Esther Mbombo wa Tshipongo was a strong and generous woman whose dedication to the church sometimes made her the object of criticism and conflict. Someone who knew her said, “Her only response was to suppress her tears and devote herself to reconciliation, even if she wasn’t at fault.”
Many people remember Mbombo wa Tshipongo, who passed away in 2006 at the age of seventy, because she was an influential figure in both the Evangelical Mennonite Church (Communauté évangélique mennonite – CEM) and the ecumenical group Church of Christ in Congo (Église du Christ au Congo – ECC).
She was brought up in a Presbyterian family in East Kasai and married Pierre Tshiamala. Shortly after their marriage they moved to Bujumbura, Burundi, where the first five of their nine children were born. They left Bujumbura in 1962 and moved back to Mbuji Mayi in the newly independent Congo.
In Mbuji Mayi, Mbombo wa Tshipongo continued to attend a Presbyterian church until 1967, when the couple bought their own property. It happened to be near Sangilayi, the first congregation of what is now the CEM.
Mbombo wa Tshipongo was intrigued by two things about the CEM. First, she had enrolled her children in the CEM secondary school, and she liked the daily worship services at the school. Second, she valued the Bible teachings of Pastor Mathieu Kazadi at the Sangilayi congregation, which she attended sometimes because her former church was far from her new home. She decided to become a member of Sangilayi and to be baptized according to Anabaptist practice. Mbombo wa Tshipongo was baptized, along with those of her children who had attained the age of reason, and she became an active member of the congregation.
Mbombo wa Tshipongo immediately joined the choir and amazed people not only with her singing prowess but also with the generosity of her service. She was a woman whose personal circumstances were difficult, but she took on responsibility for welcoming new people in church, often by presenting them with a chicken that she provided herself. The church authorities quickly gave her responsibility for congregational protocol. For several years she attended to welcoming and seating people, cleaning the church, and taking care of children during services.
Several years later Mbombo wa Tshipongo founded and directed a woman’s chorale. This choir still exists five years after her death. When she was still young, she became president of the women of Sangilayi and then of all the CEM women of East Kasai. A woman of unshakable faith, she did her utmost to devote herself to the cause of women who came to her in time of trouble. In happy or sad developments, she was often the first to respond. She always made it a point to be present at gatherings, whether they were in town or far from town.
Mbombo wa Tshipongo was a fervent evangelist and advocate for Anabaptism. She brought a number of women to the church, including some former Presbyterians who recognized their affinity with Anabaptist teachings, thanks to her teaching. She sustained and encouraged the faith of her peers, telling them, “I exhort you, my children, you who have studied more than I, to dedicate yourselves to the service of the Lord, because it could happen, one never knows, that I could leave this place or leave this world.”
All of this activity came at the price of some friction in her own household – with her husband, Pierre, his family members, and with other women. Because of the time she dedicated to the Lord’s service, her frequent absences and late arrivals at home, some called her stupid or unfaithful. But Mbombo wa Tshipongo never conceded. She always said, “God is everything to me.”
On one occasion she came home late at night after being delayed on the job. Some of her group decided to accompany her, in order to protect her from harassment by her husband. After they vainly appealed to Pierre, who refused to talk to his wife or open the door for her, Mbombo wa Tshipongo kindly sent away her defenders, telling them, “If Pierre won’t open up for me, I’ll spend the night in front of the door.”
Whatever worries, criticism, false accusations, and insults her husband, his family, and others subjected her to, Mbombo wa Tshipongo stayed firm and persuasive. Her faith radiated throughout the neighborhood, in the church, and in her household. To justify her comings and goings, she would retort to Pierre’s relatives, “I do everything that is needed for the family. I feed you, I educate your children. Beyond everything that I do for the family, I have the duty to work for the Lord as well.” She eventually led her husband and two of her sons to Christ.
Mbombo wa Tshipongo was an indefatigable mobilizer of women. Her competence in leading women led to her elevation to the rank of vice president of the women of CEM. These new duties once again brought her the approval of the women and confirmed her as an established Christian. She set herself to evangelizing and exhorting the women of East Kasai, reminding them that she would not be with them forever.
Mbombo wa Tshipongo was preoccupied by the quest for peace within the CEM, as it was torn apart by leadership conflicts between Pastor Zacharie Nkumbi and Pastor André Ntumba. She tried in 1993 to reconcile the two. Although she was roughed up by partisans of the former when they invaded the church, she didn’t hesitate to forgive her abusers during the reconciliation meetings organized by CEM in 1998 and 2006. She was a partisan of nonviolence and never returned evil for evil, whether in her official duties or her married life.
The authorities of the East Kasai Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) asked her to join the Thousand Voices, an ecumenical chorale that brings together women from all Protestant groups. There, she played the role of hymn conductor. Her influence was so great that she is still remembered in all large church gatherings.
But Mbombo wa Tshipongo’s greatest contribution to the ECC was a lesson of justice and truth, which unfortunately caused her biological brothers and sisters to reject her. One of her brothers was in a leadership conflict with the then-president of the East Kasai ECC which also involved the Presbyterian church. Because of this, her brothers demanded that she leave the Thousand Voices chorale. But she refused, saying, “If we really are Christians, we can never divide ourselves based on ‘tribal differences.’”
Esther Mbombo wa Tshipongo passed away in 2006. Benjamin Mubenga, president of CEM, recalls how much she is still missed. Noticing that no food had been provided for participants in a recent denominational meeting, he declared, “This lack of food makes me think of Mbombo wa Tshipongo, who never spared the effort to mobilize women to provide food in such a situation.”
Jean Félix Chimbalanga
This biography is reprinted with minor changes, with permission from Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, from Jean Felix Chimbalanga, “I’ll Spend the Night in Front of the Door,” in The Jesus Tribe: Grace Stories from Congo’s Mennonites 1912-2012: A Project of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, ed. Rod Hollinger-Janzen, Nancy J. Myers, and Jim Bertsche (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2012), 176–79. The original article can be found at https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/d/d4/I’ll_spend_the_night_in_front _of_the_door.pdf.
Chimbalanga Jean Félix holds a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from the University of Lumumbashi (1982) and a bachelor’s degree in Theology from the Université Protestante au Cœur du Congo (2013). He has been Educational Coordinator for the Communauté Évangélique Mennonite (CEM) since 1997, a pastor in the same denomination since 2012, and has served as the legal representative of the CEM since 2013. Since 2018 he has served as chair of the International Central Council of the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM).