“My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God-
which fortunately weighs nothing at all.” (Kingsolver 19)
Missionaries from all faiths have traveled all over the world in attempts to show other peoples their ways. Christian missionaries in particular have struggled in their efforts to convert indigenous people. Simply bringing the Word of God, as Nathan Price does in The Poisonwood Bible, was and is not possible. With a conversion of faith comes an adoption of customs, morals, lifestyles, and even political views. Even though young Leah Price says that the Word of God weighed nothing, it was actually the heaviest burden the Price family carried with them on their journey. Every missionary who has brought the Word of God to the Congo region has been faced with many more challenges than they could have ever imagined.
The Poisonwood Bible provides a glimpse into each of the complex situations that are created due to missionary work in the Congo. It is the turning point for religious work in the nation and depicts the ongoing struggle between the Congo and the rest of the world. However, to fully understand the impact of missionary work in the Congo, the beginning as well as the future of this movement most also be examined.
The Congolese are a people who are rich in culture, very bright, and extremely diverse. For a long time, they were also regarded as being among the richest in natural resources until other countries exploited them. Africans in general had no need for prejudice, even when engaged in trade with other tribes or countries. Their practice of enslavement was merely a way to win a war or conflict. They treated slaves humanely. However, there was a great deal of misunderstanding from the very beginning between natives and the Europeans that arrived on the continent. Even missionaries struggled to understand their completely different way of life.
The most challenging cultural idea was religion. Africa, including the people of the Congo, is a monotheistic people. Most explorers and missionaries failed to understand their belief in one creator. Generally, Europeans thought that the Congolese were an ignorant and backwards people and certainly would not have any ideas about just “one God.” (Nkuzi) This superiority complex put a great deal of distance between the two peoples. The lack of true communication and understanding between the natives and the missionaries was the cause of the most devastation. Without a firm understanding of the culture, the missionaries could make little headway in conversions or even simply helping the communities.
Giving aide to the villages of the Congo was one of the more successful efforts on behalf of the missionaries. Hospitals, clinics, improvements in transportation, and agriculture were all helpful additions to the Congolese way of life. However, these new establishments only made advances in places where the missionaries took an unassuming role. As seen in the novel The Poisonwood Bible, the hospital in Leopoldville lacked the prejudice and fervor of men like Nathan Price. It is obvious that the hospital helped more people than Nathan ever does. Also seen in the novel is the French Catholic missions led by religious women. In this scenario, the women wonder if what they are doing is enough; however, they again make more advances to help the people because they did not try to preach to anyone. Their ministry was one of healing, and Leah Price recognizes this when she hides for protection in their mission.
Missionaries have been exploring the Congo region for over 100 years. European missions led almost all of the earliest expeditions into this new, uncharted territory. These men came not only with a sense of conversion, but domination. This mindset still causes problems today between the two groups. The missionaries came with the words of the Gospel of Mark: “go therefore, and make disciples of every nation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark16:15-16). To save every person from sin seemed like the only Christian thing to do; however, this immense task could not ever take a firm hold in a land where tradition and faith had been practiced quite differently for thousands of years. As stated in the Congo Independent State and Congo Missions put forth by the United Methodist Church, the only knowledge they had of religious practices was witchcraft and simple idolatry. Rarely did the missionaries take the time to fully understand the culture of the people they wished to live with.
George Grenfell was an English missionary who anxiously worked to convert the people of the Congo. He is sadly just one example of many who failed to understand the necessity for true relationship in ministry. A Baptist not unlike the Prices, Grenfell traveled the expanse of the Congo River and visited villages all along the route. He navigated his steamboat, The Peace, to many places and saw what he believed to be gross injustices. His journals reflect on many of the same experiences seen in The Poisonwood Bible: polygamy, sacrifice, death practices, and relations with the chiefs of the villages. In all instances, Grenfell saw the actions that were committed, but limited his thoughts on why the Congolese chose to live this way. In all his accounts, he merely attributes their violent expressions to ignorance. How can they be ignorant of something that was never supposed to come to their land? Grenfell, as well as many other missionaries, seemed to think that it was about time that someone brought the Gospel to these people who were clearly living in darkness. The people of the Congo, however, had no idea that their lifestyle and culture was not “right”. This constant conflict led people like Grenfell to preach and attempt to evangelize up until their death. Their calling had been so strong, but many times, men like George Grenfell and Nathan Price were essentially eaten alive by the land they tried to convert.
Today, mission work is done with a much more open mind and a kind heart. Focusing on the need for relationship between the missionaries and the Congolese, religious and lay ministers have a very different way of giving aide to the suffering country. Guided by experience, the present missionaries confer baptism only on those who have been well-instructed and well-tested. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the education of the young, much like Anatole’s school in Kikongo. The Catholic religious, both men and women, have devoted themselves to this work. There are rural schools where the young Congolese are taught agriculture. Orphans and abandoned children, who are very numerous in the Congo, are also given help from the missions. Hospitals are among the best achievements of the missionaries from all faiths. Both Protestant and Catholic missions have established printing presses as well. To facilitate transportation, steamboats have been reconstructed and have greatly helped in carrying medicine to those who need it in a much more timely fashion.
The situation is still not ideal. Missionaries still come to the Congo, now Zaire, to preach the Gospel without first listening to the words of the people. Although the efforts of the Baptist ministry have improved, certain ideas still do not take hold in the Congolese. Family planning is still a foreign idea to a people who have had multiple wives for centuries (International Ministries). Some efforts are in vain, while others, like education, medicine, and agricultural technology are among the ideas that have brought success.
Missionaries might never have needed to go to the Congo if the first missions had never been established there. Today, Catholics, Protestants, and many other faith groups are desperately trying to undo what past generations have done to tear apart a land that was once rich in resources. Each effort, however small, does contribute to the advancement of the people. Even when missionaries are forced to evacuate to another part of Africa or even back to the U.S. or Europe because of military conflicts, they still return and continue their work. They keep their faith, even though the evacuations erase any continuity they might have hoped for.
All of these successes would never have happened if a renewed focus on relationship hadn’t taken place. Instead of ignoring the people, the new missionaries become friends with the people. They develop an understanding of each other and the differences that lie within. Perhaps one of the best examples of this, although fictional, is the marriage of Anatole and Leah in The Poisonwood Bible. Although they struggled, they made the most noticeable contribution to the Congo.
Nathan Price urged fervently and with abandon: “walk forward into the light” (Kingsolver 375). He, like many others before and after him, failed to realize that the Congo had always been a bright nation on its own terms. Now, missionaries, not only in the Congo, but everywhere, are faced with the challenge to “walk forward into the light” with the people to which they are bringing the Word of God.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Consular Information. US Department of the State,
September 14, 1999.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. Harper Collins, New York, NY: 1998.
Missionary House Bombed. Independent Catholic News, Vol 2. 9 June 1997.
Myers Harrison, Eugene. A Light In The Congo Darkness. Scripture Press, Fairfax, VA:
Presentation by Dr. Nkuzi Nnam, 31 October 2000.
The International Ministries Website. http://www.internationalministries.org
The New American Bible. Devore & Sons, Witchita, Kansas: 2000.