June 26, 2021

How the Orthodox Christians of Goma Faced the Recent Volcanic Eruption of Mount Nyirangongo

Fr. Chariton with some of his parishioners in Goma.

We watched horrifying images of the Nyirangongo volcano erupting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, causing tragic devastation and the death of many people (the first eruption on 22 May 2021 killed over 30). Ten kilometers from the volcano, in the city of Goma, which suffered the most damage, is the parish of Saint Nektarios. The Orthodox priest Father Chariton Ilunga Musungayi, pastor of the church and Patriarchal Commissioner of North and South Kivu, did not leave the place of his pastoral ministry in order to support the needy, the elderly and those who could not move. We talked to him and he described the devastation with the dead, the wounded and those who lost their homes from the lava of the volcano, but also the consolation that he and his parishioners felt from the timely help of the Panagia, after the prayers that stopped the lava preventing it from causing more damage. Father Chariton describes the situation:

Things as you know them from both television and the media are terrible. We heard on Saturday night, at 5:30 in the afternoon, that the sky was red. I went out to look, I saw that the sky was red and I told my colleagues to come and see what was happening and they told me that the volcano was erupting. I went out on the street, everyone was running around, on foot or in cars, others with their animals. At that time, our faithful call us that they are leaving the city and they suggested that we leave quickly because the lava was approaching. But I had decided to stay.

In a natural disaster instinct pushes people to leave to be saved. How did you deal with the fear and the survival instinct?

I decided to stay because some believers were helpless or sick. Yes, I would not go anywhere and for the first time I would look at old people looking me in the eyes as if to say: "Do not leave us." So I told my colleagues that I will not leave and whoever feels the need to leave, let them leave. So we stayed up all night until Sunday on the street looking at those who were running. Little by little I forgot that I was afraid.

Goma where you were, how far was it from the volcano?

The volcano is not further than 10 km. I saw from my house large stones being thrown and fire from the volcano. I was warned that if we felt very hot, it might be too late and we would not be able to stand it, we would die, man could not stand such a temperature. I said I was not leaving, although it was a great temptation.

Did the authorities guide you?

The authorities told us to go to a village called Sake, which was 25 kilometers from our city. Most took refuge there, while others entered Rwanda, because the border with Rwanda is one kilometer away. Unfortunately, however, they quickly left Rwanda because the lava reached there.

Was it a very difficult decision not to give up?

Yes, but I had a hope, that if no way out is found, the only thing we will do is to ask our holy mother, the Panagia, to save us, to show us where to go and what to do or to stop the evil. There stood my hope. So, we decided to go home, to do the Supplicatory Canon to the Panagia, to pray to her: "We have no power, but do you, our Mother, ask God to have mercy on us" (not only us, but especially the people I saw in front of me). After the Supplication we slept. On Sunday morning, at five, the activity of the volcano decreased and I called our remaining worshipers. I found two on the phone, I tell them I'm coming there to liturgize, the only thing I can offer you is the Divine Eucharist.

We escaped the worst even though now that we are talking there are 130 earthquakes a day and we do not live in our homes. In fact, when it rains we sleep outside with the umbrella, because with the earthquakes the houses are demolished and people are flattened. Our city is ruined.

Fr. Chariton handing out candy to the children.
The Beginning of His Journey, 
the Initial Fear of the Parishioners About the Black Cassock, 
the Catechism and the Baptisms, 
and the Incredible Story With the Crocodile

You bonded with your parishioners and loved them to such an extent that only a true father loves and does not abandon his children. What was the original narrative, how did you find yourself in Goma in the south of the vast Democratic Republic of the Congo while you were a native of the North?

I was born in Kanaga to Orthodox parents and I was baptized as an infant by the Missionary Father Chariton Pneumatikakis. My parents were Roman Catholics, but they were looking for the true faith and so they converted through the Greek Missionary. I grew up in the tradition of Orthodoxy, I learned Greek, I became a priest and since then I went wherever my Church sent me. When I came to Goma, no one was waiting for me at the airport. I said: "I will obey the Patriarch of Alexandria after he sent me here, he knows, God knows." I stayed in a hotel and in the morning two people approached me, they told me that they had learned that an Orthodox missionary had come here and that about 30 people were gathering and if we could go and see them.

I was happy to go, they thought I belonged to a food distribution organization. I went and met them, they noticed that I had neither a car nor anything, empty hands. I go in to talk to them, I tell them to pray, the others laughed. When I started talking to them, a lady told me to take off my black clothes because she is afraid for her child and that she is also afraid and did not want to look at me. I told her if she wants to cover her eyes and her child, not to look at me, because what I wear I cannot take off.

So she left. Another raises his hand, says they are hungry and asks why they were brought there. Thus, there was despair. I said to myself: "Now what do I do?" It was Friday, I tell them that on Sunday I will go and we will talk again and it was Palm Sunday of 2019. I told them that tomorrow I will work not with the black clothes. I wore white. They were happy then, they listened to me comfortably, we talked. And then I put on the black again. So we started slowly and when I approached them to greet them, they stopped being afraid of the color of my cassock.

Fr. Chariton using a barrel for a baptism.

Later I went to their houses, they and their children were happy. They said to them: "He does not eat people," and then I remembered and told them a story that happened to me: I had gone to a Congolese city called Isiyo, where there was not a single Orthodox, I was starting from scratch. I once managed to catechize 120 people and take them for baptisms away, on foot. We started 120 people and only 40 stayed with me in the end.

I asked where the others were and they replied that they did not want me to baptize them in the river that I was leading them to, because last week the pastor in the neighborhood went there with the faithful to baptize them and a crocodile came out and ate both the pastor and the woman which was in the water. I continued on my way to the river promising to tell them something important when we arrived, but first we had to go to the river.

So we got there, 40 people, I sanctified the waters. They stood far away so that the crocodiles would not eat them. I went into the water and waited. Cowardly at first, when they saw that a crocodile was not approaching me, they came one by one and were all baptized. Then, keeping my promise, at the end I said: "Know from today that the crocodile does not eat the Orthodox." So, they liked this and it remained in their minds that animals respect the Orthodox and do not harm them. This story created a warm atmosphere and I am now two years in Goma in a vibrant parish with believers working in their faith.

From ΟΡΘΟΔΟΞΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ, June 16, 2021. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.