CAPE TOWN — Tembo Kalenga Ilunga tells the story of her family’s escape from Congo to this bright yellow house in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, in a soft and reverent voice, as if she is describing a miracle, which, in fact, she is.
Armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo reached the United Methodist Church where Tembo and her husband, David, served in December 1998. “Our church had become a place of refuge—to find friends separated by the fighting, or to sleep. Then a group of soldiers got into the church and set the building on fire.”
Soldiers known for taking small boys and forcing them into the army, and for raping and killing civilians, accused David Ilunga of hiding rebels and took him away. He was held captive and beaten until a soldier agreed to help him escape and rejoin his family. The Ilungas set out that night, walking to Tanzania, where the soldier said they might be safe. It was Christmas, and as they left in a downpour, they had to step over the dead.
For 20 days, the Ilungas walked through the jungle along the Tanzanian border. They had left without food or other provisions, only the clothes they could wear, and it was cold. The children were 10, 9, 7, 5 and 18 months.
“But God always has mercy,” says Tembo. “A businessman who had a boat offered to help us get us across Lake Tanganyika.”
Turned away by Tanzanian border guards, the couple decided to try Zambia, where Tembo was born and raised. Again they were turned away, and began walking.
‘As God is full of grace . . .’
Unsure where to go, the Ilungas knew only that they had traveled too long and far to give up. Help came from a South African truck driver who overheard the Ilunga children singing in Swahili.
“I know that song in Xhosa,” he said. A fellow Methodist, he offered to help them get to South Africa. “‘I’ll be risking my life,’ he said, ‘but at least I will save seven people,’” says Tembo.
Hidden in the back of the truck, they made it to South Africa. Left on the roadside in Johannesburg, the family was picked up by the police and dropped at the train station. But they had nowhere to go. Tembo knew a cousin lived in Cape Town, 1,000 miles to the south, but not how to reach him.
“As God is full of grace,” says Tembo, help arrived again. A fellow Congolese, a physician, recognized “Pastor Tembo” at the station and took the family to his house, where they stayed several weeks before arranging to join Tembo’s cousin in Cape Town.
Crowded into her cousin’s single room, the family lived together until they met the Rev. Greg Andrews of Woodstock Methodist Church. Andrews told the Ilungas that he had a vision for a new, more inclusive ministry in the community. “And it needs to include you,” Andrews said.
On Pentecost Sunday, the Ilungas helped lead the first multi-language service at Woodstock Methodist Church, and then moved into the yellow house that now includes the ministry SHADE, an acronym for Soujourner: Help, Advocacy, Development, Education.
Today SHADE’s ecumenical reach extends across the African continent to help those in crisis, especially refugees. The organization’s first Sister 2 Sister Jamboree, which attracted 130 women, has developed into an event held each year in a different African nation. “Women need to be healed so they can stand again,” says Tembo.
On the walls of her office, Tembo has photographs of many of these women, including a Zambian, who was 67 at the first jamboree, and is now 72. “She told us all she needed was a bicycle,” says Tembo. “She calls it her ‘truck.’”
The woman travels among 18 villages, sometimes carrying a passenger on the bike to the nearest health clinic. She is currently helping feed about 600 children and there are 1,000 more waiting for food.
Today, SHADE has 28 satellite projects in 20 African countries. They include women-owned farm cooperatives that raise and sell vegetables, a sewing business that supports eight people, and a car wash that employs 13 refugees.
The Ilungas also opened SHADE to neighboring children. “We were there to light the matches for children with no place to go,” says Tembo. The biggest needs among the children are nutrition, counseling and training in values.
When Divinity student Kelly Hardenbrook D’08 arrived for a SHADE internship, Tembo asked her to organize an annual summer camp for 60 boys and girls, ages 4-18.
Hardenbrook protested that she had no experience directing a children’s camp, but Tembo was blunt: “It does not matter. I can see you are a leader.”
Later, Hardenbrook learned that “Tembo” is a revered Swahili name that means “elephant.”
As camp director, Hardenbrook created the camp budget in South African currency, purchased food and developed programs. For the older children, many of whom are survivors of sexual assaults, Hardenbrook created programs on sex education, including HIV prevention. During the 10-week internship, Hardenbrook says she became accustomed to hearing Tembo assign her new projects, saying, “Kelly can do that.”
And she learned that Tembo’s soft voice belies her power as a preacher. “When Tembo preaches,” she says, “you leave church with your ears ringing.”