What do you talk about when you’re buried up to your neck in the earth, surrounded by the handful of scruffy guerillas who put you there? When Kasai Kapata was in that position he spoke up with, “Comrades, it’s a good thing that I am here in this grave.”
“They thought I was crazy to say that,” he remembered twenty years later. “But they also knew I was a preacher in that area.”
The story became a legend in the Mennonite Brethren church of Congo. It was 1964, when the followers of Pierre Mulele still had much of the Bandundu region under their control. For over a year they had been carrying on a campaign of rebel indoctrination in the region’s villages. Many, especially Christians who resisted Mulele’s hostility toward Christians, had gone into hiding in the forests. The followers of Mulele had destroyed Protestant and Catholic missions, including the Mennonite Brethren ones at Matende, Lusemvu and Kafumba. It was near Kafumba that Kasai was arrested.
What led up to those faith-testing three days was a story in itself. Kasai had been educated at the Kafumba mission, and eventually became the young assistant of pastor Djimbo Kabala at the mission church. Not long before the rebellions began he had read in the sixth chapter of Isaiah, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” That passage had driven him to a new commitment to service at whatever the cost.
When the rebels swept into the Kafumba area, the missionaries were forced to evacuate to the safer cities of Kikwit or the national capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Pastor Djimbo Kabala also left soon, hiding in the forests. Before long Kasai and his family were among those making an exodus from Kafumba. They arrived at their home village near Gungu, only to find that the rebels were in control there too. Like many others, Kasai was forced to join them, even though they knew he had been a leader at the mission.
His forced labor of supplying food for the rebel soldiers was not exactly enjoyable. “It was hard for me as a Christian to watch the beatings and killings that were going on, but I did have the opportunity to witness to the rebels and help foster peace among the villagers themselves.” Sometimes his work was particularly difficult because, as someone who had been associated with the mission, he was regarded with suspicion.
After several months Kasai felt compelled to return to Kafumba to retrieve some of the family’s belongings and see how the church members were faring. As he approached the mission station he was stopped by a group of rebels who recognized him as the former preacher. The most vocal ones in the group were anxious to see him dead and ordered him to begin digging a grave for himself with a hoe they had on hand. A few others pressed for mercy; at one time they had respected him as a Sunday school teacher and could not bear to see him killed. So the captive was buried up to his neck while the rebels decided what to do with him.
The three days Kasai spent in his own grave was a time of soul-searching. He recalls “Would I persevere and stay with my calling to be a pastor? Or would this experience suddenly shatter the reality of God’s clear voice just a couple of years ago.” The hate that surrounded him during those uncertain days also tested his love for the enemies. How could these former Sunday school students have turned against him? How could he love them?
As Kasai thought and prayed, his commitment to God only strengthened and his love for his captors only grew. His attitude even became cheerful, something that his captors could not understand. Finally, at the urging of his former pupils, he was released and allowed to continue to the mission, which by now had been ransacked by the rebels.
Even though the area was still under the tenuous control of the rebels, Kasai was able to bring some of the believers together and meet with them until the government troops regained control of the area and used the mission as a base of operations. After the troubles abated Kasai was instrumental in rebuilding the congregation at Kafumba. As Kasai said, “when people came back to church they listened to and obeyed the Word as it was preached.”
When asked if the hardships had been good for him Kasai responded, “I have discovered that the Lord has cleansed us through these experiences.” As he had told the rebels, “It’s a good thing that I am here in this grave.”
Source: Adapted, with permission, from Byron Burkholder, “Kasai and Balakashi Kapata,” in They Saw His Glory: Stories of Conversion and Service (Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services, 1984).
Originally appeared on Profiles of Mennonite Faith: http://www.mbhistory.org/profiles/kapata.en.html