In my experience, church-goers in the North Atlantic world struggle to come to grips with the expansive role the church plays in other parts of the world. The church in Sudan, for instance, teaches its seminary students agricultural skills so they can be extension agents when they return to their home villages. In the absence of effective central government, the church comes to play an outsize role—a fact that is almost always overlooked in other parts of the world.
I was thinking about that while reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. The book is excellent reporting on his journey from eastern Congo, down the Congo River to the Atlantic Ocean, retracing the steps of H.M. Stanley, the first European to make the journey.
To say the Congo has a difficult history is a profound understatement. What Butcher finds is a country in regress, less developed, urban, and safe than fifty years earlier when the colonialists left.
What struck me throughout the book, however, was the way in which Butcher kept coming across the church. When all other organs of society and culture seemed to be absent, Butcher still found friendly priests and bishops who hosted him and sent him on his way. He didn’t find many foreigners in Congo. But those he did find—and who weren’t working for the UN—were related to the church: missionary priests from the U.S. and Brazil, a missionary teacher from England. Unlike the UN types, these priests and missionaries were willing to leave their compounds and engage with the people around them.
The missionary from England tells Butcher:
The war has had one major effect in that there are only two real ways left for Congolese people to get on. Before, there was at least a system of schools to go to paid for by the state, a transport system so that people could reach other parts of the country, a health system so that if you were ill you could stand a chance of recovery. But today all of that has gone, so that you only have two real options—you join a church, the only organization that provides an education, a way for someone to develop, or you join one of the militias and profit from the war.
It’s a depressing view, this, but it also has the seeds of hope. I am reminded of John, my Sudanese friend who said to me last year before our visit to Abyei, “We are the church. We are always on the ground!” Or it reminds me of a General Synod address Rowan Williams gave last year about his visit to Congo and Kenya.
Although Butcher’s book makes for disturbing reading, I found in it the seeds of hope, that even in the most war-torn parts of the world, the church remained. And if the church remains, hope remains.