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David & Kaswera Kasali. (Credit: Congo Initiative)

“We experienced the gift of lamentation,” David Kasali says, remembering the “Great African War” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When it began, David was working in Kenya as Vice Chancellor (President) of Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST). He had rescued NEGST, uniting a fractured faculty and rebuilding finances and facilities. 

But David and Kaswera, his wife, are originally from the DRC. David describes their homeland as “an enormous country, of which 120 million hectares are arable, but only 10% is utilized…. Untapped mineral deposits include the largest reserves of coltan [in the world] and cobalt, copper, diamond, gold, tantalum, tin, and oil.” Every time you check your phone or email or fly on a plane, you’re probably using minerals from the DRC. Given global demand for electronics, “One would think that such a nation would be capable of caring for its people and be a resource for world development. The opposite is true.” The DRC is one of the world’s most impoverished countries, and in 1996, competition for natural resources, tribal hatreds, and fear of foreigners sparked war.

As violence escalated, horror stories began to reach the Kasalis in Kenya from family and friends. A missionary treating victims of gang rape asked David whether he could recommend books by African theologians, who would understand women’s uniquely Congolese fears, to guide her. To her question, David had to answer no. The war would ultimately involve 9 countries, kill 5.4 million (including 5 in David’s family), and displace 2 million. Grieving, he remembered Hebrews 11: “By faith, Moses preferred to suffer with God’s people.” He told Kaswera, “Let’s go be with our people.”

David’s reaction demonstrated a deep change that had happened years before. Among the few in his generation to complete university, David had been succeeding at one of the largest retail stores in Bukavu, DRC. He often deposited the store’s earnings. The bank manager was a Christian for whom “Christianity was a love affair.” David began to pray with him and discovered a Christ who loved him – and who asked everything from him.

So David entered the chaplaincy. There, he noticed that Christianity “was taking care of us to go to Heaven but not to live on earth.” Could he learn to apply the Bible to challenge Congolese Christians and society? Supported by ScholarLeaders, both David and Kaswera earned PhDs (in Theology and Education, respectively) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, IL.

David says that God partly prepared them to return to war-torn DRC through their PhDs. However, “As much as it prepared me to think, it did not prepare me for what I was to face. We went back to weep.” In 2002, David and Kaswera visited Congolese Christians. As they grieved, David grouped their ideas for healing into six categories on pieces of paper taped around the room. Then he rolled up the papers and brandished them: “This is our mandate.”

Students in class at UCBC. (Credit: Congo Initiative)

Three questions guided them: “Why would people be so evil? After 100 years of Church planting, why is the Church not making a difference? How can we do church so that we stop evil in our country?” These questions ignited plans for a Christian university, Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo (UCBC), founded in 2007 under the Congo Initiative (CI), all led by the Kasalis.

Why is a Christian university a good response to violence, greed, fear, rape, disease, and starvation? Indeed, why is it still a good response?

That response was most recently tested in August 2019 when Beni, where the Kasalis established UCBC, became the epicenter of the world’s second largest Ebola outbreak. Ebola killed over 2,200 people. Militants attacked health workers; these killings led locals – who continue to fear foreign influence – to riot, which endangered remaining medical teams.

A Bethesda counseling workshop about dealing with stigma from Ebola. (Credit: Congo Initiative)

In such situations, the Congo Initiative offers practical help. Counselors tell those who have lost relatives, “You can be well today, and tomorrow the situation may change. These strategies will help you.” (You can read an April 2, 2020 story from NPR on Bethesda’s work here.) More broadly, the Congo Initiative trains women to work so that they don’t have to rely on men who may abuse them, educates children in danger of becoming child soldiers, and incubates small businesses.

As a Christian university, though, UCBC does much more than these aid programs so familiar to Westerners. It addresses the roots of the evil cycle in which “corruption, dishonesty, and violence foster chaos and hinder prosperity.” In her PhD studies, Kaswera discovered that Western educational models were twisting Congolese cultural virtues. In the DRC’s Western system, “People memorize. People don’t reflect. It’s competitive.” Thus, “We realized that education [had to be] in the village, by the village, and for the village, instead of educating people for upward mobility.”

UCBC’s Sharing the Land partners with Texas A&M and USAID to develop technology for just land management. (Credit: Congo Initiative)

David says that matriculating students may think, “I want to get out of this country.” But by the time students graduate, they say, “This is my country. I’m going nowhere. We will change it.” David reflects, “Students learn to change challenges into opportunities to better lives. Teaching and learning in the context of crisis pushes both teachers and students [to seek] lasting solutions.” In fact, “Students’ parents and the community feel a sense of ownership toward [UCBC]. Education is no longer for self-promotion, but for nation and community.” Thus, UCBC gives “a vision of a new ‘we’ where different tribes will be members, where we will care for our brothers and sisters.”

UCBC teaches students to think as Congolese Christians. It trains lawyers to reform the corrupt legal system. The DRC’s Secretary of State requested an assistant from UCBC; that assistant prevents states from inflating population numbers for political clout. UCBC researchers apply technology to local problems. One project deploys drones to create maps so that communities can adjudicate land disputes fairly. UCBC trains believers to write those books that David’s missionary friend requested years ago – books about how to live as a Christian in a context marked by decades of fear and corruption.

Graduation at UCBC. (Credit: Congo Initiative)

David and Kaswera’s work in the DRC has flourished now for 15 years – in part, one of many long-term fruits from ScholarLeaders. Recalling the war, David says, “Often, God does His things through suffering. The best of us come out of our brokenness, and then we give glory to God…. We believe that Congo will change. Our country is known for its gold, but in the years to come, it will be known for the integrity of its Christians.” UCBC is building “a society where Jesus is Lord.”

To learn more, visit the Congo Initiative’s website, where you can buy and read Sharon Atkinson Sheehan’s book, This Is For You. Both were sources for this story. Sharon is a ScholarLeaders board member.