To say the situation is bleak in Congo understates the horror and impending catastrophe there. Since leaving Goma (the capital of Northern Kivu, on the border of Congo and Rwanda) a few weeks ago, the situation has deteriorated rapidly, with a sharp spike in displacement, hunger, rape, and deaths. The rebels have routed the government troops and sent tens of thousands of people running for their lives without adequate food or medicine.
As many know, somewhere between 800,000 and 1.1 million people died in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. What much of the world does not seem to realize is that the death toll has continued to mount just over the border in Congo, in an extension of the hostilities stemming from the genocide. Since 1997, a staggering 5.4 million people have died from fighting, starvation, dehydration, and disease. Currently, up to 1500 people are dying per day in the region of North Kivu.
17,000 United Nations troops are in the country, but it’s not enough. The U.N. is once again undermanned and over their head in the face of the greatest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. Stretched to the limit, and unable to stop the Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, and his advancing rebel troops, the U.N. has dug in. They are hoping for reinforcements and waiting to see what will happen as a fragile ceasefire has given everyone a few days of respite, before the inevitable onslaught continues.
What can anyone do? You and I simply do not have sufficient wisdom, political clout, material resources, human resources or anything else of substance to make a difference in eastern Congo in any significant way. (Though, for those willing to contribute money, organizations such as HEAL Africa [healafrica.org] are on the ground and able to put donations to work to help victims immediately.)
And what about in all the other troubled spots around the world, where human suffering abounds and obstacles truly seem insurmountable? What can any of us ever do in the face of such intractable problems—whether in developing countries or simply in our own personal lives and families?
We can do whatever we can do.
In the face of loss of life, destroyed homes, broken relationships, and other crippling disasters, it’s easy to want to give up. It’s easy to think that there’s no point in trying to help. It’s easy to despair. But, the truth is there is almost always something that we can do, even in the midst of the worst tragedies and most overwhelming circumstances.
Meeting with genocide survivors, encouraging African leaders, and coaching pastors in Congo have inspired me in new ways to not give up hope. In just 10 days this fall, I met numerous people who are finding meaningful ways to make a difference. For example:
As I have been writing about over the past couple of weeks, Théo has been caring for his three younger sisters ever since he was orphaned in the Rwandan genocide when he was twelve. He is a survivor, and has showed me the power of focusing on what he can do, rather than on what he can’t.
Cristina and Chelsea have given a year of their lives as Christ Presbyterian Church and Upper Room interns at HEAL Africa in Goma. One is helping women to develop products for sale in an arts center. The other is making plans to do development work with those who most need help learning how to provide for their own needs. Both are invested fully in doing whatever they can to help wherever they are needed.
Paul and Lyndee came with a team of volunteers from Australia to offer their services to HEAL Africa for two weeks. Paul upgraded the computer network, and Lyndee tutored numerous individuals in English. They don’t know if the buildings will be standing or how many of their students will be living after the war, yet they are doing what they can do now. They are helping in ways that fit their skills, hearts and opportunities.
The Rev. Jacob Lipandasi, one of the Congolese pastors I have been coaching, has been working tirelessly on behalf of widows and orphans in his hometown of Bukavu. His heart could not be larger. His vision keeps growing. He simply will not be deterred by ongoing, seemingly insurmountable challenges. Just last week, he was interviewed on Congo radio and television, and is busy trying to expand his ministry to the most vulnerable.
The Rev. Kambere Bolingo, lead chaplain at HEAL Africa (pictured above during one of our coaching sessions), splits his time between ministering to patients, supervising the other chaplains, and doing leadership training in the country villages. He carries around great weight of responsibility and concern, but every day he seeks to minister to needs and promote hope. Now, he has already started to coach some of the young men in his church with the same methods he has been learning first hand.
The Rev. Désiré Mukanirwa, Anglican priest in Goma, has a vision for the physical, mental, and spiritual vitality of his congregation. Many individuals in his church are illiterate, many families are overwhelmed due to the influx of refugees (relatives seeking safety in the city), and many widows are unskilled with little hope of providing for themselves. To help address these seemingly impossible challenges, Désiré went back to school to earn a degree in development and signed up for coaching. His plans for creating new ministries must wait while he attends to traumatized parishioners, a refugee pastor who has cholera, and daily threats of violence, but no matter what each day brings, he is doing whatever he can do.
We may never know what difference any of us truly make long term in a given situation—whether we are talking about helping suffering people in Africa, creating a better America, reaching out to needy people in our own communities, or simply trying to love our own families and friends better. We will always be surrounded by intractable problems, and can never guarantee what might happen tomorrow to the work we do today.
But today is the only day we have for sure. And what is within our power to do is all that we are responsible for. Each of us can do something for some situation that we care about. By writing emails, making phone calls, contributing time and money, offering a smile or gentle touch, or simply showing up with willingness to help, we can stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. We can link arms with those who are trying to do something to make a better world.
As the Apostle Paul taught, God has equipped each believer with an ability to contribute meaningfully in this world. Paul encourages us to believe in this message of hope, and to fulfill our calling by acting on the opportunities we are given. He writes:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a [person’s] gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. (Romans 12:6-9)
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9-10)
What can anyone do?
Whatever we can.