“Mom, my sister was taken to the hospital in the Congo,” he said quietly when he came home last Monday night. Eric Mulanda was one of twenty-two students from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary hosted by our church last week. Taught by Dr. Mark Fowler, this church leadership class provided a variety of cross-cultural immersion experiences in the Detroit metro area.
Gary and I first met Eric in Zimbabwe five years ago when he was the student body president of Africa University. Our mission team subsequently “adopted” Eric and facilitated his enrollment in the Master of Divinity degree program at Garrett. The friendships I have developed over the years with Eric and other United Methodists from around the world have always found their expression in an old Bible school song with accompanying hand motions: “Deep and wide, deep and wide; there’s a fountain deep and wide. Deep and wide, deep and wide; there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” One reason I am a United Methodist is that our theology is both deep and wide.
I knew that Eric was worried, so we prayed before bed that God would take care of Sarah and that the doctor would be able to diagnose the cause of her stomach pains and provide the care she needed. In the morning Eric came down for breakfast with the news that 29-year-old Sarah had died overnight and no one knew what had happened.
Eric’s agonizing pain tore at my heart. Here he was in Michigan, far, far away from his mother and father, four remaining sisters, two brothers and extended family. Eric is the preacher in the family, the one who, by God’s grace and the wideness of the generosity of The United Methodist church, received a full scholarship to Africa University, was ordained in the South Katanga Annual Conference in the Congo, and has a full tuition scholarship at Garrett. Eric is their hope and their rock.
Eric is going to be a great leader in The United Methodist Church, but he is already changing the world because of his deep faith, gracious spirit and perseverance through many dangers, toils and snares. Eric has been separated from his wife Corrine for two and a half years for no reason except for arbitrary U.S. immigration restrictions. And he could not go back to the Congo for his sister’s funeral because of missing school, the exorbitant cost of airline tickets and the danger of not being granted a visa to return to the U.S.
Gary and I prayed with Eric last Tuesday morning and sent him off to class at the church where his friends surrounded him with love. We all laid hands on Eric and prayed for God’s grace to strengthen his family, provide a way for him to pay for Sarah’s funeral and enable his wife Corrine and sister Charlotte to travel from Africa University to Congo for the funeral. I will never forget the prayer that Rwandan native Ornella prayed in French, tears running down her cheeks. Ornella, more than anyone else, knew the distress that Eric was experiencing, not only separated from his family but limited by the challenges of everyday life in many African countries. Deep and wide.
The miracles came fast and furious over the next day. A few hours after Eric learned of his sister’s death, our associate pastor Chad hosted the Garrett students at hungry?, a weekly ministry where hundreds of juniors and seniors at the local high school are offered a free lunch funded by our church and hosted by a small United Methodist church across from the school. $280 was raised by students who never met Eric until that morning but were moved by his story and the conviction that by throwing in just a dollar, they could help in a significant way.
A volunteer helping at hungry? was so touched by Eric’s story that she made a major donation. Several UM churches in Michigan that know Eric gave four hundred dollars, and before the end of the day we had enough for Eric’s family to buy a coffin for Sarah, purchase food for Eric’s extended family and other mourners keeping vigil at the house and pay for bus tickets for Charlotte and Corrine to travel up to 48 hours one way to the Congo.
The next day President Lallene Rector of Garrett donated $1,000 to enable Eric’s wife and sister to take an express bus to the Congo rather than the “local” so they could spend more time with their family. Another person slipped me a $100 bill for whatever Eric needed for his family. If I ever doubted the depth and wideness of the United Methodist connection, those doubts were dispelled in a mighty way.
When Eric returned from class at night last week, he would share vivid images of Congolese funeral customs and what was happening in his town of Kolwezi. While the body of Eric’s sister rested in a funeral home attached to the hospital, extended family, teammates, coaches, work colleagues, neighbors, friends and the community spent the time between Sarah’s death and her Sunday burial at Eric’s parents’ house.
By Thursday evening a thousand people had gathered. At night the men slept outside and the women slept inside. Part of the money Eric wired to his family was used to buy a tent to keep the men dry during the night because it was raining. No one enjoyed sleeping in a bed, for sleeping on the floor or the ground is a sign of mourning.
Eric’s mother and sisters cut their hair as another symbol of mourning. Two times during every night last week the United Methodist church choir sang, waking up the sleepers and reminding them of their grief. The donated money provided food for all those gathered. In addition, Eric’s best friend went out into the community, showing Sarah’s picture and asking for contributions of food to ensure that everyone was fed.
At 5 a.m. everyone awoke and spent from sixty to ninety minutes in ritual crying. Then the community left to go to work, returning at 6 p.m. to repeat the routine. Eric said that the entire mourning process was a living example of the African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because you are.” We are all part of each other. Even though the people who offered financial help were not physically present in the Congo, their generosity connected them with Eric’s family and all those who mourned Sarah’s death. Deep and wide.
Yesterday the funeral and burial began at 9 a.m. with the entire family and community walking to the hospital. The family washed Sarah’s body, dressed her in new clothes and covered her with a blanket. Sarah’s extended family took whatever of her clothes they wanted and the rest was buried with her. Cremation is not practiced in the Congo.
Sarah’s body was then placed in the coffin and taken to the church in a car, which also seated the family. Everyone else walked. Up to fifteen hundred people were present, many standing outside. Eric said that in the Congo, Christian funerals are an opportunity for evangelism, for modeling the hope that we have in Jesus Christ because of the promise of resurrection. In the service, which lasted about an hour, the pastor preached and family members spoke.
When the burial was over, Eric’s grandfather, Luz Mwengo, said a word of thanks to those who came, after which everyone went back to the family home for a meal, ritually washing their hands before eating. They all stayed together for one more night, after which everyone went back to their homes on Monday.
Last week the fountain of God’s love was flowing deep and wide as United Methodists in Michigan were connected with United Methodists in Africa because of a young woman, a fervent disciple of Jesus Christ, whose life ended far too early but who had a far-reaching impact.
In addition, the cross-cultural immersion experience of the Garrett students included far more than interacting with Caucasian, African-American and multi-cultural congregations and social service agencies in the Detroit area.
The students and those who hosted them learned that whenever we allow ourselves to go deep into our faith, which calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn and seek fullness of life for all people, we see Christ in each other. And whenever we risk widening our horizons by embracing those whose theology, customs and traditions are unlike ours, we come face to face with a God who delights in seeing us splash together in the fountain of diversity, understanding and hope. If twenty-two seminary students from around the world are any indication, the future of the church is both deep and wide.