Something happened today that I will never forget. I came very, very close to death. But I am still alive, by God’s grace, and I am deeply grateful for His miraculous work on my behalf. I am also very grateful that so many of my friends, knowing that I am presently in a dangerous position, have been praying for me.
In case you didn’t know, this week I have traveled by myself to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am here to meet with Armand Diangienda, who is the founder and conductor of the Kinshasa Orchestra. My visit is to see if the MasterWorks Festival might be able to work together with Armand sometime in the future.
I have been to many places around the world, and seen a great deal of poverty. But here it is overwhelming. Even though I am staying at one of the few modern hotels and placed in a relatively safe neighborhood, within a block or two there are thousands living in horrible squalor. I have read enough of this region to be very careful and alert, and yesterday I took a short walk around the area without incident. There were many locals on the street, and many gave me a friendly “Bonjoir,” which I returned. There were also many soldiers and police everywhere, though police there seldom have formal uniforms.
That was yesterday. Today, about 3 p.m., I had planned to walk about a mile in order to see the Congo River. This was along fairly major roads, so I did not foresee any real difficulty. Yet before I had walked a mile, suddenly a car quickly pulled next to me and someone shouted, “Police!” A large man stuck his arm out the passenger side window and thrust a very official looking badge in my astonished face. I was surprised, but not particularly alarmed. I had read that the local police often stopped people for various reasons, and that a bribe might be needed.
I said, “Bonjoir. Mais ma francois est terrible,” with a nervous smile. The large man, still in the front seat of the car, demanded in English, “Where is your passport?” I said, “Dans ma hotel, la Hotel Venus,” and pointed in the direction in which I had come. This angered him, and he said, “You have no passport? You cannot walk here without passport.” A bit flustered, I pulled out my Indiana driver’s license and handed it to him. While he looked at it, I noticed that there were other policemen in the car with him. He said, “We must see your passport. We must go to hotel now.” Suddenly the back door opened and another man stepped out, and motioned me to get inside.
Now, reader, I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t get in the car, Pat!” And, yes, I have since reproached myself for it a thousand times. But you just had to be there to understand. It all happened very quickly, and they really seemed like local police. Furthermore, a lifetime in America spent always showing respect and obedience to police is hard to ignore. There was not much time for thought, and I climbed in middle of the back, thinking we would simply drive to my nearby hotel. Looking back, I can clearly see that it was one of the stupidest things I have ever done.
There were two men in the front, and I was sitting between two men in the back seat. The temperature was in the 90s and everyone was covered with sweat. But the car started toward the hotel and I was still hoping for the best. Instead, the main guy in the front began asking strange questions: “What are in your pockets? Do you have a gun? Show me!” Having little choice, I pulled out each pocket. He seemed very interested in my iPhone, and even more so in the small wad of bills I had – about $50 in dollars and the equivalent of $20 in Congolese Francs (the local currency).
When he stuffed the phone and the bills in his shirt pocket, my heart sank. I said in English, “You’re not the police, are you?” He answered, “Je suis un criminal.” He said this with such evil malice that my blood suddenly ran cold. I was both terrified and furious, and was soon sputtering both French and English. “Take me to ma hotel! Maintenant!” When I tried to rise up, the men on both sides of me blocked my motion with their strong arms – much stronger than mine. My white skin looked weak and pale against their ebony arms. I realized that I was utterly powerless.
Despite my loud protests, the car sped past my hotel and headed away from downtown. The main guy in front kept talking in both languages, and I didn’t understand a lot of it. Several times he said, “America is bad. I hate Americans.” I really thought that I was a goner, but I continued to complain, “Take me a la Venus Hotel,” which they ignored. I tried bluster, “The American Embassy knows I am here. Big trouble for you.” But it was useless.
Through all of this ordeal, I was silently praying, asking God for help and wisdom. At one point, I said, “Go to la hotel. More d’argent pour you,” rubbing my fingers in the international symbol for money. This got his attention. He said, “How much at hotel.” I only had $200 in my hotel room, and I stuttered, “Je ne sais pas.” He said, “One thousand. You will give $1,000.” Then he spoke rapid French to the driver, who suddenly turned back toward the city.
I had tried just about everything I could think of saying, and I felt like I had nothing else to lose. So I blurted, “Je suis un Christiane.” I pointed to the main guy and asked, “Vous? Une Christiane?” He muttered, “No.” I turned to the thug on my right. “Vous? Un Christiane?” He looked down – as I think back upon this, he almost seemed ashamed, but I’m not sure – and he quietly answered, “Oui.” By this time, my grip on the French language (which was not very good at the best of times) was gone. I began to shout wildly to him, “Then do like Jesus! Do bon like a Christiane!” The man said, “Shhh!” Then he pointed to me, and folded his hands together. He gruffly said something in French, which seemed like he was telling me to pray. (This really wasn’t very reassuring, since he clearly knew I was in deep trouble.) But I could not read his emotions; he may have just been mocking me.
I said, “Oui. I will pray,” and folded my hands, flat fingers pointed upward, so that all of them could see I was silently praying. For a while, the four of them spoke back and forth, but I understood nothing. They seemed to be arguing, probably about what to do with me. (Only after the incident was over and the terror past, I realized that this was similar to the scene of Bilbo and the Trolls.)
I noticed that the car was not moving toward the hotel, but seemed to be taking me to the neighborhood where I had first been abducted by these villains. It stopped in an alley, and the driver got out. I again said, “Hotel Venus,” but no one paid any attention to me. The man in the back with me both shouted something to the driver, who returned and drove further, then abruptly stopped, then drove further. It was clear that the men were not in agreement about what to do with me.
Finally, the car stopped again behind some old buildings, and the main guy shouted in English, “Out! Get out!” I didn’t know if this was good news, or perhaps very bad news. They opened the same back door I had entered and the man next to me got out. It didn’t take any urging for me to quickly follow. The main guys said to me, “I keep money and phone. You go!” They drove off immediately, leaving me standing there breathing hard. It took me a moment to figure out approximately where I was located – and to get my legs (which felt like rubber) working again.
I began the long walk to the hotel. All the way there I was looking over my shoulder, wondering if perhaps the thugs were following me to try and get more money. I’m afraid that on this walk I didn’t have a “Bonjoir” for anyone. When I finally saw the Hotel Venus sign, I broke into a run, and didn’t stop until I was in its old lobby – which never looked so beautiful as it did to me!
So, that’s how my afternoon was spent. I’m very grateful to be OK.