Life from the Rubble

The Resilience of Scripture and the Zande Church

By Heidi Thulin with contributions from Ron and Donna Pontier
Photography by Mark Eekhoff

Central African Republic (C.A.R) has been in turmoil for several years, and the government is ill-equipped to handle the widespread foreign incursions and anarchy. So many factions are fighting against each other that it isn’t even clear what’s going on, and who is the enemy of whom. But it wasn’t always this way.

The first AIM missionaries arrived in C.A.R. over ninety years ago in 1925. This region of C.A.R., called Haut-Mbomou, represented the deepest penetration of the gospel into the continent of Africa. Missionaries preached the gospel, established a church among the Zande people, trained pastors and teachers, and created vocational schools. Through all this, God changed people’s hearts. For many years, this region in the middle of the continent was known as largely a Christian area.

AIM missionary, Ron Pontier, spent a fair bit of his early life as a missionary kid about eighty miles from Zemio, C.A.R, and in 1986, shortly after getting married, he began working in Zemio with his wife, Donna. While establishing and maintaining the AIM AIR flight base there, he became fluent in Pazande and helped train leaders within the Zande church. After eleven years of hard work, due to rising unrest, Ron and Donna, along with the handful of other AIM missionaries in Zemio, needed to leave. They wouldn’t return permanently for many years.

Over those years, however, the Zande Church continued meeting, growing in their faith, and patiently waiting for the missionaries to return. They greatly desired more discipleship training, though, so they diligently protected the now-empty missionary houses and prayed for political stability. Finally, in September 2015, eighteen years after the Pontiers left, the moment some of the believers had been waiting for dawned. Ron, Donna, and one other couple landed in Zemio, dusted off the unused furniture, and started settling into life in the village.

For over a year, they partnered with the Zande Church to prepare for the arrival of a full missionary team. Together, the missionary team and the Church hoped to reach out to the neighboring Mbororo tribe. In January 2017, the rest of the teammates settled into their new homes. The future looked exciting.

The Zande Church prayed fervently for the missionaries to return to Zemio, Central African Republic.
On Easter weekend that same year, multiple rebel forces fought their way across the country, violently changing this region from a ‘Christian’ area to an Islamic stronghold almost overnight. The missionaries, many of whom were just starting to understand the language, hastily evacuated. The Zande Church scattered into the bush, seeking shelter in towns hundreds of kilometers away or across the Mbomou River into the neighboring country of Democratic Republic of Congo. The once-bustling town of Zemio was now desolate and abandoned. The hospital and the commercial center were empty. Besides the occasional stray cat, there was no more life there.

On September 11th and 12th of 2017, an AIM AIR airplane, with Ron serving as one of the crewmen, landed in Obo, a town about two hundred kilometers from Zemio, to deliver aid supplies and food to the displaced people seeking shelter there. Ron met with some of his old friends and church leaders and was encouraged to learn that, despite the harsh and uncertain conditions, the Zande Church was still strong.

“They told us how they continue to meet to worship the Lord and study His word,” Ron recalls, “but they are missing their Zande Bibles and song books, which they left behind when they fled. They find much strength and encouragement from the Word of God, and now that they are camped out in the bush, there is a big need for these materials. They asked us if there was any way we could help them.”

Ron and some of the church leaders met with members of the United Nations who were stationed in the area and received permission for an armed convoy escort into the AIM Mission Station about seven kilometers away. Upon arrival, the UN soldiers fanned out, patrolling the area by foot and allowing the group of believers time to rummage through what remained of the Station.

The church building was surprisingly well-kept and intact, but the Bible School was trashed. Lesson plans, books, and equipment were strewn everywhere. Nearby, the church kept its Bibles and teaching materials in a locked storage container. The doors had been broken open and the contents, which were mostly spilled out onto the ground, soaked from the rain.

The Zande believers wasted no time digging through the rubble, searching for anything still usable, and miraculously, they discovered one full case of Bibles, the books preserved because they were wrapped in plastic packaging. A true treasure.

“These men,” Ron explained, “have gone from pastoring their local churches to shepherding their flocks in a more literal sense. They are desperately trying to do what they can to encourage those who—like themselves—are living like refugees in their own country. Everyone who came with us out to the Mission that day returned with as many Bibles and other Christian literature as they could carry. It was clear that this was the most valuable thing they could salvage from the mess.” 

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 8:3

A piece of the Jesus Film lies in the looted litter at the Mission Station in Zemio, Central African Republic
One of the looted missionary homes in Zemio, Central African Republic
The box of Zande Bibles sits beside an AIM AIR plane in Zemio, Central African Republic

Life from the Rubble

Oct 2, 2018 | Articles, By OFM, By StoryCorps, Central Region, Mbororo