They told Francisca not to come home for Christmas. Too dangerous. This is not a generalized sense of paranoia that hangs in the air in a war zone, but because of what happened last year.
Francisca, a Congolese ex-pat and fellow Portland Run for Congo Women organizer, comes from Dungu, a small town in the far northeastern corner of Congo, nestled on the borders of Sudan and Uganda. The notorious Ugandan militia the Lord’s Resistance Army has spread into Congo and south Sudan over the past couple of years. On Christmas Day 2008, four of Francisca’s Aunties and Uncles attended Christmas Mass. The LRA showed up, and killed them along with all 400 people attending the holiday service.
This year, the LRA have sent written threats announcing their plan to “celebrate” again.
Why would anyone living under daily threat of attack choose to attend a holiday service? One of my most striking first impressions of the Congolese was their fervent Christian faith. For instance, when I visited the village of Kaniola, pounded by twice weekly massacres by the Interahamwe (the militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide- still killing people), I was dumbfounded to find most villagers dressed to the nines- belts, loafers, suit jackets, dresses with lace trim. Then I realized it was Sunday morning. They were heading to church. On another occasion, I asked a sister I sponsor through Women for Women, about the first thing she said to her children when she woke up in the hospital following an off-the-charts massacre that claimed the lives of her husband and nine year old son. She replied, “I told them to Thank God. I lived.”
How is it that in Congo, people who face some of the worst violence known to humanity, could maintain such strong faith, when our faith feels like it is stretched to its limit by a cheating boyfriend or a drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average? I’m not religious, so I’ won’t posture like an authority. Instead, the observations of renowned psychiatrist and Jewish Holocaust survivor Viktor Frank may shed some light. “The religious interest of the prisoners…was the most sincere imaginable. The depth and vigor of religious belief often surprised and moved the new arrival…The last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their suffering; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine human achievement. It was this spiritual freedom- which cannot be taken away- that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
In the face of overwhelming international news, as we are tempted to shut down and tune out, perhaps we can draw some inspiration from this kind of faith. We may not be able to waive a magic wand and make mass atrocity go away, but do we not we each possess that last of human freedoms to choose our reaction to it? In this way, is activism not an act of faith?
This Christmas, Congo will be back in the national spotlight. Oprah will be re-airing the show on Half the Sky and Congo, on which I appeared in the fall (your regular local time and station). So this holiday, as you wait out the post meal bloat, go for another round of pie, or snuggle up with a loved one (the Congolese would not fault you any of it- in the face of everything, they still know how to party!)- or if you’re hunkered down avoiding all things tinsel and lights- consider watching Oprah and sharing Congo with your family and friends. Trust this simple act of faith will have reverberations beyond anything you can know, and will touch in you that last human freedoms. A beautiful way to celebrate!