by Mike Saum
Shells from the 20mm cannons shredded the mango trees nearby, peppering the bank where he sought cover. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades ripped gaping holes in the landscape. His enemies from the Ngeti tribe, bolstered from troops from the Rwandan and Congolese Armies, moved forward spraying fire from their M-16s. The circle closed.
For 3 years, David Tseda had waged war. He joined the militia in 1999 in the midst of the Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict since World War II, a war that claimed over 5 million lives. He had lost 21 relatives already. He wanted to save the rest of his family and his people from extermination and genocide.
But his militia battalion had fled. Only 25 soldiers remained with him, pinned down beside him in the field ditch, surrounded. He shouted orders. Even as he returned fire with his AK-47, he knew he would die there on the plains of Nyankunde.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been left for dead. On the day he was born his unwed mother abandoned him, dropping him down a pit latrine in Blukwa, DRC. After three days in the mire, David was rescued and raised by Viola Gifford, a Canadian missionary working with Africa Inland Mission. But that was 1973.
That was 29 years ago. Who would save him this time?
In his desperation, David called out to God, the God he first heard about as a boy at AIM’s mission station in Aungba.
And David made a promise.
“Save me, God, and I will serve you!”
Then, the miracle. He lived. With hundreds of enemy soldiers pressing in from all sides, he escaped. But like so many desperate soldiers before him, David crawled out of the ruins and left his promise to the Lord among the trenches.
Years passed. Another ambush. But this time, David commanded the superior force. The militia captured a group of the enemy-two men, seven women – and in this war, they had no place for prisoners. The men were defiant and were killed first. Then one of the women. But as the soldiers raised their guns and machetes, David heard something that stopped him cold. Among the wailing, pleading cries of the captives, he heard the echo of his own words on the lips of a woman. Calmly, quietly, she prayed.
“Save me, God, and I will serve you.”
His promise rushed back to him. The words he swore before God pinned him in place.
His men, intent on massacre, stepped back, confused. But they were soldiers; they obeyed their commander. David put the six women in his vehicle, drove them beyond the battle, and let them go.
The following year, he kept his promise. In 2004, he began his training as a pastor.
Today, David is a man of peace, a pastor, and a returning Masters student at Shalom University in DR Congo.
The Talking Drum
Shalom University’s history stretches back over 50 years. In 1961, Africa Inland Mission and CrossWorld started a Bible school in Banjwade called the Theological School of Northern Congo (ETCN). As its symbol, the school took the Talking Drum.
Long before the age of cheap cell phones in Africa, messages in the DRC were shared with the community using drums made from hollowed-out logs. The sound of the Talking Drum could travel over great distances. Each strike of wood on wood, each rhythm and tone, carried meaning. People scattered across the countryside could be called together to face dangers, to greet visitors, or to celebrate.
Like the Talking Drum, the new Bible school was a means to communicate important news-the most important news-the gospel of Jesus Christ. Starting with just a few dozen students, ETCN began training communicators who could understand the Scriptures and lead the burgeoning church.
But the school faced many challenges. Located in the heart of central Africa, DR Congo possesses immense natural resources, but the health and growth of the 70 million people who live here has been hobbled by decades of war, corruption, and crushing poverty.
After the Simba Rebellion of 1964, the school had to relocate, eventually acquiring land in Bunia, a town in northeast DRC near the border of Uganda. While the seminary survived and continued to train pastors, its location in Bunia placed it at the heart of the Ituri Conflict, an ethnic war set within the larger, bloodier context of The Great Africa War.
The Last Battlefield
Just 10 years ago, Bunia was a city divided. Almost all the region had been looted. Bombs were being lobbed over the campus as the Hema and Lendu groups clashed. War came from both directions with the seminary standing in between.
“This was an ethnic conflict,” say Dr. Robert Katho, president of Shalom University, “And this conflict left 50,000 people dead in this area.”
Most of the students, faculty, and missionaries had evacuated in the face of certain destruction. Those who remained and thousands more from the area took refuge on the campus. It became a sanctuary, the only safe place in the chaos.
“During the last fighting that forced the school to be evacuated, the two factions stopped right at the school on the two sides,” says Dr. Katho. “The school was going to become the battlefield – the last battlefield.”
But the seminary was spared.
“At the end, [the armies] decided that they would not destroy the school, because each faction identified with the school where they were protected. They said, ‘This is where our people were saved.’”
When it came time for the peace talks, the seminary in Bunia was the natural place.
“Because of the story of fighting, and because of this background of people coming to find a place of peace here, we started thinking of this place as that place where reconciliation will start.”
Dr. Katho remembers those meetings and the genesis of the university’s current name and ethos. “The first meeting for reconciliation was here. And we started thinking about a name, and everybody agreed that Shalom is the name because we have experienced God’s peace.”
In 2007, faced with a new era of promise, the seminary expanded its vision and became the Université Shalom de Bunia (USB).
In order to qualify as a university, Shalom needed a total of five Schools. The first faculty, the School of Evangelical Theology, was firmly established already with its Departments of Pastoral Theology, Biblical Theology, Missiology and Bible Translation. To complement its Scriptural emphasis, USB endeavored to create new programs that would complement the school’s explicit aim: Academic and spiritual excellence for the transformation of society through Christ.
“We have done well in training pastors,” says Dr. Katho, “But we came to realize that the need is beyond training for theological education only. We are dying with this corruption [in DRC]. People are dying with poverty, and our natural resources are not well managed. We need to help our society. We need to help the church come to that point of realizing that we need to be involved in all these hard questions.”
So in addition to the School of Evangelical Theology, USB opened four new faculties: Science, Administration and Management, Development, and Agricultural Science. On the school crest, the newly-christened university inscribed an open Bible, the historic Talking Drum, and four palms for the new faculties, symbols of peace and growth.
Almost overnight, enrollment soared. Students flocked to Shalom for its relevant biblical programs offered in an environment unmired in the corruption that plagues many universities in DR Congo. In 5 years, the school grew from 65 students to more than 800 today.
“Since we’ve become a university,” says Ted Witmer, a career missionary and lecturer at Shalom, “we’ve added programs that really match the needs of the country and compliment our traditional strength of theology and Bible.”
Shelley Hahambulu, a second year Masters student in Development studies, sees the establishment of the additional faculties as a profound blessing.
“I started studying in the Faculty of Development while my husband was in Theology. One day, we will be required to work in the church. When he is a pastor, I can assist somewhere in development activities.”
Looking ahead to their future ministry, Shelley says, “My husband can take care of the spiritual needs in the church, and I, as one trained in development, can speak for the physical development of members of our church, in our community, our environment, and even our country.”
Today, there is growth and momentum at Shalom University and a conviction held by the faculty, students, and supporters that peace is not passivity.
Africa Inland Mission has committed to help Shalom University with its greatest needs as it moves forward, including the development of the new airport campus and the training and recruiting of new faculty.
This year, in an historic move, Shalom will become the first evangelical school in DRC to offer a PhD program in Theology, and only the third in all of French-speaking Africa.
“Theology is about making the vital connections between the unchanging word of Scripture and the constantly changing worlds of men and women,” says Dr. Keith Ferdinando, the man charged with setting up the PhD program. “The African church needs African theologians able to engage African issues from a solidly biblical perspective.”
After 10 years away from DR Congo, Keith and his wife Margaret, both career missionaries with AIM, have moved to Bunia to help the School of Theology with this significant step forward.
“The most momentous aspect of recent church history has been the rapid growth of the church in the majority world. However, the training of pastors lags seriously behind the growth of the church,” Keith maintains.
“The future health and maturity of African Christianity depends, therefore, on the formation of its own evangelical scholars, equipped to offer biblical responses to the real issues they confront in their own situation.”
Dr. Ferdinando believes Shalom University and the new program could have a profound and far-reaching impact in Central Africa, especially in DR Congo, the largest French-speaking country in the world.
“The Doctoral Program project will increase the capacity of local churches. They will be able to send suitably qualified students for post graduate studies, which would otherwise be beyond their means. By helping to develop the new campus, AIM is opening the way for many young Christians to be trained in a serious academic setting.”
Although life in Bunia can prove challenging, Keith remains fully committed to the university and what it represents.
“Shalom doesn’t just mean peace in the sense of absence of war. It means peace in the sense of wholeness of life and fullness of life, and so in that sense, Shalom is what Jesus came to bring.
“He came to bring life in all its fullness.”
“Transforming violence to peace, it is not easy,” says David Tseda, the former militia soldier, his voice rough like rubble. “It is a long process in life.” When he graduates from Shalom University with his Masters in Biblical Theology, David hopes to act on his thesis, a program that would provide spiritual guidance for demobilized militiamen.
“People who were militia, now they have dropped their weapons. We now preach the Good News so that they change and do not go back into the bush. It is the first way to help, to preach to them and share this message of peace.”
Even as he moves forward with his ministry, David remembers his old life and the promise he made. “When I converted and came here [to Shalom University] for my studies, I was still violent. But I continue to pray to the Lord to help me out of this violence. I cannot say it’s all gone, but still I strive to become a man of peace.”