Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

'I have been in a black man's war and a white man's war... now I have hope that the country my parents shed their blood in can build a better future'

Armagh man Bob McAllister and his late wife Alma laboured tirelessly for many years as missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their son Bill explains to Judith Cole how he is carrying on the work of his parents

Building legacy: Bob and Bill McAllister
Building legacy: Bob and Bill McAllister
Dangerous journey: Bill and wife Alma set off for Africa
African memories: Bob McAllister with wife Alma and their children
Bob in the Congo with Pastor Bangwa Bendi and sons Bill and David
Back home: Bob McAllister at his house in Armagh

By Judith Cole

Some 55 years ago, missionary Bob McAllister and his young family were caught up in the brutal Congo rebellion, during which many of his colleagues and friends were killed and he himself was shot in the head.

Their years in the hostile African country, facing all kinds of warfare, have left a remarkable legacy, however. For now, he is able to observe from afar his beloved Congo change for the better. The grandchildren of Congolese people converted to Christianity under Bob and his wife Alma's ministry are, with the help of their son Bill, working hard to establish a new order.

Bob, who lives in Armagh, celebrated his 94th birthday on April 21, the same date as the Queen. "I get a 21-gun salute every year," he jokes.

He grew up near the Shankill Road in Belfast and served for 21 months as a GI in the Second World War for the American armed forces - he was eligible because he'd spent the first four years of his life in the US after his father emigrated. Bob and his sister were sent back to Belfast as young children after the death of their mother.

After coming home from war and then attending Bible college, Bob and Alma, a nurse, made the voyage to central Africa with Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM) in 1952. Their three children, Bill, David and Ruth, grew up there - Bill has published a gripping account of their lives in his book In the Line of Fire.

When the Congo Rebellion broke out in 1964, 13 adults and six children who were there working for UFM were killed.

Bill, aged 12 at the time, remembers rebel soldiers marching the missionaries and their families outside at the mission station and ordering them to line up. A broadcast had gone out earlier that day on the radio station of the Socialist People's Republic of Congo, stating: "Men, we are under attack. Sharpen your bush knives and destroy the western hostages. Every man, woman and child - take their heads off."

Sign In

When everyone was marched outside, the rebels raised their guns only to find they couldn't shoot. They ordered them back inside again where a machine gun was fired around the room.

Bob McAllister and his best friend, fellow missionary Hector McMillan, were taken outside and shot at. A bullet grazed Bob's head and he fell to the ground to play dead. Tragically, Hector, who had six young sons, was killed.

The McAllisters journeyed home, but returned in 1967 when Congo had been renamed as Zaire. They finally came back to Northern Ireland when Bill had completed his secondary education and was due to go to college.

It was a shock to the system in many ways, not least the weather and a new accent to understand. Bill completed A-levels at Rupert Stanley College before a theology degree at Queen's University. The family also found themselves in a city trying to cope with the beginnings of the Troubles.  

"When we arrived the bombing campaign was just starting," Bill says. "Occasionally, on my way to college through Belfast I would find myself winding my way around the rubble.

"I remember driving in my green Mini to collect my girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife) Norma from the Royal where she was a student nurse. She'd get into the car and burst into tears because she'd had to treat a young soldier in casualty who'd had his legs blown off.

"Mum and dad took meetings every night of the week at the time - we went along with them at weekends as we sang together as the McAllister family quartet.

"On one occasion we were driving home through Belfast from a late meeting. Since dad was driving, we were going fairly slowly as we pulled up to a red traffic signal near Royal Avenue. We no sooner came to a stop when the road disappeared in a cloud of dust and shrapnel, and our car rocked violently. We realised later that, if I had been driving, as was customary at that time of night, we would have 'raced the lights' and, in all probability, have died in the blast."

The family eventually moved away from Belfast to Moira where a neighbour told them he'd seen men "working" under his brother's car and assumed they were fixing a bomb under it.

"Living through all this taught me that violence is in the human condition," Bill says. "I'd been in a black man's war and now I was in a white man's war, which was as vicious as any African war.

"But the difference was that in Belfast, despite the Troubles, the water was still drinkable from the tap, schools still opened, electricity worked, while in Congo this wasn't the case - because Belfast basically had a civil society.

"I also saw that in war, wherever it is, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all."

Certainly, Congo, a country rich in minerals but ruled by warlords, has had a turbulent history.

The Congo Free State was created in 1884-85 in an effort by European powers to settle colonial disputes in Africa and was ruled over by the Belgian King Leopold.

Under his rule, Africans were subject to brutal conditions - for example, they were forced to collect natural growing rubber to meet strict quotas.

If workers failed to collect enough rubber they could have had their hands chopped off.

However, when news of this spread, the journalist ED Morel, Roger Casement (the Irish nationalist who was later hanged as a traitor to Britain) and Dr Henry Guinness, an evangelical preacher who addressed crowds at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast during the 1859 revival, formed the Congo Reform Association - in a coffee room at the Slieve Donard Hotel - in 1904.

They started an international campaign aimed to help the exploited workforce of the Congo which became known as the first human rights campaign.

And now, although decades of oppression and war have not come to an end, there are glimmers of optimism. Part of this comes from the Congo Initiative (CI) and its university which was established in 2007.

The CI is a "community of Christ-centred Congolese leaders and global partners united for the transformation of lives and a flourishing Democratic Republic of Congo".

It was established by Dr David Kasali and his wife Kaswera - they were born and raised in Christian families in the Congo who had heard the gospel through American missionaries.

Kasali became a minister and was working in Kenya when he received the news that his brother and sister had been killed during the Congo uprising - he then decided to go back to Congo and work again among his own people.

Bill McAllister received the call to get involved from Paul Robinson, an old friend from his schooldays in Congo and whose parents were also missionaries there.

"I had been with CBM and worked in more than 100 developing countries for 20 years," says Bill. "Then I came home to Armagh and Paul called and said, 'what about Congo, the country your parents shed their blood in?'

"He told me about David Kasali's vision and the CI's dream to raise a new generation of leaders. Then I asked my sister Ruth to get involved, she had worked for many years in curriculum development so her skills were ideal, and my brother David, who works for Tear Fund, partners with us to hire our graduates."

Bill wishes to emphasise that while students don't have to be Christian to study at CI, its organisation is based on Christian principles.

"God gave us this world and we've basically ignored it," he says.

"And the Bible is at the forefront of defending children. The Bible is the major defender of the rights of women. These are basic ethical principles.

"The Christian message has a message for the 21st century. It's one of inclusiveness. We're all born in sin. The gospel of salvation in Christ is open to everyone. What is really important in the eyes of God is: what have you done with Jesus?

"Now, the Congo people are not waiting for missionaries to come and sort them out - they're asking the questions themselves. This project is called Congo Initiative because it's by and of the Congo people.

"Africans are very talented and intelligent - the women who work in the markets speak up to seven languages, fluently, and they do maths in their heads.

"How can people who are so intelligent not make a success of their country? They say that what Congo lacks is a civil society. You have the warlords at the top and peasants at the bottom. Almost nothing is solved in the law courts.

"Women get a bad deal in Africa. She has to hand her money to her husband or her brothers or to the local police chief. Women work the hardest - in the markets, in the fields.

"But women are interested in the wellbeing of their families. They want to spend their money on education and their business - that is development."

The CI is now offering a host of courses to equip students with the skills to handle responsible jobs (following the recent Ebola crisis, international staff will be allowed to return to Congo this summer providing there are no further outbreaks).

Bill says: "We reasoned that the way to create a civil society was to set up a university that is run by Christians but doesn't teach just theology. So at CI we have law, economics, communications, applied science and theology. We have an office registered in the UK and in the US. Our job is to raise prayer, resources - I'm in talks with Union College at QUB to get academic input.

"We have a women's voices network to empower female graduates. This links them up so that when they go back to their towns and villages they don't feel alone. I was at a conference recently and it was a pleasure to see our graduates stand up and talk so eloquently in French and English. They have the courage and confidence to stand up and tell their own military and police that they have signed the UN convention for the protection of women, for the disabled.

"I've heard people talk about empowering women by giving them a sewing machine - but I believe it's about giving them the opportunity to get a law degree.

"And now I see our graduates in the banks, in UN agencies, in the big NGOs, mobile phone firms. The warlords no longer have everything their own way.

"We have set up a research institution at CI which has already got contracts from local agencies to look at land management. A lot of the issues in ethnic cleansing were due to who owns the land. Now we are using satellite imaging to map out the land.

"For the first time in my life I have an answer to the question: why does nothing change? It is when there is nothing to base change on. Now we have people with degrees. There was no civil society, now one is being developed. It is being developed on Christian values, by people who love the Lord.

"And it's not a Western mission plan - it's not 'from the West to the rest'. It has been developed by the Congo people. It is amazing to see all this happening - to see this country developing on the basis of Christian ethics, to establish the kingdom of God on earth. And the people involved are grandchildren of those who were converted under the ministry of mum and dad."

For more information visit www.congoinitiative.org

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph