David Kasali on God’s Work in the Congo.
Few people would consider opening a university in the middle of a war zone—and David Kasali, a Congolese pastor and academic, was an unlikely candidate to undertake such an effort. Kasali’s father was one of the first people to accept the gospel in their area of Congo, but the young Kasali rejected his father’s urging to become a minister, telling him, “I love the Lord, but he doesn’t pay very well.” Instead, Kasali studied education at the University of Congo and began networking in the business world.
At a prayer meeting with other business leaders in the city of Beni, Congo, Kasali realized he had been running away from his true calling. Leaving the business world behind, Kasali worked for a time as a chaplain at the missionary school where he grew up. Then he moved to Kenya and began seminary classes at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST). “Sometimes God lets us get what we want so we can find out that it’s rubbish. God allowed me to go that way so I would test what my heart wanted and decide. I kept thinking, ‘What does it benefit for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’ ”
Ministry in Kenya
After graduating from seminary, Kasali worked for the Association for Evangelicals in Africa. Although he was based in Nairobi, Kasali traveled throughout Africa, holding workshops and seminars with teachers, pastors, and other church leaders to answer a question: “How do we, African Christians, use the Bible to address ethical and social issues for our continent?”
“We have issues in Africa—tribal conflict, land issues, witchcraft, polygamy, poverty, apartheid. All of these problems threaten to destroy our societies and families. How does the Bible speak to this context? Christianity in Africa was so preoccupied with sending us to heaven that it neglected to teach us how to live on earth. So we are heavenly bound, but earthly relevant. The Bible cannot be so preoccupied with sending us to heaven that it neglects to tell us how to live on earth.”
In 1996, after completing a PhD in New Testament Studies at Trinity International University in Chicago, Kasali became the vice chancellor of NEGST. Partnering with Wycliffe and SIL International, he established a Bible translation program at the school. “Wycliffe sent some of their best people, and we taught African students to translate. It was the first time we Africans learned to translate the Bible into our own languages.”
Just as Kasali was gearing up to expand the highly successful NEGST programs and launch a doctoral program for Africa, chaos flared back in Congo. Defeated Hutu Interhamwe fighters fled Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. They descended on Congo and began taking over refugee camps there, destabilizing the region. In 1996, Congo’s neighboring countries—Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola—invaded, deposing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Violence returned in 1998, and Kasali’s hometown, Beni—located on the border of Uganda—was often at the heart of the fighting. Bad news from home began to reach Kasali in Kenya: the deaths of his sister and then one of his brothers. In 2002, his pregnant niece and her unborn child were murdered, and Kasali told his wife, “‘I want to go home to be with my people.’ I remembered how Moses did not want to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but decided to serve his people instead. I decided to go to Congo, but I did not know what for. I felt that God was saying, ‘Just go, and I will show you.’ ”
Praying for direction, Kasali arrived in Beni and began the long process of meeting with pastors, leaders, and missionaries. “After 100 years of church and mission work, it seemed as if not much progress had been made. We discussed three main questions: What would make people kill, slaughter, and destroy the way they have done in our country? Where is the church of Jesus Christ? And how can we as Congolese create a church that impacts our community so that these things will not repeat themselves?” These discussions were the genesis of the Congo Initiative.
“One of our goals is to train a new generation of Christian leaders who will serve God in church, in community, and in society. We need to raise up sharp Congolese minds who can address challenges from a difficult perspective and give answers to questions we are facing. It takes Christians who are intentionally prepared and ready to serve as nurses, teachers, politicians, businessmen, and communicators. Let them be agents of transformation.” So to train the next generation of leaders and to give the Congo Initiative visibility and credibility, they decided to start a university despite the chaos surrounding them.
Christian Bilingual University of Congo
The culture of Christian Bilingual University of Congo (UCBC) needed to be different from the education system in the rest of the country, which Kasali says tended to turn out people who were disconnected from their community and concerned only with personal success. “We wanted our education to be reflective and to integrate faith. Our motto is ‘Being transformed to transform.’ I don’t want to read the Bible just to increase my knowledge. I read it because it is transformative, and I want it to change me. It should change the way we live, act, and work and hence make us agents of transformation in our communities and nation.”
“We wanted to implement service-learning so students would learn by taking theory from the classroom and putting it to work in the community. We chose a bilingual institution—English and French—because we want to educate students who will be able to sit around the table of globalization and speak with anyone who comes.”
Kasali and his partners had signed up for a daunting task. It was vital for the local community to feel ownership in the university—that it wasn’t yet another project owned and ran by American missions groups. They set a potential opening date of 2007, and Kasali went to work—splitting time between the U.S., where his wife, Kaswera, was finishing her doctorate, and Congo—holding workshops and seminars, asking people in the Beni region, “What do you have? The Lord needs it.” He raised money in Congo and in America, continued networking, and met with anyone who would listen. In retrospect, Kasali likens his role to the disciples in the midst of the 5,000. “The disciples told Jesus, ‘The project is so huge, we cannot.’ We needed salaries of many months—not Congolese salaries, but American ones. But Jesus breaks the bread, and that big project of feeding people starts. And the disciples distribute, and in the end, you can hear them say, ‘Did we do that?’ ”
“We met with people in the church, and outside—businessmen in the community. They agreed that we need to train our children, and they donated bags of cement and building stones, and if they didn’t have anything to donate, they volunteered their labor.” Today, the UCBC is like a village center. “The big hall in the middle of campus is our community center. Any day you see parents there, church people, or NGOs holding seminars. One of the first places the mayor takes visitors is to our campus.”
Kasali takes heart quoting Isaiah 43:18: “ ‘Forget about the former things. I’m doing a new thing and don’t you perceive it?’ God can rewrite our stories and histories, and then we can be a part of the new thing God is doing.”
A Window of Opportunity
Christian Bilingual University of Congo serves as the anchor for Congo Initiative’s other endeavors. “The Congolese government allows universities to have projects, so we opened five community centers—economic development, community renewal, church renewal, vocational training, and creative arts—that reflect CI’s vision for transformation.”
Initiatives within the Community and Family Renewal Center include training former sex-workers for other vocations and opening a primary school for their children. The economy-focused Development and Partnership Center finances micro-loans and builds partnerships with missions groups and other organizations. “We’re doing agribusiness work right now with Ben Affleck’s East Congo Initiative group. Our students and staff partner with farmers to research how they’re cultivating their crops, and then the people of East Congo Initiative analyze the data to see how to make farming more efficient.”
“We work with churches in Congo, Central African Republic, and the Great Lakes region, training them in reconciliation. Three years ago we started a radio station that helps us reach more people with biblical teaching on all kinds of issues.”
In the past year, the final violent group operating near Beni was dispersed by government forces. The university and its programs are growing, and the government recently mandated that all universities follow UCBC’s bilingual model of education. Kasali has hope for the future. “For the first time we have relative peace throughout the country. We have a window of opportunity to bring changes through Congo Initiative and through our university. God is doing great things through the pain Congo has experienced. We’ve seen hopelessness in our region, but now there’s revival.”
David Kasali received support and assistance from ScholarsLeaders International, a ministry that encourages and enables Christian theological leaders from the Majority World. To learn more, visit ScholarsLeaders.org.