The Common Good
April 2009

Our Sisters' Anguish

by Toya Richards | April 2009

Congo Sabbath Initiative helps churches stand with rape survivors.

On the surface, there’s absolutely nothing linking the aging Jewish congregants at Temple Sholom in Floral Park, New York, to the abused and victimized women in Africa’s massive land called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Yet, despite the miles that separate them, they are, in fact, related. “It’s all connected,” according to Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker, who leads Temple Sholom. God has made us partners in repairing the world, she contends.

That’s why her congregation—along with other faith communities as diverse as Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, and Lincolnshire Church of the Brethren in Fort Wayne, Indiana—has signed the Congo Sabbath Initiative, an effort by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing to shed light on the violence being waged against women in Congo.

The initiative asks faith communities across religions and denominations to set aside a specific day before the end of April as “Congo Sabbath.” Congregations who sign on take active steps to educate their people about the atrocities taking place in the Congo. Offering prayers, reading articles, and raising money are all ways for people to get involved, said Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute.

The violence taking place in the eastern DRC has roots in the Rwandan genocide more than a decade ago, which seeped over into bordering Congo. The Congolese army, militias, and rebels have battled over power and the land, which is rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, and tin.

Villages are left pillaged in the wake of the fighting, and women are raped as a way of inciting terror and fear. The sexual violence in the Congo is the worst in the world, according to the United Nations. In fact, one in two women there has been sexually victimized, often leaving them with HIV or internal injuries—or killing them outright.

“WE ARE REALLY hoping that people will stand up and speak out,” said Haffner. “The souls and bodies of women are being destroyed.”

There are collaborative movements under way, such as the effort by UNICEF, Congo’s Panzi Hospital, and the advocacy group V-Day to create City of Joy, a safe center in Bukavu, Congo, for women survivors of rape and torture. Haffner stresses that religious leaders must join in the struggle to bring about change. “Surely if there is common ground it should be on this,” she said. The violence taking place “cries for us to speak out.”

Bishop John Selders, founding pastor of Amistad United Church of Christ, said that joining in the Congo Sabbath Initiative connects “to what we want to do and what we have been doing” as a faith community. Reaching out to those who are marginalized “is the story of the congregation,” Selders said.

Amistad UCC will lift up the issues of the women in Congo through ongoing prayer and litany, a study series, regular updates on what is happening in the country, and fund raising. “What I’m asking for is that my folks first become conversant, that they become aware,” Selders said.

Future efforts include possibly taking a trip to the DRC. “That’s the dream somewhere down the line, that there will be real faces and real people and connections,” he said.

National religious leaders across the spectrum have endorsed the Congo Sabbath Initiative. Among these are Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.; Rev. James E. Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society; and Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values.

Rabbi Becker said her congregation will observe the initiative during one of their Friday Shabbat services. Where appropriate, she will incorporate the issue “right into our prayer service,” connect it to the Torah portion of the service, and possibly choose music that will speak to the issue. And once the service ends and the congregants gather for coffee and cake, she will put out literature.

“You do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds,” she said her tradition teaches. “We need to do something, even if the only thing we can do is to rail against this.”

—Toya Richards Hill

Toya Richards Hill is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. A Congo Sabbath sample newsletter article, bulletin insert, and responsive reading are available at www.religious institute.org/CongoEndorsers.html.

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