Bringing light to Congo's heart of darkness
Melbourne missionary couple Prue and David Boyd on serving in one of the world's most troubled countries.
By Stephen Cauchi
February 5 2018The war-stricken Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the world’s most challenging missionary assignments, and Anglicans David and Prue Boyd and Malcolm Richards shared their experiences with the Church Missionary Society’s Summer Under The Son conference in January.
Held at Crossway Baptist Church in Melbourne’s east, the conference heard why missionaries voluntarily serve in the DRC – the seventh-most troubled state in the world, according to the United Nations – when far more peaceful alternatives such as Tanzania are close at hand.
Audiologist Prue Boyd testing the hearing of a Congolese patient.
The Boyd family first went to the Congo (then called Zaire) in 1986 because CMS was sending missionaries there for the first time and also because they knew French, the DRC’s official language.
They followed up that 10-year stint with another three years in 2014 – with full knowledge this time of what life in the DRC was like.
“I said to Prue, we could go to Tanzania, we could go to Kenya, but I’d be always thinking why are we here and not in a place that is actually much more needy,” the Revd Boyd, 62, told TMA.
“So we said to each other, why not go back to the Congo where we are known, where we understand the situation to some degree, where we don’t have to do the language and culture learning like all new missionaries have to do.”
The “situation” in the DRC, which gained independence from Belgium in 1960, is dire. From 1965 to 1997, it was ruled by corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. From 1996 to 2003 the First and Second Congo Wars, involving neighbouring countries including Rwanda and Uganda, devastated the DRC.
Since 2004 a civil war known as the Kivu conflict has inflicted further suffering and damage.
The Boyds live in the eastern city of Bukavu, which borders Rwanda. One of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping forces patrols the extremely dangerous countryside, although Bukavu itself is relatively benign.
“Just a few weeks ago there was an eight-hour firefight between two contingents of military near our house – but that’s a bit unusual,” said Revd Boyd. “Largely it is secure and safe.”
Revd Boyd teaches theology at an Anglican Bible school in Bukavu; Ms Boyd, an audiologist, works at the town hospital. They also minister at their Anglican church, Christ the King.
Revd Boyd said over 80 per cent of the population was nominally Christian, but practice of the religion was shallow. “Given there is gross corruption and injustice in the country you’d have to wonder what Christianity means to a lot of the people,” said Revd Boyd. Prue Boyd agrees: “Rwanda was a largely Christian country and they had the genocide.”
But there are many obstacles for missionaries in the country besides war, including the ramshackle education system. The education system is basic, poorly funded, and does not prepare students, said Revd Boyd.
“The teachers make heroic efforts but are not very well trained and they’re certainly not well-paid,” he said.
“People who have received early or mid-secondary education can’t be relied on to have the same thinking skills of students here. There’s a lack of ability to analyse and think critically.”
The harshness of day-to-day life also works against evangelism. “One of the biggest challenges for me is that all of people’s energy is spent on just living – living in poverty and hardship and things going wrong,” Ms Boyd said.
“It’s almost as if caring for other people is too much. They’re fatigued… that’s probably the biggest challenge.
“I’m quite shocked when they are quite happy just to test someone’s hearing and send them out the door, not wanting to look at that person’s life and give them tips and follow-up care.”
Revd Boyd said that life for most Congolese was “a series of unsolvable problems” and consequently it was difficult to get them to care about their work. “You’ve got to fight to get capable people but if you find someone who’s capable and they get some training, they’ll go and look for a job with a non-government organisation or a United Nations organisation, of which there are many,” he said.
And, of course, there is the ever-present violence, even in Bukavu. The pair live in a home in an Anglican compound patrolled by an armed guard. The Anglican Bishop of Bukavu was forced to employ the security after an armed invasion of his home.
During the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, perpetrators of “horrible crimes” had crossed the border and were camping on the compound, Revd Boyd said. And corruption is rife: traffic police recently threatened to impound his car unless he handed over money.
The couple are due to go back to the DRC later this year. Revd Boyd, a science teacher at Oakleigh Technical School before heading overseas, said he had been deeply involved with CMS his entire life.
Growing up, he and his family were active members of St Columb’s Anglican Church in Hawthorn and at age 21 he felt a sense of calling to missionary life. After preparing for the next nine years, he left for the DRC when he was 30.
Ms Boyd was converted to Christianity by the Navigators at Monash University. “Before we were married we had a sense that we would be missionaries,” she said. “I felt, well, why not me? If my skills are going to be useful overseas, why not me?”
The Revd Canon Malcolm Richards, the General Secretary of CMS in New South Wales and the ACT, also told the conference of his experiences as a missionary in the DRC.
Revd Richards, 58, told TMA that during the Rwandan genocide he was living in the Congolese town of Goma, on the Rwandan border. At the time, the Congo was descending into “total anarchy,” he said.
“We had soldiers who were going feral, looting, pillaging. The elite presidential guard were looting our town. We were held up in roadblocks and had guns pointed at us by drunk soldiers,” he said.
That was during his first stint as a missionary in the DRC between 1988 and 1994. But, with full knowledge of what the DRC was like, he and his wife returned for a second stint between 2005 and 2010. They visit the DRC every two years, most recently last year.
Revd Richards said that there were often more gospel opportunities in less secure countries. “We actually found that when Congo has been going through its worst periods, the fact that we’re there standing alongside people, our Congolese friends – that is an incredible testimony to them about our love for them and our motivation for being there, which is to share the gospel.
“With troubled countries there are more opportunities for gospel witness and I think it’s a fact that the countries that have the least number of Christians – those that are gospel-poor – tend to be the countries with security problems.
“So if we’re going to take the gospel to people that really need it, by definition that involves taking risks and going to dangerous places.”
In his second stint in the DRC, Revd Richards was head of theological education in the Anglican Diocese of Kindu. Although Congo has a lot of Christians, he said, the Church’s leaders are “very untrained” and their knowledge of the gospel and how to teach their people to be faithful disciples is extremely limited.
Other challenges included trying to get Bible schools up and running in a dysfunctional country and dealing with non-biblical teaching from pastors – Anglican and non-Anglican.
“It might come from some TV evangelist that they’ve seen or the prosperity gospel, which is very big. So a lot of teaching that’s being given is not actually biblical and just what they’ve heard somebody else say... it’s a bit like Chinese whispers.”
Many pastors in the Protestant and Pentecostal churches had no training at all, he said.
Revd Richards grew up a keen churchgoer in Canberra and trained and worked as an optometrist. He said that he and his wife Elizabeth had pledged to become missionaries if they felt the calling to do so – and they did.
“We thought, if we don’t start asking questions now, we’ll never do anything, so we went to talk to CMS.”
Revd Richards said he originally wanted to do missionary work as an optometrist, but none of the available opportunities seemed to fit. Instead, after much prayer, an opportunity arose to do youth work and evangelism in Congo. He subsequently left with Elizabeth and their three young children.
After returning from that first stint in 1994, Revd Richards trained at Moore College, worked as a minister in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, and planted a church in Canberra.
But Congo was calling. “In the meantime, the whole of Zaire had fallen apart with the big civil war,” he said. “I had always considered that if the Lord called us again, we would be ready to go back.”
Revd Richards urged new missionaries to consider countries like the DRC. “We really have to support the countries that are struggling the most and so we’d love to send people to some of the harder countries like the DRC and South Sudan.”