By Jesse N. Love
May 17, 2016 | Portland, Ore.
A young woman who is wearing beautiful garb from Africa graces the stage. Wiping tears from her eyes, she introduces herself in front of a crowd of friends, family members, and strangers. “I hope in my sharing, I can bring you closer to the lives of those in Jamaa Letu Orphanages.” Claudine Blessing Kasongo is the first from JLO to graduate college…and she is sharing her story.
On this night, friends from The Pacific Northwest Conference with members of its Bishop’s Task Force, Hope for the Children of Africa welcomed delegates from the South Congo and Zambia during this year’s General Conference in Portland. Bishops Grant Hagiya (The Greater Northwest Episcopal Area), Pedro Torio (Baguio Episcopal Area), and Kainda Katembo (South Congo Episcopal Area) were in attendance. Guests were treated to a delicious barbecue dinner that brought together hungry attendees for lively conversation and the building of new relationships.
To better illustrate the PNW’s connection with friends in the Congo, attendees went back in time as the Rev. David Valera presented video footage from 2001 – when a team from the Task Force visited the Congo to meet the children of Jamaa Letu. From past to the present, the Spirit of joy through play, innocence, and friendship was presented in each clip. “These are the minds and the future of the church,” shared in a voiceover by the Rev. Melvin Woodworth, referring to the girls of Jamaa Letu.
Lubumbashi, once known as “The Paris of Africa” is ground where European colonists destroyed the social structure of the Congo. And, because of years of internal warfare and disease, this chaos produced homelessness, refugees, and orphans.
Bishop Katembo reached out to then bishop of the PNW, Elias Galvan and the Bishop’s Task Force, Hope for the Children of Africa was formed. To care for the overwhelming number of children on the streets, Jamaa Letu Orphanages emerged – feeding, housing, and educating as many children that they have capacity for.
Claudine Blessing Kasongo’s story resonates with the delegates of the night’s dinner:
Kasongo lost her family when she was 9 years old in Lubumbashi. She had no relatives, no schooling, no shelter, no physical care – the essentials many take for granted in many developed parts of the world.
“Life was really tough at that time. We had to work, going from the door asking to do laundry, wash dishes, or do any job so we could eat. We would eat once a day and drink a glass of water at night. I was selling mangoes and fried cassava on the streets. I was going to school 8 km (about 5 miles) where I was living. Without anything, with a lack of food, I would faint on my way to school. Life was really tough.”
The footage shown during the dinner featured Kasongo almost 15 years ago. She described how she was welcomed into the Orphanages by peers her age, some with similar stories to hers. As she grew up, her friends became new family. While attending her local church, she became part of its evangelism team and later on, go to college with hopes of being a dietician. “I am doing this for my brothers and sisters,” shares Kasongo on her ambition with purpose.
“Working hard is important – because you can.”
Teary-eyed, Kasongo was given a Certificate of Achievement from the Rev. Jon Short. “We are so proud of you,” shares Short. The mutual commitment of care to the young people of Jamaa Letu Orphanages was strengthened even more as Bishops Grant Hagiya and Kainda Katembo signed an agreement to continue their areas’ missional role to care for vulnerable children and young adults.
“The Methodists and United Methodists have been in the Congo for over 100 years. The nature of the relationship has changed over decades,” shares Barbara Dadd Shaffer. “This cooperative agreement is a maturing relationship between the two areas, working to provide a place to live as family, to provide education and ensure integration.”
Bishop Kainda Katembo shares, “They are now our children. Do you see how much love you have given to children you did not give birth to?”
“We are deeply in gratitude for joining us in fellowship,” says Bishop Grant Hagiya. “We celebrate a family relationship now, not just through a formal contract – we are now a family of God. We celebrate our family connection and we hope and pray it will get stronger and stronger and the years unfold.”
“We are all members of the United Methodist Church,” shares Kasongo. “By serving God, serving the people, it is the God that holds you and protects you. On behalf of my brothers and sisters in the Congo, on behalf of my orphanage family at Jamaa Letu, I thank you so much.”
Today, there are about 70 young people, including college students, at Jamaa Letu Orphanages. If you would like to support Jamaa Letu Orphanages, contact Barbara Dadd Shaffer, chair for the Bishop’s Task Force, Hope for the Children of Africa.
Special thanks to the Rev. John Shaffer.