By Colleen Tinker
A report published on May 25 in a Spanish online news source, El Confidencial, carried a heart-wrenching report by Trinidad Deiros writing from the territory of Masisi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The author ran the piece under the title (translated using Google Translate), “The ‘Famine Sects’ in Congo: Protestant churches that aggravate malnutrition”, and the details are alarming.
The piece opens with the story of a mother, 25-year-old Antoinette, who walked 60 kilometers through the remote trails in the Masisi territory in the eastern region of the Congo, still occupied by both soldiers and bandits, to reach the Kibabi Health Center in North Kivu, the province of the Masisi Territory. Their trek took a week to complete, and the two of them took shelter in the homes of village people along the way when night would fall. Antoinette carried her five-year-old daughter Sarah on her back because Sarah, who is the size and weight of a two-year-old, is unable to walk and is suffering from acute malnutrition and nutritional edema in her feet.
When the nurse at the health center tried to help Sarah to stand up, the child was unable to do so and broke into inconsolable crying. Antoinette clearly loves her daughter, but when the health professionals talked to her about Sarah’s diet contributing to the girl’s sickness, Antoinette responded that “she would never give her meat” to eat. In fact, not only would she never give her daughter meat, but she would never feed her milk, fish, eggs, or anything with an animal origin.
“All animals are contaminated,” she says, explaining that her church forbids eating animal products. “If you taste flesh, you do not enter paradise.”
Adventism and the Church of Temperance
Antoinette is a member of a Seventh-day Adventist offshoot religion called church of Temperance [iglesia de la “Tempérance”] which has a large number of followers in the Masisi territory of the Congo. According to humanitarian workers in the region (such as those with the Italian NGO Cooperation Internazionale [COOPI] and ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian agency), this Adventist offshoot believes in creation, a millennium, and the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. It considers itself to be the true continuation of the “church of the Apostles”—a claim which strongly echoes traditional Adventist belief.
Significantly, the church of Temperance also claims the Seventh-day Adventist prophet, Ellen White, as its source of spiritual direction.
Local health workers further state that this sect operates by a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and it insists that its followers adopt the “edenic diet” of fruit, vegetables, and legumes. Strictly vegan, they believe that any product of animal origin is “unclean”.
The church of Temperance, however, is not the only religions group exacerbating the widespread malnutrition in the Congo. In the same hospital room where Antoinette sits with her critically ill daughter, there is another mother with her malnourished child. When asked, this woman responded that her religion is “Adventist”.
Health workers report that while the Seventh-day Adventist church is not as rigid in its food restrictions as is the church of Temperance, it nevertheless puts its members at risk. While the Adventists do allow “clean meats” and dairy, the reality of Congo poverty is that permissible food is hard to attain. While a vegetarian or even a vegan diet may pose no health threat in a place such as the United States, in the Congo the population is impoverished and lives with a nutritionally deficient diet.
For example, Adventist food rules allow fish with scales and fins. In Masisi, the fish found in the local markets is one which has no fins or scales, and neither Adventists nor Temperance members can eat it. There is only one fish in the Congo that qualifies as “clean”, according to Justine, a nutritionist at the Kibabi Health Center, and that is tilapia. Tilapia, however, is almost a luxury item, and most people have no access to it.
Justine further explains that the NGO workers try to teach the Masisi people to combine their foods to compensate for poorer-quality plant proteins, but “foods such as soybeans, peanuts, legumes, and other products that, well-combined, can alleviate the deficiencies of a vegan diet ‘are not cultivated [in the Congo], so you have to buy them.’ This makes them inaccessible to many families.”
Additionally, Deiros reports, the Seventh-day Adventists “impose on their faithful” the paying of tithe, a requirement which takes one tenth of the people’s income or of their agricultural produce. Between their endemic poverty, their religious diet restrictions, and the financial obligations to their church, Adventists as well as Temperance members among the Masisi are even more compromised nutritionally than the average Congo population.
Consequently, even though the health workers are trying to teach their patients how to combine foods and to supplement their diets, Adventists often have no access to many of the foods they are allowed to eat, and members of the church of Temperance simply cannot eat any animal proteins. This is a serious problem because, even without such rigid restrictions on animal proteins among the population, a large percentage of children face permanent developmental limitations and early death. When animal protein is restricted or prohibited, as in the cases of the Adventist and Temperance churches, those people often eat little more than potatoes and cabbage.
Masisi Territory is in the province of North Kivu , DRC, where civil war and conflicts with Rwandan military, rebels, and renegade troops has wreaked havoc over the past decade. There has been a growing number of internally displaced persons in this region because of the ongoing fighting.
The Italian NGO health organization COOPI reports it has collected data showing that in this Masisi area, childhood malnutrition could affect up to 76% of children, with 70% of it being chronic and 6% of it being acute. The presence of both the church of Temperance and Adventism in this area, says Dr. Emmanuel Kasole at the Kibabi Health Center, makes religion a significant factor in the widespread malnutrition, aggravating a condition that is endemic because of the extreme poverty of the area.
In fact, the Congo as a whole suffers from an already-high 43% of chronic child nutrition; this percentage, however, is low when compared with the 76% of child malnutrition within the Masisi area.
A document produced in April, 2014, by the World Food Programme investigated the needs and concerns of a segment of the DR Congo, including the numbers of displaced persons and ongoing military activity. The report corroborates these alarming statistics and comments on the conditions in South Kivu Province—an area below the Masisi Territory in North Kivu: “The results of a food security assessment conducted by the WFP and the Minister of Agriculture between December 2013 and January 2014 in the South Kivu Province were released in Bukavu. According to the study, 47 percent of households in the province have poor or borderline food.”
According to UNICEF, 104 children out of every 1,000 live births in the Congo die before their fifth birthday, a statistic closely linked to malnutrition. Most of these deaths are due to respiratory infections, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS, but malnutrition is “an aggravating factor in all these pathologies.”
Adventism in the area
One may wonder why Adventism and its offshoots present as noticeable factors in the nutritional crises of this area. In fact, the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is next door to the relatively small country of Rwanda, a country were Adventism is growing almost exponentially. In May, 2016, 95,000 people were baptized into the Adventist faith after a two-week proselytizing campaign.
Significantly, the majority of the Masisi population is from the Hutu tribe and are of Rwandan origin and language. Because of this close connection with Rwanda and its culture, the influence of Adventism is especially noticeable in this eastern region of the Congo.
Also significant is the fact that the province of North Kivu also borders the country of Uganda which is home to Bugema University, an Adventist institution significant enough that it was granted permission to offer doctorate degrees in 2016. Additionally, the Adventist University of Lukanga was established in North Kivu in the city of Butembo in 1979.
In short, the presence and influence of Adventism in Masisi Territory is significant.
Meanwhile, the director of communications for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Spain, Javier Moliner Tello, has written an official response to the article by Trinidad Deiros. He denies any “relation or support” to the church of Temperance although it “may have emerged as a division” of the Adventist church. While stating Adventism’s “deep disagreement” with the group, he affirms that Adventists promote healthy principles “based on good use of water, clean air, balanced nutrition, physical exercise, adequate rest, abundant light, moderation and hope or spiritual factor”. He says the one purpose of Adventism’s health principles is “to add life to the years, and years to the life that the Lender gives us.”
He refers people to Dan Beuttner’s documentary “Longevity” produced by National Geographic in 2005 which features Adventism as a people group with longer-than-average life-spans, and he concludes by mentioning Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which “alleviate(s) disasters and situations that require development to alleviate hunger and improve the lives of those who suffer.”
While Tello is correct that the Temperance church has no connection organizationally to Adventism, he certainly downplays the fact that it is an Adventist off-shoot and follows the Adventist prophetess Ellen White, actually adhering to her teaching about meat and animal protein. Moreover, he ignores entirely the fact that Adventists were also mentioned in Deiros’s article, and the health workers in Masisi spoke about the nutritional problems that came from Adventists’ rigid but still restrictive health principles.
This story does provide negative public relations for Adventism’s diet practices. Although many Adventist health professionals would counsel people to eat animal protein if they were working with families in the conditions Deiros describes, the fact is that Adventism teaches people, because of Ellen White, that the levitical unclean meats are sinful to eat and corrupt a person, leading to illness and depraved desires.
The mothers described in the article are not anomalies. They are earnestly trying to obey what they believe to be God’s will as described by Ellen White and interpreted by their pastors. Even the church of Temperance is teaching Ellen White’s counsels.
At first glance the problem of treating the acutely ill children with severe food restrictions seems hopeless. In fact, the widespread chronic (not to mention acute) malnutrition in the Masisi region leads not only to severely stunted physical development, it also contributes to stunted mental development. Because of deprivation of nutrients, children such as Sarah who are not treated for chronic malnutrition before the age of two will not develop a normal adult IQ, says Alain Tchamba, the nutrition coordinator in DRC for COOPI. Because their intellectual abilities are diminished, they have a low school performance—if they aver have the chance to go to school.
Ironically, however, the widespread illiteracy among the Masisi people leaves them uncritical of the treatment the health centers provide when they bring their acutely ill children for help. According to the doctors at Rubaya Hospital near the Kibabi Health Center, 80% of the women who arrive at the health center are illiterate. Pardoxically, this ignorance overrides the religious training of those mothers who come with the belief that their children must not taste animal protein if they want to go to heaven.
The nutritional supplement the health workers use to treat the dangerously malnourished children who come contains powdered cow’s milk, but the mothers cannot read the ingredients, and the health workers do not tell them their children are receiving milk. They told Deiros that their silence about the presence of milk protein is similar to their commitment to convince Jehovah’s Witnesses that their children sometimes need blood transfusions in order to save their lives. Because of the high protein content from the milk, children such as Sarah have a chance.
Many factors contribute to the widespread malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: displacement, disease, illiteracy, human rights problems, and more. Adventism certainly cannot be blamed for the fact that over 75% of children in the Masisi territory of North Kivu province are suffering chronic or acute levels of malnutrition.
Nevertheless, the Adventist “health message” which can appear harmless in geographic locations where a wide range of foods is available appears to be a contributing factor to intensifying an endemic problem in the war-torn and poverty-riddled Congo.
The Ellen White-driven belief that eating meat contributes to ill-health and spiritual insensitivity places illiterate and impoverished mothers and children at even greater risk. Even though the church of Temperance is not “Adventist”, it nonetheless derives its doctrines from Ellen White and merely takes the Adventist restrictions to the level of veganism—a practice not unique to the Congo, it must be noted.
The true gospel of the Lord Jesus would bring the Masisi people the good news that their eternal security is certain if they place their trust in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus on their behalf. The freedom of being brought to spiritual life in Christ would also give those imprisoned souls the freedom to feed their children whatever the Lord provided them. They wouldn’t have to withhold life-giving foods in order to attempt to secure their salvation.
The gospel would give them the assurance that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).