Fr. Stephen Huffstetter shares his final journal entries from the Democratic Republic of Congo where he and Frs. Charles Brown and Leonard Elder have been traveling for the past three weeks. They took part in several remembrance ceremonies for SCJ missionaries killed in Congo during the 1964 Simba rebellion.
DECEMBER 3 – Yesterday was a long travel day, with more waiting than actual time on board the two-hour flight from Kisangani to Kinshasa. When we went through customs and security I was surprised that nothing was computerized. The agent asked a few questions about where we were staying, then entered our passport numbers with pen in a ledger book. I wonder if there is any check or follow through.
The overhead bins were full, not so much with suitcases containing clothes but with tubs and boxes of foods being transported from the country to the capital. Overcast skies prevented much of a view from above except for the period close to take off and landing. Coming into Kinshasa you certainly see what a huge and sprawling urban center of the world it truly is.
Today we had some time to explore part of the city. We visited the artists market and so a wide variety of many lovely things, mostly carved of wood, but a good selection of canvas paintings as well. Fr. Marek [provincial superior of South Africa] was most interested in some local weavings that he purchased for use decorating the altar and other prayer spaces. There are no posted prices, and the art of bartering is alive and well as prices are argued, haggled, then finally agreed to.
One stall had many old statues, masks and sticks. We tried to learn something about the cultural and religious significance of them.
As we drove around town the air was choked with smog. All the vehicles run on diesel fuel, and my eyes were itching and burning after a while. Power is cleaner, most coming from hydroelectric dams. But there are substantially long brown-outs throughout the city. Out house had electricity for only a few hours these past two days. Fr. Gabriel can use a generator when needed, as in the evening when students need light to study by. But their budget is strained every time they must buy more fuel for power most of us take for granted.
Notre Dame is the Cathedral church of Kinshasa. Midday the doors were locked, but a worker at the parish offices was happy to let us in for a tour. Built in 1955 it is a soaring brick building, made of local materials. The statues, ambo and tabernacle were lovely wood carvings. The rest of the space was simple, though prayerful, fitting for a poor church in a developing country.
The SCJ house in Kinshasa has a small chapel for daily mass that seats about 50. At 6 am today it was full to overflowing, with people spilling over to plastic chairs set on the lawn outside. Songs were in Lingala, and the mass in French. The music was quite spirited with drum, rattles, keyboard and tambourine . The crowd was an even mix between men and women from a variety of ages and walks of life. The SCJs incorporate the prayers of the Divine Office into the mass, and people pray along with them before going off to start their day.
DECEMBER 6 – Our time in Congo has come to an end, and we will soon board the plane for the long trip home. Our entourage of visitors has dwindled to the three Americans now. Fr. Claude returned to Canada on Thursday, and Fr. Marek to South Africa on Friday. Fr. Zenon left for Lumumbashi where the SCJs are exploring setting up a new community house in the southeast part of the country near Zambia.
The past two days have been on the quiet side. Part of me is impatient wanting to go and do things. Instead I’ve entered into these Advent days with an attitude of patient waiting and prayer. First Friday was much like a day of reconciliation , and I asked one of the priests here to hear my confession in preparation for the great feast of Christmas just around the corner.
I’ve used some of the time to write up reports and reflections about our collaborative efforts with the Congolese Province that I will share with the Provincial Council upon my return. And in my limited French and in our confreres’ limited English we’ve tried to learn as much about each other as we can.
Fr. Simplice was ordained a priest last February and is continuing his studies for a liscenciate in New Testament Biblical Studies. We walked about a mile to the Augustinian University where he studies.
Every country has its contrasts and things that don’t make sense to outsiders. The main boulevard through the city is actually quite nice, well paved with four lanes in each direction. I noticed street sweepers all along the route picking up dust and dirt with brooms and shovels to keep it looking tidy. Yet the side streets leading up to the main thoroughfare were not paved at all. The dirt was uneven with large holes and dips, and a lot of trash from daily use of the people clogging the drainage ditches. It reminded me of similar misplaced priorities we have back in the States where areas with wealth get more services and attention than poor neighborhoods.
Augustinian University is a consortium of 23 men’s religious orders and 17 sisters’ communities. About 10% of the students are laity committed to improving the quality of life and ministry in the church . The school formerly only offered a degree in philosophy, but in the last few years has expanded to include degrees in theology and psychology.
Since Charlie is a professor of New Testament studies, he and Simplice had a lively discussion about Luke’s Gospel. Simplice is writing his thesis on the story of the rich young man who turned away sad when Jesus asked him to give everything to the poor and follow him. We went to the university library to check out what academic resources were available . The good news is that books here are quite treasured and well used. The not so good news was that the collection was very old and dated. One problem is financial, purchasing new works. Another is availability. One of Charlie’s hopes as mission director is to help developing provinces get the theological books and resources they need for their libraries.
In the afternoon I noticed several students gathered around a plastic chair next to the garden. It was time for haircuts. A barber comes to the house every two weeks and gives everyone a good cut. Instead of scissors or clippers he used a double-edged razor blade attached to the side of a comb. Just as in a typical barber shop the crew sat around gabbing ands telling stories as each awaited his turn.
Every Friday evening the community opens up the chapel for Eucharistic adoration, and a good number of people from the neighborhood join. Today was First Friday, with a special emphasis on Sacred Heart devotion.
Over breakfast Fr. Simon and Fr. Gabrielle remembered an American SCJ who had a huge impact on their families and their vocation. Fr. Dave Maher devoted many years to serving in the Congo before he took ill and died. They are two of four SCJ priests from his parish, inspired by his hard work, dedication and deep spirituality. From that same cluster of parishes he served there are many vocations to the diocese and to women’s religious communities as well. One person’s witness can inspire many to follow.
My quarters here are quite comfortable (though with no AC a little on the warm side). I have a two-room suite, with an office in front and bed in back. I realized that it was Fr. Gabrielle’s office, but discovered today that when I leave, he will get his bedroom back as well. “When guests visit us, we want them to feel at home and share our best with them.” This whole journey has been one of generous and gracious hospitality, and much to inspire as we wrap up and head home.