This past Sunday I visited the Sango Lutheran Church, a brick structure with a cement floor and an aluminum roof just a quarter-mile down the red dirt road from our house. As I arrived, I saw people in colorful clothing gathering for the service. The catechist, wearing a scarlet robe, greeted me at the entrance, and I was shown to a plastic chair placed strategically near a window, so I could get some fresh air during the three hour long service.
I went to see my friend Rosalie's baby Fortuné baptized. Rosalie is my Sango teacher. In exchange, I help her with her English. She is studying sociology at the University of Bangui, but has taken the year off to have her baby. Her husband, Jean-Paul, is also a student. Fortuné was born with some problems; even though he is six months old, all he can do is cry, nurse, and sleep. The doctor is not sure that he will develop normally.
Yet, I am glad that Fortuné was born into a loving family. Both Rosalie and Jean-Paul are Lutheran PK's pastor's kids. Rosalie's father is director of the Bible School, which trains catechists (lay pastors) for the Lutheran Church of the CAR. Fortuné's family will do the best they can for him.
The service begins with some 20 or 30 young people filing in, singing lively praises in Sango. After more singing, the service begins. Finally, the moment everyone is waiting for: the catechist calls the names of the infants to be baptized that day: Fortuné, Stefan, Annette, Christa Elise, and five others. As their parents carry them up to the font, I notice that little Fortuné is decked out in a red and white striped hand-knitted outfit, complete with cap. He has the privilege of being baptized by his paternal grandfather. Afterwards I see that Rosalie is crying.
When I got home, I reflected on these nine children, and what the future might hold for them. If statistics are right, at least one, and maybe two of them will not live to see their fifth birthday. This is a country where infant mortality is high 20% die before age five. Of the eight or so who will live, about half will attend school and learn to read and write. If there are four girls and four boys, three of the boys will probably attend elementary school. Only one of the girls will.
If current statistics do not change, only four or five of these nine children will reach their fortieth birthday. The other half will die of preventable or treatable illnesses such as HIV-AIDS, meningitis, malaria, polio, typhoid, or simple diarrhea. Even if they survive all this, their growth and development may be stunted by a diet high in carbohydrates (mainly manioc), and low in protein and vitamins. It is quite possible that one of the girls will die in childbirth, especially if she is married at an early age, even as young as twelve or thirteen, which is not unusual here.
The good news is that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the CAR, supported by the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), is trying to help. The church sponsors programs to build village primary schools, teach agricultural techniques, diagnose and treat HIV-AIDS, and improve access to medical care, to mention just a few of their programs. My husband Joe works with PASE, which provides clean drinking water to villages and trains villagers in proper hygiene and sanitation. These are all programs which can save lives and improve the quality of life for Central Africans and their children.
However, all these programs are in danger of funding cuts. Due to the world financial crisis and to certain factions in the ELCA, offerings have dropped. The end result may be that some of these programs must be cut. In western CAR, where the majority of the population resides, there are few other organizations at work besides the Lutheran Church. It is not a high profile area that you see on the news every night. It is a place where people continue to suffer, and yet they struggle on, doing the best they can for their families. Some, like Rosalie, are lucky they get to finish school and have some hope for a brighter future. Most do not.
If you want to help, now is a good time. It's really needed. If you wish to contribute to our support, checks should be made out to ELCA-GM, marked "Mission Support Troesters," and send to
The Rev. Twila Schock
Global Mission and Development Services Units
8765 West Higgins Road
Chicago, IL 60631