Notes From Congo – Part II

Something that surprises me each time I return from an exotic place like Central Africa, is how dire people assume everything is there. They say things like “Wow, is that safe?” or “What a tremendous sacrifice you are making.”

Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen. CNN is lying to you, because frankly cold showers and spam pasta in the Republic of Congo are kind of awesome, and at times our recent field service there felt exactly like this weird statue in Nice, France.

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Yes, there are oversized, naked, ugly things happening in Congo and I don’t want to minimize that, but occasionally you can sneak in behind those things, sit on a fish and flip your hair. In other words, there is an abundance of hilarity, joy, irony and fun to be found even in hard situations, and that, I like to think, is the way of things in the Kingdom of God.

See Jesus didn’t promise us happy, he promised us full, which is different. And sometimes you’re walking back from the river when you accidentally recreate the Beatles Abbey Road album cover, and it’s funny and every bit as important as all the sad stuff.IMG_4206

So since I care about you guys, you need to know about this Nutella substitute. It’s sold in pretty much every tin shack shop lining the main drag in Impfondo, Congo. IMG_4621

Though it’s fairly expensive, it comes in mini size and hefty three-gallon lick tubs, which I felt spoke to its obvious popularity among locals. But I discovered, the post-purchase hard way, that this sticky brown crap in the little yellow tubs tastes exactly like Vaseline and dirt. So it’s lucky I only bought four. Everyone I forced to eat it agrees, it is a unique chocolate taste.

My digestive system and I have an agreement these days though, so I don’t mind befriending guys like this on the street and eating whatever that is in the middle, liberally covered with salt and MSG and wrapped in newspaper.IMG_3362 I ate it with gusto and so did my pal Ryan, even though there’s a good chance it’s made of a relative of these three, who were waiting in line for their turn to become BBQ.

IMG_3363Or it could have been made out this crocodile, after his ride in a crowded minvan. Actually, the crocodile was never inside the minivan, silly, he went on the roof for safety. But he totally could have gone inside because his mouth was tied shut with string.

Incidentally, crocodile does taste like chicken, chewy, fishy chicken.

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But enough about food, let’s talk about sweating.

Impfondo lies just north of the equator, on the Ouibangi river and is nearly swallowed by jungle. So, as you might imagine, working outside 9-10 hours a day there creates a remarkably moist personal environment. Even better, when you sweat like this, every drop of saturated fat you’ve ever consumed leaks from your pores. The medical terminology for this is “The Crisco Sweats.”

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The validity of this claim is still under review by Hospital staff, and there are more than a few naysayers, including Mama Sarah, the nurse in the red scrubs below. But what could she possibly know, she spends her days cleaning and bandaging the feet of local men afflicted with leprosy. Nonetheless, she stopped by to weigh in on the sweating question.

“Nope, sorry guys. Your fat is not coming out your pores.”

Dang.

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Do you see what we are doing in these pictures? We’re off loading gravel from Jupiter the Unimog – a beastly diesel Mercedes personnel carrier that blew a tire 100 feet from where we actually needed the gravel. Of course a Unimog not loaded to the top with gravel weighs two million pounds, so jacking it up to change the tire, even if there was a spare, which there wasn’t, is kind of a cruel joke. So this is what happened next.

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Back and forth, two million times.

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An exercise like this can really help you grasp how far you are from acting anything like Jesus.

Me: “Wow. It totally figures that Jupiter died 100 feet from where we need the gravel.”

Stefan: “I know isn’t it amazing it died ONLY 100 feet from where we need the gravel?”

Me: “Um yah. That’s what I meant. Excuse me, I’ll be over here, praying for myself.”

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I think sometimes when my life is boring it’s because I’ve neutered all the struggle right out of it. Approximately 100% of all tasks in Impfondo, require some form of struggle, sacrifice, endurance and/or sweat, not to mention a mess of other sweaty people nearby. And that, my friends, is what made evenings like this, swimming in the river under the full moon, indescribably beautiful.

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On Heaven and Earth In Congo.

Oubangui RiverDuring dry season in Impfondo, Congo, the Oubangui River narrows and slows. Miles of wide sand beaches surface like beige river monsters, shimmery and hot, until the river interrupts them.

If the barge docks don’t lie, the river will rise thirty feet when the rains come, but for now it’s quiet with women schussing barefoot along the river carrying cassava on their heads and babies on their backs.

If you’re a doctor at Pioneer Christian Hospital, and not busy dispensing ARVs or convincing beautiful black women who’ve destroyed their skin with lightening creams not to split for the witch doctor, you can grab your family and trot down the cliffs to the miles of open sand. There, new and old friends are waiting.image

Tonight it’s a little cold to swim, so we camp out on an old tarp left behind by the UN. We eat avocado and pineapple sandwiches and salty peanuts and real American brownies somebody made with the last of their propane. Blond haired missionary kids, who were born in country and speak Lingala like the natives they are, do backflips in the river with their friends.

Soon, stars belonging to both North and South begin dancing over the equator, as if one hemisphere’s stars are not enough. And because moon is late, the Milky Way emerges like pixie dust.

It’s here your cup might overflow and drown you.

Jesus himself said “I came so you might have and enjoy your life and have it in abundance until it overflows.” John 10:10.

This gathering, this river, this space, these stars feel so abundant it is hard to contain it – something Jesus also promised – Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. Luke 6:38.

That kind of abundance exists for those willing to submit all of it to Jesus and let him decide where the abundance is found. But who would have thought? Here Lord? The Republic of Congo? In my wildest imagination, I never saw this coming.

Walking home across the river dunes, Orion’s Belt up ahead and the Southern Cross at our backs, we wind up back at the mission, – the beating heart of Pioneer Christian Hospital. And because this is Africa, the Land Cruiser keys are missing or it won’t start or somebody needs a ride but they disappeared, so we wait.

Photo Credit: Nat Geo

Photo Credit: Nat Geo

And that’s lucky because standing deep in the shadows as the bats squeal in the mango trees, the fireflies appear, lighting up the wet grass with fleeting little sparkles.

And it doesn’t matter where you look, over your head or under your feet, the world just shines, and it’s tempting to drop to your knees and weep. For this one small moment, it is as He prayed…

On earth as it is in heaven.

Notes from Congo

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At least seven people have died outside my door this week.

At Pioneer Christian Hospital in Impfondo, a town of about 100,000 people in the interior of the Republic of Congo, people die. I know this because the wailing echoes off the concrete buildings and ricochets throughout the campus.

This is in the way of things, I suppose.

But other people live, mostly because of the intervention of Dr. Joe Harvey and his team. That includes one baby who, on Tuesday, was born via c-section, not breathing. Dr. Joe covered her mouth with his own and breathed for her until she could do it herself. I know this because two of our Mercy Ships team members were there, scrubbed in and watching grown men pull a tiny Congolese woman’s abdomen open to free the baby. The girls held stuff for them. This is how Tuesday looks at a missionary hospital in Congo.

Dr Joe and his wife Rebecca have been running this hospital for more than a decade. After saving babies and sewing fingers back on ten year olds who’ve severed them chopping down plantains with machetes, Dr. Joe also runs a radio station, preaches on Sundays in three different languages, is writing a book, and employs about 60 local people. Along with their team, they live on the equator and do this work day in and day out, with only occasional ice cubes and butter and no steak or air conditioning.

It’s kind of hard to imagine.

Their friend Sara Speer, known to everybody in town as Mama Sara, left Canada in 1984 and except for her periodic furloughs, has lived in Congo since. When she’s not driving November, one of the Mission’s Land Cruisers, whose gearbox contains only second and fourth, she rides her bike around town, down a muddy dirt track and into an abandoned hospital where she tends to “her guys.”

Sara’s guys are lepers. One of them, Pele Pele, is missing an entire foot and walks with a cane with a tennis shoe over what’s left of his heel. When Sara shows up, she kneels down before him and washes his mangled feet.

While doing this, she told Alice and me that leprosy is transmitted through the air, and without thinking I held my breath. But 95% of the human population is immune, she says. It’s even treatable if you aren’t poor and forgotten, she adds.

So she gets their meds, rebandages them and then whips out a few coins from her pocket, money she pieces together from her band of supporters in the US and Canada. She handed the money to Pele Pele, along with a can of sardines.

What are we doing here?

Ostensibly we are building a playground in support of people whose lives are so demanding, that while they might wish for such a thing, it struggles for priority. So we are doing it as an encouragement to people for whom the love of God is all hands and feet and heart and guts.

But more than that we are growing, sweating and facing down our own demons, learning what Jesus meant when he talked about the last and the first in the kingdom of God. It is easy to forget people in West Africa especially when they are so remote and the need is so immense and overwhelming, but God wants us to remember Pele Pele.

Jesus promises reward beyond description for those willing to do this work not just in heaven, but right here in the present tense. And this is something you can see in Dr. Joe’s face sometimes – an exhausted, overwhelmed, satisfied serenity in the midst of his endless duty.

And this too seems to be the way of things.

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