Interview with Bishop Peter Dawson

In March 1997, ACL News spoke with Bishop Peter Dawson, then recently returned from Zaïre (now DR Congo).

The interview was published in the May 1997 issue.


The great thing that everyone has wanted in Zaïre is a righteous and good government that will seek the well-being of its people. And it has never had that.

Right from the very word go, Belgium did very little to prepare the country for self-rule. Maybe they thought they were going to be there forever, however they couldn’t resist the tide of nationalism sweeping Africa and eventually they left in a hurry, leaving a country ill-prepared to govern itself. The first prime minister was assassinated within six months, the country began to disintegrate and so it has gone on. Mobutu has been a dictator there for 31 years. So that is the great hope that there would be a good government for the country that would really seek the well-being of its people.

But as far as the church goes, although I am pessimistic with regard to getting a good government for the country, I am optimistic as far as the church is concerned. It is a vast country, and really I am only familiar with one area – the region called Maniema, with Kindu as its capital.

The Anglican Church (there are other churches there as well) has been growing steadily over 20 years during times of economic and social hardship. It is persistent in growing. So I am optimistic that it will continue to grow. It has thrown up some really great leaders of the church and I really think it will continue to grow and develop.

How is the church coping with the crisis in Zaïre? What has happened to the Christian leaders?

The retreating army, and then the rebels (or as many people call them, the liberators), moved along roads into Kindu. The villages along those roads would have scattered – churches would have emptied out, the pastors and evangelists would have gone. It is too dangerous and they would have gone into the forest – to their traditional homes in small villages to wait it out. But they will come back. 

There are 240 Anglican congregations in Maniema and, of those, 200 or more would be in the forest and untouched by the movement of the armies. I guess it would be business as usual for them. 

In Kindu itself. We had 3 parishes there, an archdeacon and other fine leaders of the church there. There was a lot of fighting there, and most of the population just would have gone.

Is there any persecution of the church?

No, I have not heard that Christians have been particularly targeted in any way. It just so happens that often that it is the church that has property and buildings, furnishings, typewriters, all that sort of stuff. So, the army doesn’t target the church, but targets places where it knows it can get some loot. And the government soldiers have been looting very freely and in Kindu we have lost everything – our cars, our motorbikes, bicycles, all of our equipment that we were setting up for a new diocese in the Anglican Church, that has all gone.

Was it very hard for the CMS missionaries to get out?

No – because Missionary Aviation Fellowship was still operating. They had a headquarters down the south, but they had to leave as the war gradually crept north, and in the end they were situated in the north of the country. They had a couple of Cessnas and pilots. When we were ordered out MAF agreed to come down to fly us out. 

Within 10 days after that they were out of the country and it would have been impossible for us to leave. The only way out of Kindu was by air.

It must have been an awful emotional wrench for all of the missionaries to just leave everything.

Yes. In Kindu we never really thought it would come to that. We were listening to what was happening, via the BBC, and we never thought this rebellion would really reach us at all. It was a long way away.

Then the retreating soldiers arrived in Kindu and began to shoot the place up, and loot. People were killed. It was then that the Archbishop of Zaïre ordered us out and we were given 30 hours to leave. That was traumatic because we didn’t really have time to say goodbye to anyone. We were still working towards the development of this new diocese. We were working towards the consecration and inauguration until the last moment and then within a few days we found ourselves in Nairobi. It was then that a flood of emotions hit us. We felt guilty. We felt grief-stricken and terribly disappointed and sad about the whole thing, and we’re still working our way through that. 

We hope to get back when the situation allows it and when the church fixes a date for the consecration of its new bishop and the inauguration of the diocese. We will go back for a few months to work with them to be part of their celebrations and say goodbye to our friends.

So the consecration is postponed indefinitely.

Yes – the bishop elect is still 1,000 kilometres from Kindu. He can’t get there. Nobody else can get there. For ordinary civilians it is very difficult to move around and probably dangerous. So it could be many months before anything happens.

Do you have any particular prayer points?

The number one thing on the political front is to pray for good government, righteous leaders. It seems Mobutu is on the way out and there is going to be a change of government, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will get a good government, and that is what we need to pray for. 

Pray for all the Christian pastors and evangelists right throughout the area. Pray they will continue to be faithful in their preaching and teaching and encouraging Christians to trust in God. That is the key thing. People need to be encouraged to trust in God, that he is the sovereign Lord, that he is working according to his plan, and he will bring good out of it. I have never believed that history is an aimless succession of changes and events. I see God there as the sovereign Lord, working according to his plan, known to him, not always to us, and he is going to bring good out of it all.

And along with those prayers, I am praying that God will raise up Australians to serve the Lord in that part of the world, and in Maniema particularly. 

It is a marvellous opportunity. People are hungry for biblical teaching and we have seen a new church being opened every two weeks for the last few years. New congregations, new people being converted, Bible colleges full. There is a great opportunity for someone to go out and be a lecturer in one of these new Bible colleges. Great opportunity for teaching the Bible and building up Christians. 

We concentrated on the congregational leaders. Every church, at least 250 congregations, has a full-time leader. He is either a lay evangelist or an ordained person. These people need teaching. We’d bring them in for seminars, build them up so that they can be more effective teachers for us, for others. There are great opportunities for that kind of ministry. All of the Australians have left and some of them won’t be returning, but the church will want people to go and serve there with them. A marvellous opportunity for ministry.

How would you describe the churches in Maniema?

The church was growing rapidly but it certainly wasn’t a mature church. It hadn’t had systematic biblical teaching for a long time. It was just growing on its own and it hadn’t had much supervision. So it took time to gather all that together and start pointing people, particularly these congregational leaders, back to biblical truths and biblical foundations of the church. 

It was a great thing. We had an open door. We were establishing a diocese of the evangelical tradition and that was what we went in to do. The church leaders and the bishop said yes, we understand where you are coming from and that is what we want you to do there. So it is not often that one gets the opportunity to work with clergy, lay evangelists, leaders of the church, in developing a whole diocese on evangelical principles. It was very thrilling. It is the greatest thing I have ever been involved in in my life. I only wish I was 10 or 15 years younger – I wouldn’t be coming home!

It was a great encouragement to me to be a part of a church that was driven by the commission of Jesus, and a church that was so courageous, where people weren’t caught up with materialism. In Australia, we’re very materialistic. The people over there are more spiritual than the average Australian. There is a Supreme Being. He has created all things. Everyone would believe that. No-one would question that. So that really gives you a “shoe in” to talk about the God who has sent his Son, Jesus Christ. 

Are there any particular things we can pray for you and for Marie as you settle back into things here?

Pray for us as we continue to come to grips with all that has happened to us.

It changes your life working in a church like that. We are going to retire soon but not stop serving the Lord so we are looking to see just what God wants us to do next as far as serving him here in Australia is concerned.

It’s not all doom and gloom in Zaïre. We’ve had a lot of news about Zaïre in the last 6 months or so and the words that often come to mind are “death, murder, destruction, chaos, everything is going down the tube” and, to a certain extent, that is true – but it’s not all like that. And when you move into the kind of realms we’ve been talking about, it’s God’s people who are in Zaïre and they are rejoicing in his salvation and they are trying to get on with their lives in this chaotic situation. They have tremendous courage and enthusiasm – joy when there’s nothing there that would indicate that they ought to be happy. 

We need to be remembering that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ and we ought to be concerned and praying for them, supporting them and being ready to go and work with them, and it is my constant prayer that God will call men and women from Australia to go and serve him in Zaïre. 

Right back through the history of our church and particularly in the Sydney diocese there have been hundreds and hundreds of men and women who have gone forth from this diocese to proclaim the gospel, right throughout the whole world, to build up the church, in all kinds of difficult situations. It has been an indicator of the spiritual life of the Sydney diocese that that has been happening all through the years. It has been a marvellous thing and we don’t ever want to see that dry up. 

If there is a falling off of men and women from the Sydney diocese who are prepared to look beyond the diocese and think in terms of going to serve the Lord elsewhere in the world for a period of time, that may be saying something about us over here and the spiritual life of the church.