As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God “moving” geographically from the Middle East to Europe, to North America, to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where He’s wanted.
Through my admittedly superficial exposure in the three trips I have made to Congo, each time I was delighted by the sweet marks of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Congolese believers I interacted with. These were marks I discerned not because I’m some authority on the matter, but because their other-worldliness is so striking, you can’t miss it.
After my 2012 trip, I wrote:
I was expecting to find a people beaten down, cynical, and hardened. Instead I was disarmed in a game of Bananagrams with a colorful, and delightfully sassy group of students the first night of my arrival. Their laughter was free, and made even the wild jungle feel confined. All the students I interacted with had youth spraying through their veins like a broken fire hydrant. When I talked with them about the conflicts and the corruption of their country, their plans for transformation were fearless. The students acted like they could run and not grow weary.
“Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
Losha was one of the dreaming old men. I met him during my 2015 visit. He wore a bright red, tattered backpack that stood out against his crisp grey suit. The suit was tailored to fit his missing arm, which he lost when they sent out the kids to pick-up leftover explosives littering the streets after the Simba rebellion of 1964. A man probably in his sixties, his face beamed in a charming schoolboy smile. With remarkable dexterity he single handedly chauffeured me all over Bunia on the back of his 125cc Senke motorcycle.
Losha was second in command for one of the largest school systems in Bunia. As one principal told me, “He is a very humble man.” I need to point out how remarkable that statement is. Against the backdrop of strong-man authoritarian values prized in Congolese leadership, Losha is an anomaly. Covertly operating off of a whole new reality,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Encountering these believers was paradigm-shifting for me. Suddenly, I was compelled to serve in the D.R.C. not because of a principle of deficit, “Congolese lack the gospel and need my help,” but because I saw clearly the Spirit of God moving in his people in Congo and I want to join in.
My call to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) began in a burst. I was sixteen when I read Heart of Darkness for an English class. As soon as I finished it, I read it again. The book describes Congo during the rule of the Belgian King Leopold II. Discovering that a people could be so wickedly oppressed deeply troubled my adolescent mind. Already at the turn of the 20th century, it was being called the holocaust of central Africa, with burned villages, mutilated bodies, entire villages slaughtered by orders of “extermination”. During Leopold’s 23 year rule of Congo, according to historian Adam Hochschild, the population of the area dropped by approximately ten million people. I was disturbed that I knew nothing about such suffering, that I was insulated from it.
The evil seemed unrelenting. Once the Belgians were done ravaging Congo, they passed her off to a tyrant. His dictatorship ended in 1995, when Congo exploded in civil war. It was huge. Now referred to as "Africa’s World War", journalists and aid workers watched in horror as Congo dismembered itself. Rape was used systematically as a weapon of war. A 2011 report found that in Congo 1,152 women were raped every day - 48 every hour, making it the worst place on earth to be a woman.
During the war, eight other countries invaded the DRC, supposedly in support of one faction or another of the civil war, but in reality exploiting the country for its natural resources. In 2003 the war ended uneasily in a fragile peace agreement, leaving the country in shambles, psychologically traumatized by the fighting, economically devastated, with a government teetering on the edge of implosion. Since then, it has repeatedly erupted in violent concussions, and even now is holding its anxious breath, bracing for the anticipated fighting surrounding its presidential elections in November.
Now, I see that the early stages of my calling to Congo were extremely problematic on many levels, even in my compassion and righteous indignation. I saw Congo as God-forsaken, inadvertently reducing the people to an inferior status, believing that they had a problem and I needed to help fix it. I failed to recognize that not only did Jesus make the Congolese full of goodness and dignity, but he was also very much at work in their midst, something I will unpack in Part II.
After I peel away my ignorance and pride, however, I still hold on to my compassion and indignation as a gift from the Lord and the beginning of my call. I experienced them potently. They were the ignition that propelled me out the door, and always intimately tied to Congo.
I decided to become an educator in a hotel room in Kampala, Uganda, while waiting for my flight back to the U.S. Under mosquito net, I lied on my bed and read this from C.S. Lewis:
“They [educators] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”
I quickly had experiences that confirmed Lewis’ words. I wrote in a reflection paper for my teaching license, “I did two observations already this semester, and the numbness of the students struck me. There was no light in their eyes, like someone cut the cord to their power supply.” In their fallen state, my students in the U.S. or the D.R.C. don’t just need to know what is true, but they need to learn how to feel what is true: what courage feels like and when to muster it, that compassion is heavy and it’s good to let it bleed, and even though remorse stings it’s better to embrace it than flee.
My life as an educator is an extension of my identity as a disciple-maker, the goal of which is resurrection, stone hearts turning to flesh, learning how to be human. When I was student teaching I had my students read a flash fiction piece about a man’s attempt to save his dying dog after it’s hit by a car. As soon as we finished reading it, a student in the back row lifted his face from the page and exclaimed in outrage, “What the hell? This story is so sad.” When he was awake in my class I really liked this student. He usually played it cool, so this was a break in character for him. I expect he probably had experiences more tragic than those described in the story, but did he know how to feel sorrow over them?
After spending two years reading various academics argue over the heart of education, I see plainly my own heart. My goal is not dispensing skills and information to prepare my students for the workforce, or advancing the cause of democracy by preparing them for civic engagement, God willing those are by-products. Like W.E.B. Dubois “I insist that the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.”
Jesus awakened fishermen from the slumber of cold vulgarity, “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”
The single most determining factor for why we joined Crossworld, our sending organization, was their emphasis on disciple-making. In recent years discipleship has become almost a catchprase. We are drawn to it not because it’s a new idea, but a very old one, modeled and commanded by the God-man we worship. His commission, uttered to the 12, has been faithfully passed on through the centuries such that Mindy and I have now heard it, “Go make disciples….”
I was fortunate to be raised around the concept. At a young age, my father urged me to seek out other boys in our youth group in order to mentor them in their budding faith. As his apprentice, my father coached me along, addressing my insecurities, troubleshooting dilemmas, and summoning my perseverance.
In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman begins with a simple observation: if Jesus’ intention was to save the entire world, to kick-start his church, to establish a new kingdom of cosmic proportions, and he only had three years to do it, what do we make of his awkward priorities? Rather than booking speaking engagements, pursuing appointments with the leaders of the time, or organizing programs, he spends the bulk of his time, by far, with 12 ragged men. “He literally staked his whole ministry on them,” Coleman says.
Coleman applies Jesus’ strategy to our own:
“Preaching to the masses, although necessary, will never suffice in the work of preparing leaders for evangelism. Nor can occasional prayer meetings and training classes for Christian workers do this job. Building men and women is not that easy. It requires constant personal attention, much like a father gives to his children. This is something that no organization or class can ever do. Children are not raised by proxy. The example of Jesus would teach us that it can be done only by persons staying close to those whom they seek to lead.”
When I reflect on my life, I have been influenced by books, classes, even experiences, but for my life to be truly changed, it always took the personal involvement and example of another human life.
Dale Losch, Crossworld’s president, puts it this way, “Real, lasting life-change takes place not at the macro-level, but at the micro-level, one on one, close up.” Tradesmen learn their craft through years of apprenticeship, observing and being observed by the master. I think this is precisely what the carpenter Jesus had in mind for building his church.
“While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”
We intentionally chose to ask people to financially partner with us, as opposed to other forms of ministry funding, because of one main reason: we believe that Jesus wants his disciples to be dependent on one another.
The U.S. is the foremost example of an individualistic society. Independence is one of the most cherished American values. Our country is founded on the Declaration of Independence, for Pete’s sake. Financial independence is arguably the preeminent evidence of success.
Christ's kingdom upholds the opposite value: interdependence. When Jesus sends out his disciples, he instructs them, “Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.” Consider how mind boggling this is! Even if they had the gold, silver or extra tunic, they are to choose to dependent on whatever home they approach.
Here are four reasons why I believe God likes interdependence:
We hope that we can minister to those who partner with us precisely through their giving. That we all might believe God more. We envision ourselves sharing with the Congolese in our material blessings, and letting them share with us and our partners in their spiritual blessings, and so make Christ’s body a little more “…one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.”
Poverty is everything we lack to experience abundant life: poverty of relationships, poverty of justice, material poverty, etc. It is a result of the fall that is pervasive throughout every culture. As ambassadors of Christ, then, we direct people to Him as the only Savior and King, but we also seek His kingdom here on earth. This is where we often run into trouble because it is so easy to confuse the kingdom we come from (our own culture) for His kingdom. This error is devastating for two reasons. One, it fails to acknowledge the falleness of our own cultural perspective, and two, it fails to recognize the work of the Spirit in the culture we are seeking to serve.
Proverbs 17:5 says, “He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker.” This suggests that poverty is not always the result of poor decisions (nor is wealth always a sign of God’s blessing), but that God has made the poor and has a design even for our poverty. The principle by which Jesus addresses a different consequence of the fall applies here,
“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.’
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.’”
Corbett and Fikkert point out that Colossians 1:16-17, “indicates that the goodness of God’s creation includes ‘all things,’ extending beyond the natural world into culture as a whole. Our basic predisposition should be to see poor communities—including their natural resources, people, families, neighborhood associations, schools, businesses, governments, culture, etc.—as being created by Jesus Christ and reflective of His goodness.”
The basic point here is that God is at work in Congo and we need to submit to his work rather than bring our own. Mindy and I want to come humbly with a learning spirit. One way we hope to do this is by working under Congolese leadership, embedding ourselves in Congolese systems and solutions as much as possible. Look at the spirit of reciprocity with which the missionary Paul approached the Galatian church,
I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trail to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.”
When appropriate we hope to repent of our own culture and say with Paul,
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
When people ask me why I decided to become a doctor, I often answer, “Jesus”. Jesus healed people of their physical ailments as often as their spiritual. It seemed that He valued physical health and wellbeing very much. His value of physical healing was fed by His compassion and love. How many times in the Gospels do we see “Jesus had compassion on the crowds and healed them”? He recognized that sickness and physical suffering are not part of God’s good creation, but a result of a world wrecked by sin, death, and evil. If he wanted to reconcile people to God holistically, then physical healing would be part of that. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son. Because God loves us, He sent Jesus to heal both spiritual and physical brokenness.
Jesus goes a step further and tells us that His followers will also serve the physical needs of others. Matthew 25:31-46 has also been instrumental in my decision to become a medical missionary. Jesus tells His disciples that when they care for “the least of these”, they care for Him. The examples He gives of this care are striking – He doesn’t mention preaching the Gospel, baptizing, or planting churches. He declares giving something to eat, giving something to drink, inviting in, clothing, looking after the sick, and visiting in prison are the actions He desires us to do for others – all very tangible, physical acts.
While Jesus commends those serving the needs of others as equal to serving Him, He gives warning to those who ignore these needs. Ignoring the physical needs of others is equal to ignoring Him. It’s easy to forget about the needs of those thousands of miles away, who suffer from malnutrition, poor sanitation, preventable diseases, oppression, and violence. Yet Jesus makes no excuse for this. Whether “the least of these” are on our doorstep or across the world, ignoring their suffering is equal to ignoring Christ.
James explains that even pity and good intentions do not equal action. “If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (Ja 2:16). Seeing the sick neighbor down the street or the starving child on the news, and saying to myself, “Wow, that’s awful, I hope they will get better” is dead faith. It is turning away from Christ, who is asking for a drink of water or a cool cloth for His forehead. I cannot ignore the physical needs of others, because I cannot ignore Jesus.
Excerpts from the World Bank’s series Voices of the Poor
For a poor person everything is terrible—illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.
When I don’t have any [food to bring my family], I borrow, mainly from neighbors and friends. I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.
Your hunger is never satisfied, your thirst is never quenched; you can never sleep until you are no longer tired.
What is poverty? Is it a material thing? That person doesn’t have a car like I do, a Netflix subscription, consistent utilities, healthy food, financial security, etc. In the book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out how when the poor explain their own poverty they “typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” Corbett and Fikkert go on to define poverty more broadly than I ever had, but perhaps more biblically, “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom peace in all its meanings.”
This is bad news because it means poverty is far more crushing than I thought, but also because it means I’m impoverished in ways I had never considered. It reminds me of my dad’s testimony. The son of a successful businessman, he had everything he wanted. He followed a girl on a mission trip. There, in Mexico, he watched a Christian family from a distance. Despite their tin and cardboard house, with kids in plastic-bag diapers, they had joy, contentment, and relationships of which he was completely impoverished.
It’s for this reason that the day the King returned, he strolled into a Nazareth synagogue and announced the coming kingdom, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Mindy and I are committed to advancing His whole kingdom, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”
The thought nagged at me.
What if we concern ourselves with international missions because it’s easier than loving our immediate neighbors?
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Screwtape coaches his demon pupil, “The great thing is to direct the malice to his [the Christian’s] immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.” Thus, we become believers who allow ourselves our hatred for a coworker, but crusade on behalf of the Syrian Refugees in Europe.
The threat is real, and I think we should avoid a hypocrisy of that kind, but not by becoming isolationist. As if by abandoning global missions we would somehow become more loving to our nearer neighbors. When the Pharisees similarly struggled to obey two competing laws, Jesus’ direction was clear, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
But what if only the church in America has this global concern for the gospel because it can afford to?
On my last trip to the DRC I found that the missionary impulse is universal to Christ’s church around the world, and may even be thicker in other parts of the world than here in America. As I spoke to various church leaders it became clear that Jesus is currently speaking to His church in Bunia of his desire that they send their members to new regions of Congo. It’s really exciting. I visited Shalom University, which had an entire missiology and development department that was doing amazing work in poorly served regions of the country.
According to Philip Jenkins this is consistent with a broader trend. In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, he writes, “Moreover, churches on all three continents [Africa, South America, and Asia] share a passionate enthusiasm for missions and evangelism that is often South-South, organized from one of the emerging churches, and directed toward some other regions of Africa, Asia, or Latin America—we think of Brazilian missionaries in African, Ugandans in India, Koreans in the Middles East.” In fact, Jenkins also documents how immigrants from the global south are revitalizing the church in some European countries where the church is in decline.
My experiences shattered the thought that missions might be a fad of a wealthy American church. As the church in any country follows Christ, they universally arrive at the same conclusion: Jesus is commissioning them to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
The center of our desire to be missionaries is this: both Mindy and I believe we have found the most valuable thing in the world, and it’s worth everything we’ve got.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
During a lunch with my colleagues one day, we were talking about who “evangelicals” are. One teacher said they are Christians who think they need to convert everybody else to their religion. That is not where I find myself. My motivation to tell people about Jesus isn’t so strategic or calculated. I really like the blind man for whom Jesus opened his eyes. I feel like him.
Pharisees: How were your eyes opened?
Blind man (matter-of-factly): The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.
Pharisees: We know this man (Jesus) is a sinner.
Blind man: Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!
Pharisees: What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?
Blind man: I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too? (I think he means this question genuinely)
Pharisees (insulting): You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.
Blind man: Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
Pharisees: You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!
When I look into myself and the rest of the world, all I see is blindness. So if I find a man who gives me sight, doesn’t it make sense that I would want to share this knowledge with as many other blind people as I can? Am I trying to conquer the world with my message? Look, all I’m saying is I was really, really blind, and now I can see. This man Jesus is the secret to life.
It’s kind of like when you lose something with a lot of sentimental value, a wedding ring, or maybe a coin. You look for it franticly, desperately even, and then you find it. You have to invite all your friends over to tell them you found it. You’d be crazy not to.
No matter how hard you throw a dead fish in the water, it still won't swim.
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will..
Wesley & Mindy McKnight
This blog will address critical questions regarding our vision of ministry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is meant to last only until we depart the U.S., with each post being 500 words or less.