Today's post is by Rev. Caleb Kanyimb Mbaz. Rev. Kanyimb Mbaz is the head of the South Congo and Zambia Episcopal Area Disaster Management Office. This post is part of a series on food and mission.
Text: Matthew 14:16: “But Jesus said to them, ‘There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.’”
In my evangelism course at Africa University, the late Professor Kurewa defined mission as a set of activities that accompany the gospel, including the establishment of schools, vocational centers, hospitals, orphanages, nutrition centers, women's mentoring centers for culinary programs, farms and so on. In this article, we will dwell on the relationship between mission and food. The Bible speaks to us through this text of a case of lack of food to feed 5000 people, not counting women and children. Food insecurity is a great and formidable weapon that is decimating our communities in these days.
The food insecurity of the masses was sometimes in the Bible one of the great opportunities that God seized to convey his message of salvation in ancient times. It could go so far as to make people a refugee or even a slave of others because food is one of the basic necessities of life. A community can only become settled and productive when it reaches self-sufficiency in general and in particular with respect to food. Science proves to us that a population, a family or even a person who cannot feed themselves becomes unstable mentally and also physically.
Our country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is classified among the food deficient countries. According to the latest IPC (Integrated food security Phase Classification), published on November 10, 27 million people in the DRC experience high levels of food insecurity between September and December 2021, which represents approximately 26.5% of the Congolese population.
According to the World Food Program, the number of people in a situation of acute food insecurity amounts to 27 million, making access to food a daily struggle for a significant part of the Congolese population. An estimated 3.4 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. It is possible for more people to eat only once a day compared to the three meals intended for each person. And often the meal on the table does not reflect good nutrition. The DRC is one of the biggest hunger crises in the world.
What then is the role of the church and its mission in the world where these symptoms are raging? What were the contexts of the introduction of the Christian religion in our communities?
In our villages at the entrance of the missionaries, certain commodities such as salt and sugar were effective means of clearing the way for the gospel. During our first food distribution in Kapanga to survivors of the Kamwina Nsapu conflict, done with a grant from UMCOR, we were faced with an indescribably large crowd that let us see the need, the lack, and the hunger. We had distributed the rations for the planned 3 days and people came from distant villages to come and get food, and we had neither the time nor the desire to preach because the distribution of the rations was itself the preaching.
In the United Methodist Church world in Africa, agriculture, however crucial, was one of the major programs that rarely responded to food or nutritional emergencies, on the one hand because of weaknesses including inadequate road infrastructure, low production in the face of overpopulation, as well as the lack of sustainability. All this has not made it possible to convey the gospel with full success and thus strengthen the mission of the church. We need many more programs with activities to nurture our communities and this seems to be one of the great responsibilities of the church in mission. These programs must be direct in terms of food production by strengthening agro-processing or establishing distribution points for those who cannot do agricultural activities. Because it should be mentioned that the elderly, children, pregnant women, the sick, those with disabilities, and even old widows cannot go to cultivate or work for their survival while social security is almost non-existent. What is the message we preach to the hungry?
Resolving urgency leads to sustainability
For some time, preaching has centered its message on work, saying that he who does not work does not eat. This is a very good thing because God has blessed the work of humans. However, in a context where famine is acute and creating malnourished people in our communities, can we still talk about work in the foreground? Which precedes the other – eating or working? For a community with a large percentage of minors versus a low percent group of men and women capable of looking for work? These are the questions our communities face and need to be answered. But then, it happens that many preachers talk about work, forgetting to mention that in order to work, one must have eaten. I find this theology discriminatory because it targets a class of people and encourages them to do better, forgetting those who are not physically able to work. Food cannot be a slogan, neither a promise nor an incentive in our communities but an urgent reality of putting it on the table first, after which the production program can follow.
You give them something to eat
However, there is a connection between mission and food. A link that has nothing to do with food intervention as corruption but as a need to be filled because “a hungry stomach has no ears,” as they say. In our experience, this connection is direct. Christ then said to them with these words: " You give them something to eat."
It is these gospel terms that speak to the connection between mission and food. In reference to our experience in responding to disasters, food was the most appreciated intervention in all the communities where we intervened, including environments considered agricultural. All this because food is not only precious, but also difficult to find considering the cost of living. In both rural and urban areas, the population has difficulty obtaining food that can bind together the two ends of the month. According to statistics, in Congo and in Katanga province, people could go for a long time without eating because of lack, and this is so horrible. In relation to the question of human rights, food is first on the list of basic needs, and we talk about adequate food.
A punctual intervention of food to the needy not only reinforces the mission of the church but also maintains its continuity. In a purely food-deficient context, as shown by the biblical text quoted above – “You give them something to eat.” – an emergency imposes itself; it does not wait for an agricultural program so that it is very important and sustainable though. The food emergency in our community is glaring. It is like the hunger of a child who will not wait for his father to go to work to come back to him with something to snack on, but demands an intervention that is here and now, "Hic and Nunc.” We found in the territory of Kipushi families who take turns eating; that is to say when some eat today, tomorrow they will not eat and so on.
The way forward
We would like to encourage programs not only on food production through agriculture but also to strengthen the mechanisms for the availability of basic food products through specific programs, among others, for street children, widows, orphans, those displaced from wars, food refugees and so many others because even asylum seekers living in the Congo end up suffering in one way or another from food insecurity.
The United Methodist Church needs to take the initiative to train nutritionists and to mentor and equip them to help our communities not only to select nutritious foods but above all to follow programs that support adequate and tangible food interventions.
During the Global Ministries agricultural forum held in South Africa in Johannesburg, the resolution to seek arable land for sustainable agriculture programs is to be encouraged, and yet it requires another element, that of initiating at the base the idea of cooperatives of small farmers, especially for women. This should be done because women will be able to participate in their own development by responding immediately and directly to their food needs and those of their families, since in Africa women are still at the center of the domestic economy. It is also desirable to be able to design food education awareness programs and thus include food programs in our schools, as in the old days when food was offered in schools and training centers to strengthen the health of students. With this program hunger is fought at the source in favor of those who have left home without having had the chance to eat something.
We cannot end our remarks without mentioning some reflections that support our contribution based on our experience in the context of food insecurity. "Cultivating a field is good, but starting by feeding yourself is better." "A hungry producer cannot produce to eat.” And when he produces, he assures his sustenance, but when he eats, he ensures his survival. Making food available to the hungry is more than a spoken gospel.
So, food is the servant of the mission. It is still in our communities the feet of the gospel. Christ used it to convey the message of salvation by commanding his disciples. “You give them something to eat.” In the practice of disaster response in our context, food comes first – available food, not the seed, because the population could die with the seed in the ground or in the house while waiting for the rainy season in this context of global warming. Thus, the best mission is the one that takes action to preserve the community from hunger. The mission of the Church is based not only on preaching but on the response to vital needs and in our context, it is daily food for daily strength.