In 1998, the Council of Bishops responded to an appeal from United Methodist bishops in Africa to assist with their children. The program was designed to provide relief and reconciliation to innocent child victims of wars, famines, and the destruction of schools and hospitals through the unrest. The intent was to generate programs with special attention to the children’s physical, social, and spiritual well-being.
In 1998, Bishop Elias Galvan called together a task force to respond to the African bishop’s request through the Council’s Hope for the Children of Africa effort. To guide the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Conference’s response, the bishop appointed Jan and Kurt Kaiser, Patty Jones, and Mel Woodworth as his local task force for the Africa appeal.
In consultation with Bishop Galvan from the PNW Conference and Bishop Kainda Katembo representing the South Congo Episcopal Area, the United Methodist churches of the PNW built a relationship with UM churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Although the Congo has a wealth of minerals (copper, malachite, and cadmium), it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The official language is French, but it is multilingual, with 242 languages spoken. Ninety percent of the population are Christians. Only 35% of children complete high school, barely 5% attend university, and girls are much more likely to drop out.
Between 1998 and 2001, the PNW Conference raised more than $150,000 to build an orphanage— the Center of Jamaa Letu (CEJAL) – which means “Our Family” in Swahili. Before constructing the permanent facility, sixteen girls lived in a temporary facility on the grounds of the Jerusalem UMC in Lubumbashi. This is the second largest city in the Congo, located in the southeastern part near the Zambia border. The ground was broken for the new building in early 2001, and the building was dedicated later that year. The orphanage can house up to 60 girls, who are considered the most vulnerable.
A group of boys was then moved into the temporary site, and in 2006, fundraising began for a permanent boys’ orphanage. This orphanage, dedicated in 2010 and occupied in 2011, is named BART in honor of Francine Tshisola and Barbara Dadd Shaffer. Mama Francine Tshisola, a Congolese social worker trained in Switzerland, served as director of the two orphanages (later only the girl’s orphanage) and primary coordinator of the efforts in the DRC. Barbara Dadd Shaffer was the Bishop’s Task Force chair in the PNW Conference then. The boys’ orphanage can house 25-30 boys. They have a garden and grow some of their food.
In 2001, the first of three Volunteer In Mission teams traveled to the DRC to help repair schools, assist in constructing the orphanage, and provide medical care. Subsequently, three more volunteer teams worked with students at a women’s training center. (WEDAEC). In 2008, four forty-foot containers of medical and educational supplies, furniture, clothing, and other supplies for use and distribution in the DRC were sent at approximately $20,000 each. Solar panels and computers were installed in the orphanages in 2015 as a shared project with the PNW Connectional Table, UMComm, and some local partners in the Congo. Another mission team held VBS in 2017. In 2018, the Shikiya mission team recorded the stories of 18 university students. These stories were compiled into a book titled “Stories of the Congo,” published by the PNW United Methodist Church. The books were sold for $25 each, and copies are still available.
In 2009, we saw the first student from the orphanage enter university. Claudine Kasongo Nyota, known as Blessing, received her bachelor’s degree in public health and nutrition. After she graduated, she was able to come and participate in the General Conference in Portland in 2016. A dinner was held, bringing stakeholders and leaders of the two Episcopal areas. During her visit, she was also able to visit several churches across the PNW Conference. With the “love offerings” she received, Blessing purchased acreage outside a small village about 50 km from Lubumbashi. Her goal was to develop sustainable agriculture to help eradicate hunger and provide people with supplemental financial resources. The villagers there subsisted by burning trees and selling charcoal. At first, she planted corn and soya. Since then, the farm has been expanded to 23 hectares with many different crops added and was recently incorporated as an NGO, which is the Congolese designation for a nonprofit. The farm employs the people, and Blessing educates them about farming and good nutrition. When the farm has an abundance of vegetables, these are shared with the orphanages. Blessing, now married with three young children, also teaches kindergarten at a Methodist-sponsored school in Lubumbashi. She maintains a blog about the farm’s activities at https://villageblessings.wordpress.com/.
Since 2009, 43 students have started college, and 25 have graduated as of January 2023. Of the group that started, only two quit before completion, and one was forced to withdraw because of illness, leaving 15 students still attending school. The graduates include an accountant, an attorney, and a pastor. Most give back to the orphanages as much as possible by teaching, providing technical support, or translation.
The PNW Conference and the Vancouver Methodist Foundation currently give $95,000 in scholarships each year to former residents of the orphanages, partially funded by donations and sponsorships from local churches. University costs, including tuition, fees, books, housing, transportation, medical care, and personal expenses, have increased considerably, now nearly $5,500 per year. Parishioners can sponsor a scholarship for students in multiples of $500 per year.
Funding for the bulk of operating costs for the two orphanages has come through special appeals and sponsorships of $493 by churches and individuals in the PNW Conference. It now costs about $3000 per year per child to provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and education. For years, the PNW Conference churches sent $80,000 a year but had to cut that back to $60,000 ($15,000 sent quarterly) in 2021. At the General Conference held in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the bishops overseeing the PNW Conference and the South Congo Episcopal Area. This MOU stated that the churches in the DRC would take over more and more of the support of the orphanages. With little movement occurring on that front and fundraising efforts in the PNW growing stagnant, it was felt that the reduction to $60,000 annually was appropriate and necessary.
This long partnership between the two Episcopal areas aimed to support the children of the DRC based on the needs at the time. Over the years, many people working from both sides of the ocean have been blessed by meeting and working alongside one another. The financial support goals for the physical buildings have been met, and now these children are grown. The orphanages continue to welcome new children, and they continue to develop sustaining local support. Some years have passed since the PNW United Methodist Church, and the South Congo Episcopal Area have discussed this partnership at the local authority level. It may be time for that again.