Sorrow and Hope in the Congo
What is hope? The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christian community at Rome reminded them that “hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Rom 8:24). Rather, hope is the patient and persevering expectation that God will bring forth good, even when there does not seem to be any visible evidence that this is actually happening.
I learned a lot about hope during the five months that I spent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last Spring. There is so much disaster and sorrow that is easy to see in the Congo. Although it is one of the richest countries in the world from the point of view of natural resources, the vast majority of its people live in crushing poverty, with extremely limited access to sanitation, education, health care, or opportunities to advance. Just one of many examples of this is the number of people with severe disabilities one sees on the streets. Some walk on their hands, others drag themselves around, yet others ride on little carts constructed from scraps of metal and wood. Most of them beg or steal for a living. Coming from the U.S., I was shocked to be confronted with this graphic evidence of the complete lack of a “safety net” for the poor and weak. Even those who are healthy live every day on the cusp of disaster. How can people in such circumstances have hope?
It would be pollyannish to suggest that everyone in the Congo has hope. Many don’t, and that makes them very vulnerable to joining in the crime and corruption that are rampant in such circumstances. Moreover, I found out by experience how many obstacles stand in the way of anyone trying to accomplish simple practical things such as acquiring supplies or getting from one place to another. It truly requires Paul’s “hope for what we do not see” to keep believing that any progress is possible. Yet I saw hundreds of Congolese who are doing just that.
To take just one example, a not-for-profit called “Développement Integré Bomoto” (loose translation: “Integral Human Development”) was founded thirty years ago by five young Congolese teachers who were disturbed by how many children had no opportunity to go to school because their parents could not pay the obligatory fees. They started a school where they taught in the afternoon for free, after teaching in the morning in the government school for pay. As time went on their projects expanded. First they set up vocational training programs for the children’s parents and older siblings. Then they founded a credit union so neighborhood people could have savings accounts and get microloans for their entrepreneurial efforts. Their most recent expansion is into a rural area, where they are planting trees, training farmers in sustainable crop rotation, and helping to build a logistical network so villagers can get their crops into the city to sell.
When I met these five men – now in their 50s – their eyes shone with the quiet joy of lives well lived. Starting with nothing but their own energy and their minuscule government salaries, they have made it possible for thousands of their countrypeople to live more dignified and hope-filled lives. They looked into the face of the crushing evils of the Congolese reality, and they chose hope over despair.
There are hundreds of these small non-profits in the Congo, each struggling against seemingly impossible odds to light a candle in the darkness. Many of them lack the know-how to effectively solicit support from abroad, so they depend on sheer pluck and whatever funds they can extract from the small Congolese middle class. They constantly face both practical setbacks and the gnawing sorrow of knowing that there are so many more people in desperate need than their few resources can reach. Yet in the midst of this, they have discovered the secret well of hope – the unfathomable grace of God that enables them to do the good that can be done, rather than to be driven to despair by the apparent vastness of evil. In these times of growing poverty and hardship in our own country, we can take a few lessons in hope from the Congolese.
Mary Frohlich, R.S.C.J., is an Associate Professor of Spirituality at Catholic Theological Union.
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