Tag Archives: Congo

We Are Still Willing

By Steve Kriss, Executive Minister

Courtesy of John Sharp

I remember Michael J. Sharp (MJ) as a rambunctious junior high kid from the time we overlapped life at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center and Scottdale in Western Pennsylvania.  I’ve been aware of his work and life thereafter mostly through social media and Mennonite publications.  MJ and I share a lot of geography, relationships and institutions in common.

MJ represents much of the best of us as Mennonites, an image of what a Washington Post article calls “courageous but not reckless.”  He was a millennial, a son of the church.  MJ was shaped by an array of Anabaptist communities which includes time in Franconia Conference when his dad was a pastor at Salford Mennonite Church. Afterward MJ went to Scottdale (PA) and Goshen (IN), then to college at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg (VA) and according to an article in the Albuquerque Journal, had just begun to entertain the idea of settling down into a life at The Plex, a unique apartment complex that housed other similarly-aged and valued Mennonite young adults in that city connected with Albuquerque Mennonite Church (NM).

MJ had worked in Europe for several years as a counselor for conscientious objectors.  Most recently he had worked in the Congo, first as a staff person with Mennonite Central Committee, then for the United Nations as a human rights investigator.   MJ and several colleagues went missing two weeks ago.  His body was found this week in a shallow grave along with his colleague Zaida Catalan — a Swedish investigator — and their Congolese interpreter, Betu Tshintela.

Michael Sharp visited Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during his time in the country. Jana Asenbrennerova/Courtesy of MCC

Washington Post further went on to say, “Sharp, 34, was a ‘standard deviations above the norm’ when it came to integrity and compassion.  ‘He just deeply cared about everyone and saw no difference between people of different nationalities,’ said Rachel Sweet, a Congo-based researcher.”

MJ’s death is a reminder that our work and calling is both relevant and risky in volatile times.   He’s a reminder of the powerful witness of faith lived out in practice with integrity, kindness and dedication, and that some of our millennial generation shaped by life in our families, churches and institutions have heard what we have said about faith, life and peace and intend to live it out.  Even unto death.

MJ’s life glimpses the best of who we are as Anabaptist/Mennonites, in a time that we are sometimes confused about who we are, in front of a watching world, in the Congo, one of the countries with the most Mennonites in the world.  MJ exemplifies Jesus’ words: “greater love has no one than this . . than to lay his life down for his friends.”

To the Sharp family, MJ’s friends and community of colleagues and to Albuquerque Mennonite Church, we share the hope of Christ’s peace at this time when words are inadequate.   With much love, we are still willing to bear witness of the nonviolent way of Christ, until the full intention of God comes on earth.

Christ-centered organization works to develop, empower in the Congo

by Lora Steiner, managing editor

For much of its existence, the small village school in Ndalu had no windows or doors—or even benches for its students. In the evening, goats and pigs took shelter in the building. The elementary and middle school-aged children who studied there during the day used bricks as chairs. They got sick often, and no one knew why. Some blamed witchcraft.

Ndalu is a rural community about 100 miles from the Atlantic coast in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Like many African communities, it doesn’t have much money, but it is rich with other resources—in this case, skilled craftsman and thick trees.  A small organization known as the Congolese Christian Development Network (CCDN) bought a bench in Kinshasa that was a combo desk and chair, able to fit two students. They met with village elders, got community members to contribute trees from their back yards, and had local carpenters give an estimate for additional benches. After some bartering—nearly everyone is related to a child in the school in one way or another—they settled on the cost and found a donor in Maryland who paid for 100 benches.

After a 2011 talk on poultry, some of those in attendance began raising chickens in their backyards. Here, they sell eggs at very affordable prices at the 2014 forum in Kinshasa.

A little bit of money, and empowering local leadership: It’s a model that Joel Nsongo, member of Rocky Ridge congregation and co-founder of CCDN, hopes to replicate across the Congo.

Nsongo was raised in a small village not far from Ndalu. He came to the United States in the late ’80s,  at the age of 27, as a part of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) visitor exchange program; before that, he had worked as a purchaser for MCC’s Congo office, procuring tools that development workers needed in the field, such as machetes and other basic supplies. While in the States, he did maintenance at Rockhill congregation (Telford, Pa.).

Nsongo returned home, where he worked for a number of years as a computer network technician for Chevron. But a rebellion and regime change in 1997 had created turmoil in the country, and it seemed like a good time to leave, politically and economically. Nsongo brought his wife and two girls—who later attended Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (Lansdale, Pa.) and Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.)—to the United States. He chose to relocate his family to an area he already knew.

CCDN is partnering with this suburban Christian congregation and Congolese expats to build walls and floor for the roof-only church building.
CCDN is partnering with this suburban Christian congregation and Congolese expats to build walls and floor for the roof-only church building.

In the U.S., Nsongo continued to work in computers, but returned home frequently. He kept seeing things that he knew could be improved, but not much changed. He thought, though, that he had to try.

Nsongo entered Eastern University’s graduate program in international development. When he finished his degree, he went home again—to the Congo—got together with friends, and created the CCDN.

Nsongo says that CCDN is about  more than formal schooling or tangible projects like desks, windows, and doors for schools.  Instead, they promote “mass education,” which includes informal talks on health, nutrition, sexuality, and renewable energy. The talks, held in the capital city of Kinshasa, have drawn around 100 people to each event, allowing attendees to hear from experts they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.  After one speaker came to talk about raising poultry several years ago, local residents started a movement equally popular on this side of the Atlantic:  raising chickens in the backyard.

“We realized that education is a base for any kind of development,” says Nsongo. “When people are educated, they are more likely to move forward.”

CCDN describes itself as a “Christ-centered community development and networking effort to … motivate and empower men and women with entrepreneurial drive to fight poverty through job training and creation, by providing individuals with business links, appropriate technology development and guidance to achieve innovation with sound management.” Or, simply put, a platform to launch activities for development.

What is most important to Nsongo is that leadership come from within: “True development for the Congo is going to come from the bottom up,” he says.

Staff at a clinic that partnered with CCDN in 2013 to set up at two-day health fair. CCDN has collected rubber gloves and over-the-counter medicine for the clinic, a luxury in many developing countries.
Staff at a clinic that partnered with CCDN in 2013 to set up at two-day health fair. CCDN has collected rubber gloves and over-the-counter medicine for the clinic, a luxury in many developing countries.

The challenge? CCDN has no regular funding. It collaborates with churches in the Congo, and with funders in the United States, as well as Congolese expats living here. When funding comes in for a particular project, says Nsongo, they tackle that project. For the other projects on the table, they pray.

For a two-day health clinic, CCDN recruited doctors who volunteered their time to screen for diabetes and dispensed medical advice and medications to newly-diagnosed diabetics and others. There’s a scholarship fund for 20 children, and projects involving two orphanages in Kinshasa. CCDN hopes to increase the “mass education” talks in Kinshasa to four to six events per year, including Christian topics that will anchor people in their faith.

As for the village school in Ndalu, it now has benches for the students, as well as doors and windows. CCDN is fundraising to build a well for water, and to lay a cement floor in the building.

You can contact Joel Nsongo at jnsongo@juno.com.