Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why I'm Going to Congo

Shortly after my dad returned from Congo last year, we met up at Qdoba on our lunch hours. He’d spent two weeks in Congo, after leaving when he was 13. He told me stories about their trip. The old, six-passenger Land Cruiser that carried 10 and broke down after traversing a temporary lagoon that had covered the rutted dirt “road.” They’d slept overnight in bandit territory. My mother and aunt had felt like they were Princess Di, surrounded as they were by African children reaching out to touch them. They’d been given Tshiluban names by the Congolese the same way my father had received one when he was born. On this trip, my father had met the son of his own namesake, Chief Baditu. The runways were made of dirt, and those that weren’t had no lines painted on them. The stories went on.

I added these to the stories I heard growing up. Between two tribes, ready to do battle, spears, bows, and shields in hand, my grandfather walked out and called them to make peace. Along with my grandmother and their youngest daughter, he’d been captured by the revolutionary Simbas and later evacuated in a U.N. helicopter.

“When are you going back?” I asked. My dad’s eyes sparkled, the way they do when he’s consumed with the idea at hand. The way he talked, I knew this trip was the first, not the last.

“Maybe a year from now. We saw too much not to be involved, not to invest and provide them with resources. It gives them hope.”

“I’m going with you.” I said. I’d resolved in my own mind that if he went again, I would not be left out.

“Okay,” he laughed. “I’m ready. I’d go back tomorrow.”

A now tomorrow is here.

There are a lot of reasons I’m going on this trip, selfish and unselfish, small and big. I’m going because I want to travel and see the world. I’m going to experience a foreign culture, and to experience the culture shock of returning to the United States. I’m going to see the remnants of the place where my father grew up, a place that shaped him. I’m going to understand him a little bit more, and maybe, so also, myself. There are other reasons too.

Changing others: I’m a dreamer and an idealist, which go together, I suppose. Because of that, I bought into a very grand plan. It was called “changing the world.” It’s a noble idea, but I’ve decided that it’s also a sham. No one can change the world. I don’t think anyone ever has (there may be one exception). The pressure of changing the world, the blurriness of it, and the unbearable burden it is is all too much. It’s paralyzing. But I’m still a dreamer, so I can’t simply give up the dream. Instead, I’ve traded one dream for another.

Instead of “somewhere out there,” it’s right there, or maybe it’s right here. It’s not changing the world but changing one person, whoever it might be, whatever it might look like, wherever it might crop up. I think that can be done. It can be touched and pointed at. It’s a story I can tell and a name that I can say. Maybe that’s in Congo, or maybe Congo will simply send me back to accomplish that here.

When we leave, we’ll be taking hand tools we bought, with ease, at our local Home Depot. We’ve packed carpentry and masonry tools in our bags among our clothes. I hid mine inside the pants of my jeans, hoping to fend off luggage-handling theives. When we arrive in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, we will spend a day finding a hardware store and purchasing more tools. We will also be buying medical supplies: a new kerosene-powered sterilizing unit to replace the cast iron kettle that they heat over an open fire. We already provided them a power generator to light their surgery room.

These are practical necessities, physical goods that will meet basic needs. They will empower local doctors to do surgery sooner. They will empower students to actually practice their carpentry and masonry skills, not just talk about them. These are not spiritual needs. But they have a spiritual impact. Saving a life by having cleaner instruments or safer shelter is a spiritual matter.

Providing lights and sterile instruments allows doctors to perform surgery immediately instead of waiting until daylight to break. That saves lives. And Life is a spiritual matter.

Being changed: This is my first foray off of North America. I do not expect to come back with the same beliefs, same worldview, same expectations, same pride, same humility.

Experiences are ephemeral, but you carry the remnants of those images and feelings in you for the rest of your life. The things you see and experience can change you subtly or dramatically, and those changes can persist. This is my hope and fear.

Finding a bigger God: Who is this God who is at work in Congo? How is he working? What does he look like when you see him from Africa? What does his kingdom look like in a country corrupted by power? Who is this God who sees the way these people live? Is this the God I worship here?
I hope to come back with stories about all these things and share them with you. (My dad is hoping to post on his blog while we are in Kinshasa. Check back at “Hope for Congo” for an update. You can find our itinerary there right now. Likewise, if I can here at Watching Gravity, I will.) As you’re reading this, please say a quick prayer for our group’s health; our travels; that the tools we’ve purchased will not be stolen in transit; and for us to be aware of where, when, and how God is working so that we can be a part of it. Thanks.

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