Mennonite Health JournalArticles on the intersection of faith and health
Murray Nickel, MD
from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, January 2013
After a discouraging day at the Congolese embassy in Bujumbura, it looked impossible for eight Canadians to get visas to get from Burundi to Congo.
We made one last stab at it, even though I didn’t expect much. If we travelled to the border and had a discussion on-site with the Congolese border agent, maybe something would work out. Everyone advised us it would be a waste of time, but we went anyway.
After a half hour, we arrived at the border barricade and parked alongside trucks that looked like they had been there for several weeks. In this remote valley in the middle of Africa, the only significant structure was a small yellow cement-block, tin-roofed house where the customs officials sat. They didn’t move; they just sat there eyeing us curiously. We were definitely out of place.
I apathetically peeled myself from the sweaty car seat and walked towards them, dreading the task of negotiation. We had a ridiculous request. We wanted to cross the border unofficially to talk to the Congolese agent on the other side. To my surprise they let us go without so much as one franc or a bottle of coke to “encourage” them.
A rickety wooden bridge crosses the small stream that separates the two countries. As we stepped onto it, Onesphore, a Burundian pastor who was travelling with us, caught up to me. “I think this will work. I feel God wants this to happen. I will pray for it.”
I almost rolled my eyes. I want miracles to happen just like anyone. But my experience is that things usually happen as they happen. I tend to believe God created us with a brain so we would use it. When a bunch of Canadians fail to go through the motions necessary to acquire a Congolese visa, we should humbly accept the consequences. Besides, this circumstance might open other doors. Not going to Bukavu would allow us to turn back to Bujumbura and focus more intently on Onesphore’s inspiring vision. Onesphore is an unassuming but capable leader, reconciling people through Christ in a country suffering from poverty and divided by racial hatred. His ministry equips thousands of people. There is more than enough work in Burundi.
As expected, our meeting with the border agent didn’t go well. The trip wasn’t going to happen. Just as we were heading out the door, the agent offered a solution – but it was absurd, not even worth considering. For $300 each we could purchase a “visa volant.” He offered no guarantees; following payment, he would have to make a series of challenging phone calls for the final permission.
As we walked away I was mulling over the offer, remembering what Onesphore had so confidently claimed just a few minutes before. It made sense. Why should we expect God to work through supernatural means? A few feet from the building stood Onesphore with his encouraging smile. I started to break the news while gesturing to him to turn around and head back across the bridge. He didn’t budge. He gazed towards Congo and asserted, “No! This is God’s provision. It’s a miracle – you can’t ignore a miracle.” Taken a little aback, I responded, “But $2400? Just think what you could do with that in Bujumbura!” To me this was no miracle. It was highway robbery. “Yes, you’re right. I could feed many kids. I could start a whole new program. But you need to go to Bukavu. God wants you there.”
Doug followed behind me and Onesphore repeated the same line to him. I could almost hear the gears grinding in Doug’s head. Onesphore had no personal interest in Congo and he had a host of needs for his own challenging ministry. He stood to benefit from $2400 – a significant sum when the average annual income is $140. But Onesphore was obstinate, “God wants you to go.” Doug slowly shook his head and said, “Ok, let me talk it over with the rest.” A half hour later we were cruising up the road to Bukavu on the Congo side of the Rusizi River.
When Onesphore encouraged us to keep going forward, I was moved to tears. Onesphore, a leader from Burundi who should be more concerned about money than we are, was not sidetracked. To him this was a God thing. Our job was one of committed obedience. God cares about our hearts, not our money.
I learned from him that day that miracles aren’t like winning the lottery. Sitting in that overcrowded van as we slowly wound our way to Bukavu, I was struck by the thought that the war-torn city of Bukavu needed a miracle too. And that miracle might not happen if we weren’t obediently committed. Commitment isn’t easy; it can be bitter. Miracles aren’t there to provide an easy way out.
The next day, we sat in a Bukavu church secretly hoping the power would go off. I felt almost sinful. If any people know how to truly worship God, it’s the Congolese. But the distorted sound blaring from substandard speakers was making my ears ring. Three houses down, another church was blaring out worship songs in what appeared to be an all out competition for decibels. I couldn’t help but wonder, what are we doing here? There are churches on every corner. Congo is a Christian country. How could anyone not be reached?
Yet over the following three days I was hit again and again with the reality of Bukavu –unbelievable suffering. It seems the devil has his hold on the region, regardless of the number of churches. What I’ve seen in India, Thailand, and Laos pales in comparison to the stories I heard in Bukavu. I walked with Adrienne, a local church member, through the training center built by his community. I could hardly keep from crying. The center was nothing to write home about. It had been run into the ground time after time by rebel armies. Despite the hardship, fifty women were singing and dancing to greet us. These women had been raped, starved, and beaten repeatedly over the last ten years. They had known only darkness and violence. Any morsel of hope was a cause for celebration.
I have no qualms with humanitarian aid. But the darkness that moves through Bukavu will not lift by food alone. Food spoils quickly, and then you need more. Bukavu needs a miracle. If I pray for a Bukavu miracle, the question I have to ask myself is, “Am I willing to swallow that bitter pill? How committed am I to that prayer?”
About the author
Murray Nickel, MD, is President of International Mennonite Health Association (IMHA) and an emergency physician living in Abbotsford, British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver. He spent six years in Congo in association with Mennonite Brethren Mission and now travels back and forth between Congo and Canada two or three times a year. He has a special interest in human development and transformation in the context of the poverty.