Saturday, May 2, 2015

Churchwide Assembly - Central African Style

Out-going Pres Andre Golike & Willie Landgji

How does one condense five full days into a comprehensible blog entry??  Those of you who regularly attend churchwide assemblies in the US will no doubt recognize many of the elements of what we did here, but there will be differences, too. 

I think that this is one area of a lot of difference.  Whether a Churchwide Assembly is in the USA or CAR, people need to get there.  The church here is much smaller than in the US and the area where there are congregations is also much less.  People don’t even consider coming by airplane – not that there is air service to consider nor money to spend on it if there were! 

People come by project vehicles (Land Cruiser or motorcycle), public transport, or any ride they can find.  Willie Langdji and I drove to Bouar giving Dr. Antoinette Yindjara and Vicar Rebecca Miminza a ride and following the pick-up with Central Africans Antoine Mbarbet and Victor Ndolade. 

Traffic on the paved road is light, but the vehicles one can see are FULL and then have people added on top (See the picture.)  No this is not safe, but those with vehicles think they need to pile on the maximum to make more money and people are desperate to have a way to get from place to place – for themselves and for their goods. 

Imagine now, an 18-wheeler filled (overbalanced) with sacks of cement and then people on top.  One such truck was travelling with the UN convoy the day we left GB.  Even though the trucks stop in the same place, they often pass each other.  This truck tried to pass another on a curve in the road.  It overturned and some people were crushed underneath.  Four were killed and others wounded.  How do you help when your truck is already full?  We could not take the wounded, but did notify the gendarmes in Gallo and asked that the Emmanuel Health Center in Gallo send their ambulance.  It turns out that the UN convoy troops took the wounded to Bouar.  What a difficult way to travel.

For this Churchwide Assembly five delegates came from each of 28 districts (organized into seven
FCC Pres. Josephine Oumarou
A gaggle of pastors
regions).  Also in attendance were pastors, project/institution directors, Central Church Administrators, and observers.  Willie and I were the only partners who could attend.  About 300 people were there.  Where would you house all these people when hotels are non-existent? (There are a few guest houses like Chez Marthe and Marie (CMM), the social center run by EELRCA.)  How would you feed them?  (There are only a few restaurants, mostly locals who cook in their homes.)  The congregants of the Centre Lutherien (where the assembly was held) got organized to host (feed and lodge) most people.  Some stayed at CMM; some at the Central Administration Building, and Willie and I stayed at the ELCA guest house (formerly Jackie Griffin’s house – and before that Ian and Joyce Grau’s house).

Another logistic that people in the US probably don’t think about is electricity.  Bouar has no city power so those who have it run generators.  During the whole assembly we had electricity – a generator.  One afternoon, they had to turn it off long enough to move it out of a threatening storm.  (They moved it; we got power again; but the rain didn’t come.)  Lights inside the church were up high and didn’t really help much.  Between the minimal florescent light and the bright sunlight streaming in the windows taking pictures was difficult.  You may see in some of the ones I chose the glow (halo effect??) near people close to the windows (including at cross made of windows behind the altar).  The real reason for the generator was to power the sound system.  Huge speakers, electric panel with lots of knobs, a couple of electric guitars, and a couple of microphones.  The mikes definitely helped everyone to hear even though the voices were sometimes distorted.  The guitars were VERY loud! But, each time music played some people inside and outside started to dance.  This was a joyous occasion. 

Benches were set up outside for the overflow crowd – who could hear fine because of the speakers.  The next picture is Dr. Antoinette speaking on Day 1 (with Pastor Bruno holding the microphone) followed by Pastor Andre praying over the offering plate (bowl).  

Many sessions would be recognizable: Bible study, liturgy, reports, questions on reports (that always took longer than allotted for), food, and choir music.  Even so, many things people in the US wouldn’t recognize.

The Prefet, Mayor, and local officials (including some Muslims)
were invited to the Opening Session.  They gave their greetings.  (By the way, you can tell someone’s importance by his/her chair.  The town and church officials sat in overstuffed chairs to the left of the altar.  (That position beside the altar seems to be important in many churches.  I would rather not be that important; you can’t see anything from there except maybe the audience – and sometimes that is blocked by a lectern or plant…)  The next tier sat in chairs (with back) borrowed from the Lutheran Center Program that works with students from the nearby high schools.  Most delegates (including most pastors) sat on narrow benches – where the faithful sit each Sunday.

At the end of this first session, leaders went to the Lutheran Center to have refreshments while most of the delegates had something in the church.  They served us peanuts, fried dough balls (I don’t know the name), vegetables (tomatoes, green peppers and onions), bread, and grilled meat.  To drink the women offered us soda, water, beer, or wine. 

Other days, women brought a variety of foods to the altar in a procession.  It was then distributed to participants.  There were fruits (including the unusual – for me – mango pieces with onion and a little mayo sauce), rice with onions, cooked salad (green beans, potatoes, carrots with mayo sauce), greens
(don’t know what kind), etc.  For meals, participants were organized into groups who ate at someone’s house.  Women of various churches prepared what we ate. As with meetings many places, the participants don’t starve! 
There was often a flock of photographers or recorder.  Each new activity brought a bunch often standing in front of each other and the audience.  Here’s an example from When Willie was speaking.

Church Officials are elected for four-year terms with a two-time term limit.  This is the year that a new president was to be elected and the current, out-going president was not eligible to run again.  For President four candidates came forward: (in alphabetical order) Joel Bobo, Paul Dilawe, Jean Gbami, and Samuel Ndanga-Toué.  Two ran for Vice President: Rachel Doumbaye and Alfred Kombo.  No one put in a name to be Treasurer.  Various people were candidates for the National Church Council who are elected by their region.  This vote took place Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Abel Service
The process has been developed to foster transparency and democracy.  (Maybe it should be a model for the country when elections are held later this year…)  An election committee was formed headed by Abel Service, director of the Village School Program.  This group verified that candidates had the

credentials.  Then during the assembly, they ran the election.  They wrote each of the 6 candidates’ names on about 300 pieces of paper – by hand!  They found a ballot box.  Floribert Ngare had the official list of delegates on his computer.  Ready!

In the sacristy of the church, I was asked to observe as neutral (nonvoting) person.  No problem.  Another woman assisted me.  She ended up sitting outside the room and helping assure that only one person enter at a time to assure a secret ballot.  So, we started with the president; each person came in and got four papers.  It turned out that most people were not clear on what to do, so I developed a speech that I said about 270 times:  “There are the four candidates.  Pick the one you want, keep it to put in the box in the next room.  Put the other three in the cardboard box here and leave by the other door.”  And I must have said, “No not yet, please wait for this person to finish” and “Awe (Next in Sango) a hundred times!  In the church I could hear the delegates being called by region and verified before they made a line to vote.

So, what would you do for people who can’t read?  I gave my spiel in French, but it was clear when they didn’t understand; my Sango was not strong enough to give instructions in that language.  Either the person named his/her candidate or I put the papers on the table and read each pointing at it.  The person got the paper for their candidate, we tossed the rest and they left.  This whole process took about two hours for 284 people to vote.  (P.S.  We started at about 3:30 p.m.) 

Now, repeat the process for vice-president!  Actually, this went more quickly.  I didn’t have to give directions since they had just done it and there were only two candidates to pick from.  This part only took a little more than an hour – for 264 voters (yes, 20 fewer people voted).  Since they didn’t have a second ballot box, they turned a drum upside down and used that!

It was now 7:30 p.m. but the fun was just beginning.  They asked me to officiate for the next part, too.  Besides the chairman of the election committee, Willie Langdji was also there and each candidate had a representative watching.  We opened vice-presidential ballots first (and later used the same procedure for president.)  We counted all the ballots first.  I couldn’t help thinking about the crazy (to me) French system of counting.  The teens are similar to English, but then you get to 70 which is sixty-ten, followed by sixty-eleven, etc. until 80 which is four-twenties; 90 is four-twenties-ten…  Meanwhile I am counting into a microphone so everyone can see and hear.


Next I opened each paper and read the last name aloud and put it in a pile for that person.  Two other people were up front with a board and made tally marks as I read.  Look at the picture to see the slick system they use for groups of 5 instead of the four lines and one across that is most common in the US.  After all ballots were read, those at the board counted the tallies – with the audience helping.  Willie and I counted the ballots in each pile to verify what was on the board and the total number of ballots!  (Note: The board had two sides so they just turned it over for the second time.  That’s why the vice-presidential tallies seem sideways; they were since I took the picture from the back.  Pastor Paul Denou from Bangui looked as tired as I felt by the end!

So, the new President of EEL-RCA is Rev. Dr. Samuel Ndanga-Toué who has been the director of the Theological School in Baboua.  The new Vice-President is Rev. Rachel Doumbaye who has been the Chaplin and director of the Lutheran Center in Bouar.  She is the third African church to have a woman in the second highest position in the church (after Botswana and Gambia). She was by far the favored candidate.  There was a closer race between Ndanga-Toué and Dilawe; the former won by 13 votes. 

Since there were no candidates for treasurer, Michel Doko who is currently doing the job was retained.  Here is a picture of the National Council, but I didn’t get all the names.  Then the winners were called up front.  We must have finished about 10 p.m.  Willie, Mathias and I stopped for dinner (at a relatively new restaurant in Bouar where it works best if you order the day before or earlier in the day that you want food…) and headed home!

A couple of evenings, the current National Council met to assign pastors to new posts and Sunday morning to fill the posts vacated by the new positions.  Dr. Antoinette Yindjara who has been teaching at the Theological School was named director.  And someone whose name escapes me at the moment will take Rev. Rachel’s job. 

Final Day
BUT, the Churchwide Assembly was not over!  Yes, people stayed and danced and celebrated at the church, but we still had a session and church in the morning, Sunday. 

The new officials were presented to the congregation.  The installation and handing over of command will be June 27-28, 2015.  There were some final speeches and prayers. 

Gifts were given to various people (soap for some – expensive and hard to come by in many areas).  The Out-going President, Willie and I got banners with wooden letters.  (See the picture.)  Mine says, “No one can separate us from the love of God.”  Three regional leaders got new motorcycles (purchased with money given by one of the three partner synods). 

Then, Vicar Rebecca Miminza was ordained as pastor.  She is currently teaching the women’s class at the Theological School.  There is another (male) pastor to be ordained who is working in the South Region.  The recommendation was that it be scheduled in Bouar during the installation celebrations in June.


Finally we had the usual Sunday liturgy with communion.  So, it was a four-hour session/service!  And because it is at the end of this entry, I am also writing less!  If you don’t understand some part or have questions, please ask!  (And, please excuse any typo and other errors as I am spending less time editing.  I want to get this sent out while we still have internet service which has been sporadic in the past few days.)

May all Churchwide Assemblies go as smoothly. 

Willie Langdji with Pres.-Elect Ndanga-Toue

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thanks for your commitment to writing this, Susan. Your details help me "peek into" life there.