The Language of Friendship

After a grueling 36 hours of travel from Washington, D.C. to Kinshasa, Zaire -- and another two hours to grope my way, in a language I couldn't speak, to the Kimbanguist Church Center -- I expected to walk into a small room to join 20 other people from around the world for a World Council of Churches consultation on nuclear energy. I did not expect the brass band, the choirs, and the vast tables laden with an array of meat and vegetables and fried plantains. Such was my introduction to the Kimbanguist Church in Africa.

The singing went on every evening -- beginning about sundown, just after the heavens opened up with a daily torrent of rain -- and drifted through the compound late into the night. Rich harmonies burst forth in anthems reflecting the influence of both traditional hymns and African rhythms. But the church members explained that the greatest influence here is the Holy Spirit: These beautiful melodies -- now numbering more than a thousand -- have been bestowed on members of the church who share them with the others.

Church founder Simon Kimbangu, evangelized by Baptist missionaries, began preaching the Word of God in 1921. He offered the good news that Africans are equals of whites and can receive the Word directly without their mediation. That is why he spent the last 30 years of his life in prison.

Followers say Kimbangu had preached for only 36 days when the Belgian colonial administration in the country, then known as the Belgian Congo, demanded an investigation of this "fanatic." The inquiry was carried out at the insistence of the white missionaries, whose churches had suddenly become quite empty. Simon Kimbangu was found guilty of sedition and condemned to "death and 120 lashes," a sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment by King Albert I of Belgium.

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