return, but should these plans follow my ideal timeline, this year could also be my last living in the United States.

Leaving the States does not mean I will never visit; my sister will graduate high school next year, and at some point my best friend will be married. These people are incredibly dear to me, and if at all possible, I would love to attend these memorials in their lives. Hopefully I will also be able to take a vacation every several years to see those I love in the U.S.

But nothing is certain.

This Thanksgiving could be my last with my extended family, the paternal relatives I grew up with for the first 17 years of my life. My transition to college and my immediate family’s move across the country has prepared me for the long-term separation, but the ache of being away from my cousins on holidays has not grown much easier over the past few years. I will savor this last, precious Thanksgiving with my family.

This year could hold my last Christmas with my immediate family and maternal relatives as well. This last would have happened anyway when I begin a family for myself, but now I am realizing our last Christmas together could potentially be now, this year, in 2016. Bing Crosby put it well when he crooned, “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

It could also my last time to see beautiful, beautiful snow for a long time. Some New Englanders yearn to move away from the cold, but I always loved my home state of Connecticut with all its seasons and its snowy winters. In Illinois we get a small amount of snow as well, and it transforms the landscape. It makes everything new. I will miss this.

As a senior in college, I hope to soak up most of the lasts. Some can hurry up and pass – I am quite excited to be finished with the academic aspect of school, honestly – but I do want to make the most of my time on Mu Kappa Cabinet and with my worship team. I want to make the most of my time with friends and family when I see them on holiday breaks in a few months. I want to see my best friend again and finally meet the man who stole her heart.

I value relationships. For this reason, I will treasure my time with my housemates and friends in Illinois as well as any time I have with my family and friends elsewhere in the States. Yet for this same reason, I am also itching to return to DRC. As I prepare for many joyous firsts in my life after college, I thank God for the blessed lasts.

 

UJN lunch squad, 2016. PC: KSB

Lunchtime in DR Congo

Six of us sat on the maize-colored rooftop, attempting to circle together in the sliver of shade as we ate our lunches. The men bantered in Kiswahili, and my eyes wandered to the green banana tree across the way. I rolled the bugali in my fingers, scooped some greens and dipped it in pilipili while trying to understand their conversation.

Usually you would eat wali na maharage (rice and beans) or bugali with some type of greens, but Mama Julienne gave me both on this day because she knew my love for bugali. I have a small amount of pilipili (habanero pepper paste) in the center of my plate as well. PC: KSB

Usually you would eat wali na maharage (rice and beans) or bugali with some type of greens, but Mama Julienne gave me both on this day because she knew my love for bugali. I have a small amount of pilipili (habanero pepper paste) in the center of my plate as well. PC: KSB

Mama Julienne had given me a larger plateful than the day before and included fritis because she knew I liked them. Eventually one of the men asked if I understood the topic, and upon my regretful no, called the rest to switch to English so we could all converse. We discussed relationships, talked about food and helped correct each other’s Swahili or English pronunciation and vocabulary. Smiles adorned our faces as we chatted and laughed together over a particular friend’s antics. A long, peaceful hour passed before we returned to work.

Around 2 p.m. we trickled out, following each other down the stairs, across the dusty ground and to the rocky sidewalk that led back to the kitchen. The mamas stood over the fire, and other staff sat around in white plastic chairs to eat their lunch. We stacked plates and utensils in a tub to the left and poured water over each other’s hands to remove the remaining, sticky bugali.

Bugali, aka fufu, is made of boiled maize in east Africa. You roll it in your hand and use it to scoop the greens or other food. It is my favorite. PC: KSB

Bugali, aka fufu, is made of boiled maize in east Africa. You roll it in your hand and use it to scoop the greens or other food. It is my favorite. PC: KSB

This summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I learned how to eat well. I ate three meals a day, a diet of starch, protein, fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. I ate increasingly larger amounts of food because many friends said I did not eat enough, and the mamas wanted to make me bigger. I ate healthily and was satisfied. Furthermore, I took my time to eat it, and I ate with others in community. Life was peaceful and abundant.

I am back in the United States now, and already I am eating less food at mealtimes. People here are generally more rushed and leave meals more quickly, although they do eat together often at my college. The task-oriented culture reaches even the third culture kids and international students who live here now. However, I have learned how to rest and feed my body, and I can still apply these lessons in my current cultural context. I am blessed.

 

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-g_ZyGPDIEvU/Tx94hpZODdI/AAAAAAAABLI/818wiiN90I0/s1600/2+whites+only.tif

Why salvation is not exclusive

Two years ago this weekend, God changed my heart and set me on the course toward racial reconciliation.

At a summer ministries retreat, in a room full of students lamenting over the ways they had been hurt, God’s Spirit convicted me to confess my racial prejudice in public and to repent. Although God rescued me from slavery to sin and brought me into his Kingdom when I was a young girl, and although he led me through various seasons of focused growth (e.g. prayer in third grade, evangelism in my senior year of high school), that weekend in 2014 marked a significant turning point in my life.

On the same weekend in 2015, God called me to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I hope to work with refugees. This connects to my work while I’m in the States because the refugees may move here, and I want them to be safe.

While in the States, I fight for #blacklivesmatter because God’s work is holistic—he cares about both body and soul. White evangelical sermons often focus on the soul, and since eternity is unfathomably long, I’m glad these pastors are thinking ultimate. We want people to know Jesus. Yet these same pastors and churches may also be afraid to talk directly about race. About bodies. They leave out half of how Jesus interacted with people and spoke to them.

You see, Jesus raised the dead, healed the blind, and hung out with women and men from the underprivileged ethnic groups, the Gentiles and mixed-race Samaritans. The Jews of his time weren’t too fond of these folk, to put it lightly. In fact, the Jewish leaders’ speech dripped with prejudice toward them. But Jesus wanted his ethnic group, the Jews, to come alive and see that God’s Kingdom welcomes women and men of all ethnicities.

(As a crucial aside, Jesus didn’t call everyone to be the same—the Gentiles did not have to conform to Jewish practices such as circumcision, for example. But he created all people in his image and desires for them to be reconciled to each other just as they can be reconciled to God through his sacrifice on the cross.)

The apostle Paul proclaims, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16, NIV). God does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, social class or gender. Everyone who “believe(s) in the Lord Jesus … will be saved” (Acts 16:31, NIV). God doesn’t qualify “everyone.” He says everyone, black and white, Native American and Indian immigrant, Puerto Rican and Vietnamese.

Although many black Americans are restricted to zip codes with poor housing and poor education today, if they trust Jesus, they will dance on the golden streets of Heaven. (And since black churches in the United States tend to incorporate more movement than white ones, the Lord knows these brothers and sisters will make a prettier sight than most people from my white church! 😉 )

Part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples—which applies to all Christians today—begs for God’s Kingdom to come and will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. So why aren’t more white evangelicals engaging in social issues regarding race and public policy? Why do they hesitate to believe the real life testimonies of black brothers and sisters?

It would be horrible for a newly arrived black refugee walking out of a convenience store and down the streets of his own neighborhood to be shot by a police officer who has been socialized to fear black men. It would be atrocious for a Congolese woman, scarred from warfare in her home country, to see her young son killed in this new land of “opportunity and freedom” or to be beaten herself on the roadside. (If you weren’t following the news last year, I’m referencing Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Marlene Pinnock.) I pray these borrowed examples will never happen to new black refugees.

In my experience, the Church has compassion for refugees. It follows that it should also act justly and lovingly toward black Americans who have lived in this country for centuries, building it from the ground up. I pray the borrowed stories will never again happen to black Americans.

Toward that end I strive.

I encourage my Christian readers to seek the Lord as you also strive for his Kingdom. All human beings have dignity, being made in God’s image. Why then do we remain complacent about the structures that keep many of our black brothers and sisters in both visible and invisible chains? I especially call Christians to open their eyes and hearts to the reality of racial injustice and inequality in this country.

Let us not grow weary in doing good.

Never forget that #blacklivesmatter.

Following the red dirt road

When I was ten-almost-eleven, I visited some missionary friends in Kenya. I still remember the vivid red dirt roads of Machakos; the oil paint that would only come off my MK friend and me with kerosene; the ugali, chicken and chapatis the ladies cooked at the Bible college; and of course the visit to the hills where a local boy noticed my bleeding knee before I did and asked if I was okay.

I’d been interested in the continent of Africa before I visited Kenya, and I’ve wanted to return to East Africa ever since that January 2007.

God has developed this passion particularly in the last two and a half years I’ve been in college. During freshman year, I took advantage of my speech, research and geography classes to study rape in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, globalization (or the lack thereof) in Ethiopia and conflict in Sudan and South Sudan respectively. By doing so, I realized that I was especially drawn to DRC. I couldn’t place any logical reason why, and thus I accredit it to God’s calling.

In summer 2014 I worked as an intern with newly arrived refugees in Denver. I befriended several case managers at that organization, including one who taught me Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. (I haven’t been able to continue those studies, but I love the language and hope to learn it better someday.)

Sophomore year, I knew I was interested in DRC and Rwanda, but I spent all my time studying Rwanda via media (Gospel music on YouTube, movies, independent language studies for a while). According to the CIA world fact book, the Democratic Republic of Congo is geographically the 11th largest country on the globe, contains over 200 tribes and claims five languages commonly spoke throughout the country. I didn’t know where to start, so I decided to study Rwanda instead. I thought some of its culture might carry over the border to Congo. The countries differ, but I know my studies will not be in vain, especially if I work with Rwandan refugees in Congo.

God confirmed my call to DRC at Snow Camp in January 2015. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I am part of an organization called Mu Kappa. Once a year all the Midwest Mu Kappas gather at a winter retreat, so last Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I had the privilege of hanging out with Africans from Cameroon to Kenya.

After one of the speaking sessions at the retreat, I hung out with some friends in the cabin, napped to recuperate from the active weekend and then spent a half hour alone with God in the snow. While on the swings waiting for dinner, I reviewed what the speaker had said. He had pointed out four main identity questions everyone asks, two of which have stuck with me to this day.

Surrounded by a shimmering landscape of white and the chilly caress of the winter breeze, I thought through the questions: “Who am I? A beloved daughter of God. Where do I belong?” Here God filled in the blank, confirming where he had led me up to that point: “In the DRC, where I have called you.”

Those were his exact words to me, and he couldn’t have chosen a better place to make his call known than when I was surrounded by students who understood such a calling and would celebrate it with me!

Since then, God has also made it “click” that I should also be a missionary. He let me know this one June morning when I was preparing for church and praying for Jesus Christ, my God, to draw a dear Muslim friend into His Kingdom.

So what do I want to do after all my schooling? The succinct answer I tell people is that I want to do journalism and work with refugees in Congo (as a missionary).

At this point, I’m looking into opportunities to visit eastern Congo in summer 2016. God said “okay,” and I long to make this happen! My basic goal this summer would be to visit the area in which I hope to spend my life, to get a feel for it. However, I would absolutely love to work with refugees this summer as well, as that is what I hope to do in the future.

I’m thrilled to be going to Congo. If you have any leads on how to make this happen, I’d love to hear from you! I also appreciate your fervent prayers as I follow God. May we all seek His face and proclaim His glory!!

As a final note for those of you who are already thinking it won’t be easy, I know; I’ve heard it before. But God doesn’t call us to lives of comfort or pleasure! He gives joy through His Spirit when we’re in tune with Him, whatever the circumstances. He also created Congo as a beautiful place full of valuable people like you and I, so I hope to break down some negative stereotypes or associations with “Africa” and DRC on my journey there. I’ll share this Pharrell cover from eastern Congo with you as a start. 😉 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsC23izciN4

Merry Christmas, and thanks for your prayers!