Preparing for a pilgrimage


photo by Nina Lanctot

I am going to Congo again in a month. These trips are never easy and this one is especially complicated because I have taken responsibility for most of the arrangements for a small delegation of people who haven’t been there before.

I guess I’m the expert since I’ve been there twice in the last year but when a place we counted on staying turns out to be booked, I’m stumped.

And how much will translators cost for my fellow travelers?

And how the heck can we get to Ndjoko Punda?

I ask myself regularly, why am doing this? Remind me!

Sometime before my first recent visit, in May 2012, (my first visit since the 1970s) I got the sense that going to Congo would be a sacred journey. I don’t know why, exactly. My involvement with the Congo Cloth Connection–which was all about beauty–had revived my dormant crazy Africa love. But this was about more than sentiment, more than a romanticized attachment to things Congolese. I decided to prepare for that trip as if it would be a pilgrimage.

Before I went I prepared with prayer, offerings, and ceremony. When I was in Congo I tried to see every event and circumstance with the eyes of the heart. I considered the possibility that every step I took over garbage-strewn streets was on sacred ground, that every traffic jam was a trial on the journey to a sacred destination. And that was as close to the truth of that trip as any story I can tell about it. God was everywhere! I thought often of labyrinths. At the center of the labyrinth of rutted streets was the outdoor funeral; the roofless church building bursting with praise; the dinner served in the hot, crowded home; the store stacked with gorgeous cloth.

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Because of that experience the second trip, just two months later, became even more obviously a pilgrimage. It was a celebration of the centennial of the Mennonite Church in Congo, a visit to places and people important to that history. Like any true pilgrimage, that trip was full of trials for me–an injury to my knee, too many encounters with noisy, welcoming crowds–but these did not diminish the sacredness of the experience. On that trip the holy of holies for me was the unique music of Congolese church choirs.

So I am now setting out on a third pilgrimage, this one with three themes. The first is choirs. They are calling me back and I want to bring my husband into that experience. Vic is going with me and we are going to listen to and record/video as many choirs as possible. We are going to great lengths (upriver in a rubber raft with a diamond trader) to record the best choir I heard last July, a choir whose music seemed to come directly from the spirit world.

The second is to celebrate the ordination of the first women as pastors in the Mennonite Church of Congo. That is what brings our fellow travelers with us. We all come to celebrate with these women and the church that has taken this step. I have writing assignments around that and, in fact, I am writing about all of this. The two ordination services we will attend will be splendid, full of music and spirit. They will bring the Mennonite community together and we will be among friends.

Finally, Vic and I are making a personal pilgrimage to Lubumbashi, the city where we lived for two years back in the 1970s. Is the hospital where our daughter was born still standing? Have the shattered windows in the university administration building been repaired and does the chemistry lab have running water? Will the Park Hotel still host us in shabby grandeur? Is the French Consulate swimming pool, where Joanna took her first steps, still open? We will try to find our airy little house on Ave. des Mandariniers, surrounded by jacarandas, poinsettias, and hibiscus, but who knows.

All of this feels holy. Pilgrimages include trials, like squat toilets and iffy lodging, and the trials begin now as I deal with logistics, not my favorite thing to do at all. The rewards lie ahead.