'Does anyone know we are here? Does anyone know what's going on?'
Those appeals were frequent questions and thoughts of the people of the Congo, unsure if anyone knew or cared about the impact of their country's civil conflict, with 6 million deaths and countless victims of war crimes and hunger.
Thanks to the efforts of Global Ministries, a shared ministry between the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches in both denominations recognized the pleas of the Congolese and are standing in solidarity with them through the Global Ministries Congo Initiative, which is helping nurse the sick, provide education and save lives.
"What we've been able to do, just by starting the Congo Initiative, has made it a success," said the Rev. Sandra Gourdet, Global Ministries area executive for Africa. "It makes a difference. We hear them and feel their pain. We're doing this to show them we join and stand with you in your pain and suffering."
Global Ministries launched the Congo Initiative during UCC General Synod 2013 as an 18-month period of focused resources and attention on an African nation stricken by human rights violations, mass genocide, and millions of preventable deaths.
The Congo Initiative was the main focus of discussion during the most recent Global Ministries Board meeting April 4-5 in Indianapolis, where Gourdet provided members with the overall picture of the progress that has been made since July. Gourdet also outlined the remaining 10 months of the initiative, which concludes in December, and shared Global Ministries' work with its church partner, the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo.
"The overall message – the top priority – from the churches in the Congo is prayer for peace," Gourdet said. "We've advocated to our leaders on Capitol Hill for an end of the war and to bring about peace."
Global Ministries has raised about $117,000 so far to support the Congo Initiative, Gourdet said, to fund four special projects that focus on hospitals, clean water, agriculture and women's and children's issues (such as education). One story Gourdet shared with the board was about a nutrition center working with 100 children and their mothers to restore their health and provide them with funds for an agriculture project, so they can grow food and remain healthy once they leave the center.
The Congo Initiative was created because of Global Ministries' longstanding relationships with partners there that span back decades, and because of an ongoing war that has claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million people in the last 20 years.
A majority of the casualties were caused by treatable diseases because the country lacks the medical infrastructure to handle them. Most of the conflict has been around the control of minerals, such as diamonds, coal, copper and coltan, which is used in the fabrication of electronic components in computers and mobile phones. Unlike conflicts in Darfur and Rwanda, when the international community was aware and responded, the war in the Congo has received little mainstream media attention from the United States and Western Europe.
"It's the worst human disaster since World War II in terms of people affected, but it gets little attention in the media," said the Rev. James Moos, executive minister of Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries. "Still, it is exciting to raise the consciousness on what has, and is, taking place there. The fact is our love has deepened for the Congolese."
This summer, Gourdet will return to the Congo for another trip to see the work in progress, and she'll take leaders from the UCC and Disciples of Christ so they can witness firsthand the reality of life there. The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister of the Disciples of Christ, and Moos are part of the group that will take be traveling to Africa. While in the Congo, they'll help dedicate a new surgery wing of the Bolenge Hospital in Mbandaka that was rebuilt as part of the Congo Initiative – one of six hospital renovations that are part of the project.
"Their presence near the end of the year will help us to wrap up [the Congo Initiative], and it will give hope to the people of the Congo that the work will continue," Gourdet said. "The work itself will not end even though the initiative will end."
Gourdet feels there's been much movement within the UCC and Disciples of Christ, and in the Congo eight months into the initiative.
"We have info. out to the churches here in the U.S. and we've tried to keep our Congolese partners updated on what we're doing," Gourdet said. "We don't want it to be only Americans seeing what's going on in the Congo. We're intentional about bringing them here to share their stories in other settings… We'll bring a good number of people from the Congo here to share in our churches."
Global Ministries is also connecting partners in the Congo with other countries, such as Haiti, to help them build relationships with people in different corners of the world.
Even though the work is demanding, Gourdet believes it is well worth the effort. She described the Congo Initiative as "a crowning touch" to her 42-year ministry with Global Ministries.
"It can be overwhelming with such a large amount of work in a short time. But at the same time, to see the joy on their faces when they see what we're doing," Gourdet said. "People are becoming aware of what's going on in the country. The Congolese feel they're no longer invisible with our presence. They feel they exist."