Mennonite Church celebrates 100-year anniversary of Congo mission
Irena Sprunger, who served for 20 years with the Congo Inland Mission (later Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission), still recalls the way she struggled with God's call on her life when she felt the tug in her heart to become a missionary to Africa.
Sprunger was attending Missionary Union meetings in Berne at the time. On a Sunday afternoon, a missionary from Nigeria was speaking and Sprunger felt her call.
"I felt called to be a missionary, but I didn't want to go," said Sprunger recently at Swiss Village. "I resisted the Lord all summer. Right after the war (World War II) I went to Grace Bible Institute, a Mennonite School in Omaha. I knew that if I was going to go as a missionary, I wanted to be a Mennonite missionary."
Sprunger's obedience led to serving 20 years in the Belgium Congo, including a one-year study of French in Belgium.
"I went by way of Belgium; I felt called to go but it was a struggle for me," Sprunger said. "I tried my best to talk the Lord out of it. I worked linotype at the Economy Printing at the time. I had also worked at Berco."
Once she arrived at the Congo, Sprunger served at Charlesville, originally called, "Djoka Punda," which was considered the transport station for the mission.
There she taught printing, started a girls school and taught at a Bible School. All of her students were Africans; Sprunger stressed that she had a deep love for the students.
Congo Inland Mission was organized at Meadows, Ill. in March of 1911 by the Evangelical Mennonite Church and Central Conference Mennonite Church. The official name of the original organizing committee was, "The United Board of Missions," but on Jan. 23, 1912, the name was changed to the Congo Inland Mission and was incorporated as such.
By the end of 1923 the church membership at the four stations was 200, by 1932 there were 1,200 members, and by 1936 the number of baptized Christians on the Congo Inland Mission field was 3,145. Between 1911 and 1936, 89 missionaries served in this work.
The mission carries on evangelistic, industrial, educational, and medical work.
Each of the four stations had a boys' and a girls' school and natives trained to teach in the outstations. One of the most important activities was the translation of the New Testament into the Kipenda language. This task was done at the Mukedi station and required nine years to complete.
The First Mennonite Church is celebrating the establishment of the mission throughout this year, culminating with a major celebration service on Sept. 14.
One of the tasks that Sprunger was required to complete was a major test related to teaching in the Belgium Congo. She was then considered a qualified teacher and the mission received money from the Congo government for her teaching work.
In addition to teaching, Sprunger also played the organ for chapel at the mission each morning.
In addition, Sprunger ran the LECO Press for all of the missionary work in the Congo.
"I'm glad that I finally gave in and obeyed the Lord," Sprunger said. "Even though I went single, the Lord gave me a husband in Vernon Sprunger, when I was 43-years-old. His wife had passed away."
Ironically, Vernon was the father of Wilmer Sprunger, of Berne, who also served
with his wife, Kenlyn, at the mission. Vernon's wife, Lilly, had been Wilmer's mother. After she passed away in 1960, Vernon married Irena in 1962.
Wilmer, who was born in the Congo in 1935, lived at the mission until 1953, when he went away to attend college. Between 1957 and 1959, he did volunteer missionary work as a service project in lieu of military service. Then, in 1964, at the recommendation of his wife, Sprunger and Kenlyn returned to the Congo where he served as a teacher.
Sprunger said that he and his wife were working and residing near Akron, Ohio, when she said, "why don't we go serve the Lord in Africa?"
Sprunger said that he struggled initially because he wasn't sure if he wanted go because he was called or because, from his circumstances, he was welcoming an opportunity to go "home" where he had been raised.
"I knew that I had to answer to the Lord; I had decided to go anywhere," Sprunger said. "God made me so aware of a bigger picture in the world. I realize that there are many people all over the world who need a Savior. I already realized when I was a little boy in the Congo that there was a much bigger picture of kingdom building.
"I praise the Lord for the church that God is establishing there, so many have come to know Jesus as Savior. I am very proud to be part of that program. What has been rewarding to me in the past 10 years has been seeing some of my former students taking positions of leadership in the church," commented Sprunger.
Anna V. Liechty, also of the First Mennonite Church, joined Irena and Wilmer at the Swiss Village visit to talk about her 38 years of services to the mission. Her main job was teaching.
"I worked in five different stations. I was always teaching, but it was in different levels of school," said Liechty. "I taught first grade schools at a time when girls were traditionally not going to school yet.
"I was in my latter teens when I first felt called, but I didn't actually go to the mission field until I was 30," added Liechty.
Prior to going to the field, Liechty graduated from Moody Bible Institute where she majored in Christian Education, Music and Missionary Bible. On her first furlough return, she attended Goshen College where she received a bachelor of arts in social studies and a minor in English. She eventually attended Ball State University where she received a masters in French and minor in English.
"I spent much of my life in school," said Liechty. "I was already past 68 when I left the mission field, but I was still raring to go. I had very little sickness throughout my life; God left me enjoy my work. Enjoying your work is so helping in doing what you're supposed to do."
"The Lord never gives us a task bigger than what He asks you to do," commented Irena Sprunger. "We worked under certain denominational heads, but we never made that a big thing. We were there as children of God to reach people for Christ, regardless of the name."
The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church (now the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches) joined the Congo Inland Mission in 1938, and the General Conference Mennonite Church joined in 1943. In 1972 the name was changed to Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM) to reflect a vision to expand the mission work beyond the borders of Congo.
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