Special delivery to the Congo
By Chris Schutz, Contributing Writer
The word of God is reaching poor and illiterate people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in several ways, thanks to the generosity of a faraway United Methodist congregation in Tulsa.
The project was born in 2004, when Jim Lenderman, now an associate pastor at Tulsa-Asbury UMC, heard an African bishop speak at the UM General Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Rev. Lenderman was astounded to hear that few United Methodist pastors in the central African country have Bibles of their own, in their own language.
Instead, the pastors must walk 12 to 20 miles for a chance to read the one Swahili Bible that may be shared by thousands of people in the region. They must rely on their memories of what they read to preach and conduct Bible studies.
Lenderman was unable to imagine pastoring a congregation without that most basic tool, the Bible.
"God captured my heart," he said. In an instant, the course of his life changed.
He vowed to work "until the need is met" to send Bibles to the Congo in both Swahili and another indigenous language.
"I’ve commited myself for life," he said.
He brought his mission to Tulsa’s Asbury UMC in 2008. "It stirred something in our church," said Lenderman, who is an associate pastor there.
During Lent this year, the Asbury congregation gave $272,000 toward the project—funding to provide more than 22,000 Bibles.
In July, the church was able to buy 8,000 Bibles, at a cost of $12 each. Distribution is "at an intentional pace—when they need it and where they need it," Lenderman said, due to challenges of transportation, storage, and security in the Congo.
Each pastor receives one case, and it contains 16 Bibles.
Lenderman has made two visits to the Congo this year, including an initial distribution of Bibles in February, when video was shot to help promote the mission.
It is difficult for Americans to imagine what a printed Bible means to a minister in the Congo, Lenderman said. Over the years, many of the Bibles there were destroyed by invading armies.
Tears poured from the eyes of a 90-year-old United Methodist minister when he received one in spring. "He never imagined in his entire life that he would ever own a Bible," Lenderman said.
"There is nothing like seeing a person getting a Bible for the very first time."
The Bible project is part of Asbury’s "three-pronged" approach to offering God’s word to the Congo, Lenderman said.
The second prong is purchase and distribution of digital devices called "Proclaimers," which play an audio version of the New Testament. Designed for places where technology is scarce, the devices run on electricity, batteries, solar power, or hand-crank, Lenderman said.
These will enable the word of God to reach whole groups of listeners, he said, especially those who can’t read.
Proclaimers are from the nonprofit group Faith Comes By Hearing, based in Albuquerque, N.M., that produces audio versions of the Bible in hundreds of languages and formats.
Next year (2012), Asbury UMC plans also to provide about $7,500 to buy 50 Proclaimers for the Congo, as part of a pilot program. Local residents will learn how to use the device and form listening groups.
Tryouts of the Proclaimers have been "incredibly fruitful," leading to the formation of new churches and new listening groups, Lenderman said.
In the future, Asbury is planning a third prong, a Bible story-based literacy program through Literacy and Evangelism International, which teaches reading up to the fifth-grade level.
In other places where that program has been tried, "80 percent accept Jesus Christ as their savior," Lenderman said. And, "because they’re now literate, they can get a job."
To learn more about Asbury’s Bible project, watch these brief videos online: