When I go to church in Congo, as I did yesterday, it’s usually all about the music. Enough glorious, full-volume, tam-tam–beat harmony can get me through 2-3-hour services without totally wilting in the heat. And now, after many visits over the past five years to the same little congregation in the heart of a cramped Kinshasa neighborhood only partly accessible by vehicle, it’s about the people, too. This is my community, my home church in Congo.
I have trouble concentrating on the sermons, though. They don’t often provide food for my kind of thought and so I usually tune out, even when they’re in French and I can kind of understand them. Yesterday I listened to a Congolese sermon start to finish for the first time because it was partly in Lingala and I had a good translator at my side. It jerked me awake because it was about something I’ve thought about a lot.
It was about seeing with the heart. That what you see with your eyes can keep you from seeing with your heart.
As the preacher skillfully wove the Matthew 24 story of Jesus’s encounter with two blind people into its background, other examples from scripture, and the present-day experiences of the congregation, I was weaving my own story.
I was sitting in a little church building that was still unfinished after a decade or more under construction. Rough trenches had been carved for wiring into the crumbly cement walls, which finally nearly met the tin roof. Progress had been made since my last visit 3 years ago, but there was still far to go. My Western get-things-done sense was in critical mode. The church was not a pretty place. Two Santa Claus placards on the wall and a skinny artificial Christmas tree beside the altar–in April–didn’t help. My aesthetic sense was grumbling.
I was thinking, before the sermon, don’t these people see their surroundings? Have they no pride, no sense of responsibility? It was “these people” kind of thinking, based entirely on what my eyes were seeing.
It was based, too, on imagining what my friends back in my beautiful home church would think of this place. How would I explain the huge gap in cultures, the chasm between plans and execution–even to people who have enthusiastically agreed to partner with this little congregation, who have been warm and welcoming to Congolese visitors, who have supported scholarships and fundraisers, and on and on. So far, however, my husband and I and another Congo regular from our congregation have been the only ones to visit. Could middle-class American Mennonites ever see beyond ugly buildings in an inaccessible community of muddy, rutted streets piled with garbage?
So the announcement of the sermon theme brought me up short. I took a breath and began looking with the eyes of my heart, and I saw utter beauty in the people gathered around me. The beauty went deeper than the women’s colorful dresses and the cute kids, straight to the heart of each person. It reached out and swept me into some harmony, a deep ease that I can’t explain or describe. Like I wrote five years ago, I find Jesus in Congo. Simple and strange as that.
For some reason I received the gift of seeing with the eyes of the heart in this place. It has transferred slowly and intermittently to the way I see back home, where I often have to summon it consciously. Here it comes more or less automatically, though I can easily revert to seeing only with my eyes as I did yesterday.
I do believe that Congolese and maybe other Africans as well don’t see their surroundings in the same way that we do. Instead, they see themselves and others with great acuity. They dress accordingly. I feel pale and plain by comparison and sometimes miss the fashion cues.
For example, my three sisters in this project of training literacy teachers dressed properly for church yesterday in outfits they’d had made from the cloth we’d received at our meeting last fall in Burkina Faso. It was embossed with the Burkina Mennonite Church logo. I don’t think they planned this ahead of time.
Of course you would wear church cloth to church, and if you had a new church-cloth dress you would wear that, and if the cloth represented your connection with others who were with you … it goes without saying.
I, on the other hand, had not even gotten my Burkina cloth out since that visit, let alone thought about making a dress from it (or bringing it here to have one made). I missed an opportunity to wear my sisterhood.
P.S. My internet connection here won’t let me load pictures , even in the middle of the night, so you’ll have to see what I’m talking about in this post with your heart, not your eyes.