Feature

A Fresh and Unshakable Faith

Tortured by fire, refined by God

By

(additional reporting by Josh Whiteman)

In late January 2011, I drove to Bilengui—a 90-minute drive through a “tunnel road” that the encroaching brush and trees are doing their best to overwhelm. Through a break in the trees, the village suddenly appeared on the next hill, its white church building shining in the morning sun. It was hard to believe that four months earlier, the pastor of that church and two other Christians from the village had been subjected to a literal “trial by fire” at the hands of a group of people caught up in the frenzy of a traditional initiation rite.

On September 14, 2010, about 20 men and boys aged 14 to 30 drank diboga, a hallucinogenic drug made from the root of a well-known plant. The next morning several claimed that while under its influence, they had seen a phantom roaming through the village causing people to become ill and die. One of the youth said that the phantom was coming from the local Alliance church. Someone else reported that he had seen a skull in “a deep hole” near a door of the church. Alarmed, everyone clamored for the young men to dig it up.

The gang of men and boys began digging around the front entrance of the church. They cut down a palm tree and dug in its roots but found nothing. Then they dug in front of the side door of the church and found something they claimed was a human skull. With that, they stormed to Pastor Moukingui’s house, broke down the gate and dragged him outside. By this time it was late in the afternoon.

The men demanded that the pastor explain how the skull had come to be where they found it. He replied that he had no idea, and they shouted, “That proves that you did it! Now tell us whose skull it is so we can stop the phantom!” Pastor Moukingui continued to insist that he was completely innocent and did not know how the bone came to be there. When a church elder (Jean Daniel Myangui) and an older Catholic man (Mbembo Nimi) tried to defend the pastor, the men tied the hands and feet of all three Christians with electrical wire. Then they dragged them across the road to a cleared area and sat the prisoners down on the ground. When villagers gathered to see what would happen, some young women said they had dreamed that the person who had called the phantom was Pastor Moukingui.

Around 8 p.m. one of the young men got five liters of kerosene and began sloshing it onto the three men. Pastor Moukingui and the two others shouted with alarm, and some of the people urged the young men not to pour the fuel on their clothes. But the three men were soaked with it. Then the captors lit their prisoners’ feet.

“It’s the miracle of God. . . . ,” Pastor Moukingui said later. “All [our] clothes were soaked with kerosene, and they burned us. But it’s God who protected us so that only our feet were burned.”

For the next hour, the gang of young men and boys tormented their prisoners. When they ran out of kerosene, they held the torches to the Christians’ feet. “The third time is when I cried, ‘My God, forgive them. They don’t know what they do. Forgive them,’” Pastor Moukingui said. “After that, the people in the village began to speak up and say, ‘Leave them alone, leave them.’

“They left us alone. But to get from there to my house took about an hour, because I could hardly walk at that point. When I arrived home, my wife gave me water to wash; I threw out my fuel-soaked clothes.”

The next day, Pastor Moukingui hired a vehicle to take him to Geveda for first aid, but the nurse there refused to help. The men’s wounds went untreated for four days; on Sunday, a brother from Moila transported two of the men to Lebamba, where Bongolo Hospital is located. Both underwent surgery on their feet the next morning. I drove to Bilengui to bring Mbembo to Bongolo.

Pastor Jean Pierre Moukingui, Daniel and Mbembo, the three men who were burned, were waiting for me as I drove into the village in January. They are doing well and are tremendously grateful for the way they had been cared for at Bongolo Hospital during September, October and November 2010. As they recalled the loving and professional care they received, they claimed that our surgery residents, who checked on them every morning, were really “angels”!

In December police from the Mimongo district arrested two of the four ring leaders. The other two fled into the forest and are reported to be hiding in the coastal city of Port Gentil. The two that were arrested were taken to the Mouila prison, in our provincial capital, where they are awaiting trial. The chief prosecutor has told the Christians in Bilengui that the trial will not be held until those arrested have spent the same amount of time in the Mouila prison as the men who were burned spent in the hospital!

Several eye witnesses to the events have come forward since September and verified Pastor Moukingui’s story: there was no skull dug up next to the church. What the young men took as evidence of sorcery was a fingertip-sized piece of bone they dug out of the mud, a hand broom that was regularly used to sweep the church floors and two little rocks set under the pulpit to keep it steady on the uneven floor. These were the pieces that their accusers claimed as proof that the church leaders had called on evil spirits to cause mayhem in the village.

Pastor Moukingui, Daniel and Mbembo all had a good laugh with me and the other Christians who gathered to listen to them retell the story. It was a deep pleasure for me to see the joy on their faces, despite what they had suffered. Their feet were completely healed, and they were able to walk on them, though gingerly. I brought them a 50-pound sack of rice as an expression of our continued support and concern for them, and they thanked me over and over on behalf of all those who had prayed for them and helped them.

On February 2, I returned to the village with a video team from the U.S. C&MA National Office to document the men’s ordeal. As we drove up, a group of about 10 Christian women met us in front of Pastor Moukingui’s house, clapping, swaying and singing a song of welcome. The video crew spent the day filming interviews and scenes from the village that will help tell the story.

In between their work I talked with Pastor Moukingui and the 20 or so Christians who had gathered. “What effect has the attack had on the church in Bilengui?” I asked them.

Moukingui’s face clouded with sadness but then cleared as he explained. “About one third of those who came regularly to our church stopped coming after we were accused of sorcery and attacked,” he said. “They have not come back. But the rest have become stronger in their faith than before. They are not afraid of anything, even if they are threatened with death!”

The others all murmured in agreement. “The saddest part for us is that many of the parents in the village have forbidden their children to come to church. They have told their children that we practice sorcery! Imagine—the very ones who did this to us while under the influence of diboga are accusing us of sorcery!” I could see that this weighed heavily on the heart of every Christian there.

When the videographers were packing up their equipment, Pastor Moukingui motioned us up to his house. “We have something for you,” he said with a wide smile. The entire church squeezed into the living room and sat in a circle along the mud brick walls. Then several women began bringing in plantain bananas, a bag of peanuts, ripe bananas and a heavy sack of manioc.

“It’s for you,” he said. “It’s not much, but after all that others have given to us we want to give something in return. God has blessed us through our own people at Bongolo and through people from all over the world. He has taken wonderful care of us, and now it’s our turn to bless others and pass on to others the love and kindness God has shown to us.” The lump in my throat made it hard for me to do more than nod and murmur my thanks.

The sun was blazing hot as we tied the bananas onto the roof. By the time we prayed together one last time and climbed into the car, we were drenched with sweat.

The last scene I have in my mind of that little church in the middle of the Gabonese rain forest is not one of fear and discouragement but of triumph and joy. For the first time ever, the Christians in Bilengui and Gevede understand that they are not alone and are not forgotten. They are part of a great and growing body of believers that covers the earth. That knowledge—proven by the gifts and prayers of people from all over the world—has given them a fresh and unshakable faith.

Special thanks to Lisa Nicky for translating some of the quotes from Pastor Moukingui.

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