As missionaries, my husband and I taught a Congolese man, Gedeon, from a distant village. The chief of his village was concerned that Gedeon was investigating a church which worshipped “the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The chief told him that their tribe worshipped and placated “the ancestors.” (Apparently, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not included in “the ancestors.”) Gedeon explained to us that “the ancestors” had terrifying power–which he had witnessed. They could torment or even kill living beings who offended them in some way.
“That’s not how we see the ancestors,” I said. “We see them connected to us, and we to them. We think of the dead as wanting to bless–not curse–us.” As missionaries, we explained our Latter-day Saint belief that mortals can perform sacred ordinances on behalf of their departed ancestors as an act of service to them, and that those who have passed on can bless and even guide their posterity. Our temples are symbols of the connection between Heaven and Earth. Ultimately, our vision of humanity is of one connected family.
We taught Gedeon on weekdays, because he traveled to his village every weekend to be with his mother, who was ill. During the last week of our mission, Gedeon was baptized, and his mother died.
Her death was not a surprise. She had told him that she had seen her ancestors, and they were inviting her home, so he should not be surprised if she died. She died in her sleep. Then this loyal son bought her coffin in Mbuji Mayi and had to get it to the village where she had asked to be buried. A body of water is a part of the journey, and the bridge was broken. Gedeon put the coffin in a canoe-ish boat (pirogue) and swam alongside it to make sure the coffin stayed safe.
That image sticks with me–this young man swimming beside his mother’s coffin as he performs this final act of service for her. Well, not really final. She told him that he would now be the father-figure for his siblings and would need to be sure that they got their educations. She herself had walked to another village twice weekly to purchase inexpensive cassava and then sell it in her own village. This was how she had funded his education.
He did not believe that his mother would now become a vengeful force demanding obedience, but understood his obligation to her legacy. He was responsible for his siblings’ education. and he accepted that responsibility.
When my husband and I made the film “Heart of Africa” we and the entire Congolese film team dealt with the different versions of “the ancestors.” In one scene, a Congolese leader prepares his followers for a battle and says, “The ancestors are angry. They want a sacrifice.” In another scene, the injured protagonist sees a vision of his mother, who tells him lovingly, “My son, listen to your heart.” The protagonist ultimately chooses forgiveness and peace rather than revenge.
The view of the ancestors as givers of blessings rather than demanding forces of sorcery is a fundamental shift in the world view of many Congolese converts. Some have told me that they had beautiful visions of their ancestors while performing their proxy ordinances in the temple. For me, as former missionary in the DR-Congo and as president of a humanitarian organization, I recognize that our view of our grandparents and of all our ancestors impacts our view of the world. It may seem strange to think of an ancestor demanding some great offering or even killing someone, but an unhealthy relationship to ancestors in other cultures is not much different. The view of our ancestors as “perfect” (the word most commonly used to describe my own great grandmother) brings enormous pressure. As I have researched my great grandmother’s life, I have realized that she experienced more trauma than I can even imagine. Her mother went mad and was institutionalized for the next forty years. Her father died by suicide. Part of HONORING rather than worshipping our ancestors is in having compassion and gratitude for them without invoking unrealistic expectations. The worst thing I have ever heard was from a woman who presumed to speak for someone’s grandmother and said to her, “Your grandmother is disappointed in you.”
No. Your grandmother and your grandfather and all who came before rejoice in your life, celebrate your future, guide you like Gedeon guided his mother’s coffin through the water, and seek to bless you. The ancestors are part of what binds you to God.