by Levi Keidel
It was the work of those in the kitchen to carry food to prisoners locked in small cells in the long-building ends near the tower. We carried food to them three times a day, and thus got to know them well. Some prisoners were guarded in these cells for a few weeks, being punished for some misconduct which had caught them. Other prisoners were kept in these cells forever: people who had rebelled against government authorities; those whose greatness of suffering had broken their minds; or those whose minds were always as minds of little children. One of these prisoners was different from all the others; no one disputed it. I began to fix my mind upon him.
His name was Simon Kimbangu. He lived in a cell on the end of building number three, next to the one in which I slept. His cell was about four by six feet. Along its back wall was a narrow concrete sleeping platform. Upon it were a flat reed sleeping mat and two prison blankets which, during daytime, were always neatly folded.
Kimbangu was no taller than most men. His body was somewhat heavy. Perhaps his years were twice my own. His face had begun to show the wrinkles of age. His head was balding; his hair was beginning to grey. People said he had performed healing miracles at his home village near Kinshasa, two thousand miles away, and that he and his followers had begun to threaten the authority of the colonial government. Like me, he was in prison for life. Sometimes his cell door was opened, and he walked around freely among us. At other times, when his teachings affected prisoners in a way which displeased those over us, he was locked inside his cell.
In what way was his conduct different? He refused to take any part in our jealousies, our hating each other, our secret efforts to do one another evil. He had no room in his mind for such things. When he was not locked up, every morning he would try to greet each prisoner, one by one, shaking his hand. When others persecuted him, he never showed anger toward them. He was a man of kindness, quietness and peace. He did things which we could not understand. But we respected him. Though we would not tell one another, each of us sensed that his way of acting worked to weaken the poison in our hearts.
Sometimes when we took him food, we found food from the last meal still on its plate, untouched. One time the plates of neglected food kept increasing until there were six. The kitchen overseer told me to report the matter to the prison director. The director ordered that Kimbangu be given four lashes with the mfimbu. Why did he act in a way that hunted suffering for himself? At the next meal I took him food. When time passed, I returned to see if he had eaten it. The mush was gone; the piece of meat remained. The next day I watched him do an amazing thing.
His cell door was not locked at that time. Every day, two or three hundred prisoners were sent outside to work, and would return to prison in midafternoon. On this day, when they began returning, Kimbangu stood at the entry door and began sharing his meat with each one, tiny thread by tiny thread, so that it sufficed for all of them.
It appeared the prison director did not like such conduct. Soon I saw guards going with Kimbangu to the far end of the prison. They opened the little door leading to the cells of torment, and left. The guards returned alone.
All of us had seen guards bring dead persons from these cells. Why did Kimbangu act like he did? I could not explain it. I began to fear he might die.
On the third day guards went through the door and brought Kimbangu into prison again. What was the first thing he did? He shook the hand of each of his guards, thanking them. Then he went to prisoners and guards wherever he found them, and shook their hands, greeting them. Then he entered the office of the prison director. A few of us near the kitchen moved opposite the office door to watch. There was a law which said no prisoner could touch the director. Kimbangu reached the director's desk, stood erect before him, saluted him, then turned and left.
My mind fought day and night to find a reason for such a way of acting. I began studying every piece of wisdom which I could remember from childhood to find a clue. How could a man be so different from me? To have a bigger piece of meat, I threatened people with death. Kimbangu gave all his meat away. I did all sorts of evil; when people punished me for it, I hated them and plotted vengeance. Kimbangu did no one evil. When people punished him for nothing, he showed only kindness toward them; he counted them people of worth. He had been acting in this fashion for a long time. When I learned the number of days he had been in prison, it surpassed me to believe. He had been in this place for twenty-five years. 5
To unriddle such a path of thinking was like trying to untangle the vines of a forest. It surpassed me. I stopped trying. But I began to feel that he had something which I needed exceedingly. What was it? As an elusive animal continually evading snares, it escaped me. I would see it a bit, then lose it again. Finally, a proverb from my childhood found a path to enter my thinking; it enabled me to corner and seize the matter.
"A sheep is the king of animals," I remembered. "It does not balk or fight like a goat; it accepts with dignity whatever is forced upon it, even death."
In a few ways, Kimbangu's thinking agreed with mine. He had established that certain things were true. He gave himself to defending these truths, no one having power to change him. But beginning at this point, we differed.
The work of defending his truths caused him to respect himself. My work of defending my truths drew me into all kinds of hard affairs, and wiped out my self-respect. Why were our ends so different? It appeared that the truths we defended were different. How did they differ?
I began to see as a man walking all night begins to see a first sign of dawn. My truth said that those who helped me should be respected; but those who hindered me were to be mocked, humiliated, even destroyed. Kimbangu's truth said that all persons were of value; be they good or bad, they must be respected equally with himself. In thus respecting others, he could keep respect for himself. Even if others forced evil upon him, he would accept it with dignity.
Dignity. Was not this for what my heart craved? Perhaps. Something which would bring an end to my balking and fighting. Something which would make me, like the sheep, so quiet and strong that no abuse of men could degrade me. Something which showed everyone that I counted myself to be a person of value equal with all men. Where had Kimbangu found the truth that made him into such a person? Could he help me find it?
But showing friendship toward Kimbangu would ruin my reputation with prison authorities. They could punish me. If they saw me following the footsteps of Kimbangu, next time they would send both of us to the cells of torment.
But I had boasted to prisoners that I did not fear death to do them evil. Did I now fear death to do myself good? If I had lost my dignity, had I also lost my courage? When a hunter finally has a dead partridge in hand, he doesn't leave it in the crotch of a tree hoping sweat will cook it. He puts it on the fire.
I was still habitually doing evil. How would I talk with a man such as Kimbangu? One day he was passing among us, not being noticed. I wanted to appear fittingly pious, so I framed words I thought would please him.
"Why is it that we call to God, but He doesn't answer us? We worship ancestral spirits, but they don't respond?"
He looked at me quietly for a moment, then spoke.
"When you eat a bitter fruit, what does your face show?"
"It shows bitterness."
"When you eat a good-flavored sweet fruit, what does your face show?"
"It shows happiness."
"The forefathers said, 'Keep eating at the lime pit long enough, and you'll have white jaws; keep eating frog legs, and you'll break out with rash.' If you so covet evil in your heart that its bitterness shows clearly on your face, why should your Creator hear you?"
His answer cut me. It showed me that my evil ways showed themselves on my face; it showed me that God would not hear my crying until my heart wanted to forsake them.---
5. Simon Kimbangu was arrested by Belgian colonial authorities in 1921 and was imprisoned to his death in 1951. He is the founder of the most popular indigenous religious movement in Zaire, the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simion Kimbangu, whose adherents currently are said to approximate one million.
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