Congolese "Sisters" Help Women in Need

Led by Elsie McKee, Seminary community members helped to open the Tomisunga Women’s Center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
News Elsie Mc Kee

After five years of fundraising, planning and passion, helping to open the Tomisunga Women’s Center (Women’s Center) in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a reality for several Princeton Theological Seminary staff, alumni, students, and trustees. The campaign allowed for Femme Berceau de l’Abondance (FEBA) or Woman, Cradle of Abundance, to open a newly-constructed shelter and community center for women crippled by poverty and violence. At the helm of the U.S.-based effort was Elsie McKee, Ph.D., Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, who was born and raised in the Congo.

“The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a nation with great natural wealth,” said McKee. “In great contrast, there is overwhelming poverty that is complicated by endemic violence.” To illustrate this point, McKee references that one of the recipients of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize is “a Congolese doctor who has spent decades saving women’s lives in eastern Congo’s war zone.”

FEBA was able to open the Women’s Center on land purchased by the U.S. arm of Woman, Cradle of Abundance created by McKee and other Seminary colleagues in 2013 to fight violence against women and female poverty through partnerships with organizations in the Congo.

The Women’s Center houses a sewing school for women and girls; literacy, math and life skills training; savings and micro-loan programs for women-owned businesses; first aid and nutrition assistance; HIV/AIDs education and support; and counseling for victims of violence. Once a matron and guards are hired, the center will house battered women, orphans, and sewing students who live too far to commute daily for classes.

The unique sisterhood between McKee and Madame Monique Misenga Mukuna

(Maman Monique), president and co-founder of FEBA, inspired the organizational vision for FEBA and the sustainability model for the Women’s Center. The US-based site, which is a designated 501c3 organization, raises thousands of dollars to support FEBA’s work.

McKee’s and Maman Monique’s collaboration has impact beyond the construction of the Women’s Center. With the support of the US-based fundraising, people on the margins of Congolese society have also received assistance. FEBA has been able to pay school fees for orphans who cannot access education on their own and teach widowed women the skills to support themselves.

Additionally, through FEBA, Maman Monique frees women and girls in the Congo from their abusers and guides them on a path toward freedom from the poverty that enslaves them. McKee and the many friends whose work sustains FEBA help Maman Monique protect girls from forced prostitution. They empower victims of assault, rape, and domestic violence to escape and begin to heal. Maman Monique’s vision for the future includes leadership development programs and English language courses for women rising out of poverty.

Maman Monique’s meaningful impact can be linked to her childhood. In a singular way that established the trajectory of her life, Maman Monique’s typical Congolese upbringing was distinct from that of the girls around her. A life-long Presbyterian, her father called her a “man,” establishing that, in his mind, she was just as capable and important as her brothers.

“At that time, Congolese girls started daily work from the age of three, while boys played freely,” said McKee. “Boys were considered realchildren — girls were seen as extra.”

However, Maman Monique’s father eschewed his culture’s gender bias and chose to educate all of his 14 children. Her father’s standard set Monique on a path to empower women and girls, lifting them out of violence and poverty today through the organization she co-founded.

McKee says FEBA’s work lifts her in deeply personal ways. McKee is one of three generations of her family to live and work in the central African nation. “People in Congo are never far from my mind,” says McKee. “I have long been involved with theological education in Congo but have more recently devoted most of my attention to women and girls. Maman Monique is truly inspiring and it is a privilege to know her and work with her.”

In 1911, McKee’s grandparents moved to Congo as Presbyterian missionaries. Her father and his brother returned as adults to Congo to continue their parents’ work. McKee came to the United States for college, received her Diploma in Theology from Cambridge University in England, and earned her doctorate degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her scholarly work on the history and theology of the Reformation has evolved to include the history of worship, spirituality, and women in the church.

“I am sustained in many ways by the commitment of my parents and my dear Congolese Christian friends. I am deeply aware of being ‘unfairly blessed’ and want to respond with gratitude and good stewardship, recognizing that I am responsible, not just for money, but for time, energy, attention, for the focus of how I live my life.”

Learn more about Woman, Cradle of Abundance at www.WomanCradleofAbundance.org.

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