When Carl Gales received his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his friends and family voiced concerns that he could be exposed to Ebola but he wasn’t worried. For years, he felt as though the Congo was calling to him.
After spending 20 months serving at a parish in Bandundu where he taught piano, played music at church services and helped with administrative duties, Carl requested to leave his assignment early to protect his health. But he wasn’t running from Ebola, he was trying to escape COVID-19, a virus that wasn’t on anyone’s radar when he started his training in Africa.
As an asthma sufferer, Carl knew that the novel coronavirus posed a serious threat to his wellbeing if he contracted it. He also knew that the city of Bandundu didn’t have a single ventilator. At the beginning of April, the Provincial approved Carl’s request and determined that he met his training obligations even though he’d be leaving a few months earlier than expected.
“I was lucky enough to get to Kinshasa in the midst of a domestic shutdown of transportation, with help from some of the young SVDs who brought me from Bandundu to Kinshasa on a motorbike,” he said. Carl rode as a passenger while wearing a 40-pound backpack that contained some of his belongings for the 390-kilometer journey. A second motorbike driver carried his suitcase. It took the men 15 hours on one day and an additional two and a half hours the following day to arrive at the border of Kinshasa. From there, Carl took a 2-hour car ride to the capital.
“It was one of the most stressful parts of my time there because no one knew exactly when COVID-19 would hit and they were talking about social distancing, which is next to impossible in a collectivist society, such as the Congo, where people are in constant close contact daily just for their survival.”
Even after arriving at the densely populated capital of Kinshasa, which is home to about 12 million people, Carl said he was concerned because he knew that passengers who exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19 would not be permitted on the plane. Fortunately, he was deemed healthy and made his way back to the Divine Word Theologate in Chicago just in time to celebrate Easter in Illinois.
A talented pianist, Carl earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Indiana University-Bloomington and later attended Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in pursuit of a master’s degree but did not complete the program. In Bandundu, he shared his love for piano with the parishioners but said occasionally he questioned whether his musical gifts could do much to ease the struggles of the people he met in the Congo who were often in desperate need of basic essentials like food, clothing and financial assistance. Each day, people came to the church in hopes of finding food.
“Feeling utterly incapable of meeting the demand was a bit depressing, to be honest. So there were days when I struggled with a sadness of ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Carl recalled. “I think that is the experience of a lot of people on CTP. I was confronted with many, many problems but I was also confronted with my prejudices, my hang-ups and my problems.”
Bandundu has a robust Catholic community and when the weather is favorable, more than 300 people attend daily Mass at the parish where Carl worked. The worship services are filled with lively music, dancing and hypnotic drumming, which he said was a highlight of the experience. Some of Carl’s piano students showed great promise and progressed quickly with the instrument. Those small moments were the encouragement he needed.
“God was giving me tools not only to know what I can do but also to know that God will always provide a way for you to overcome adversity and he will summon within you the strength that you didn’t know you had,” he said. “I think that is the fundamental lesson in CTP. God will reach deep into your core and you will discover the strength that you didn’t think you had. That strength is ultimately to serve God’s people in the best way that you can. Your best may not be another person’s best but you have to accept your gifts and your capacity.”
In some ways, it seems like Carl was destined to end up in the Congo.
Once, while he was in France to perform at an opera festival, a man stopped Carl to ask where he was from. When Carl told him about his home in Arizona, the man insisted that Carl was from the Congo because he looked just like his Congolese cousins. Surprised by how certain the man seemed, the story stuck with him.
Several years later in 2012, Carl took a DNA test to learn more about the details of his heritage but what he found instead was a lackluster result. “Lo and behold, I’m 99 percent West African,” he said. “Woo hoo. Tell me something that I didn’t know.”
When it was time to select his top three location choices for his Cross-Cultural Training, the Congo was at the top of Carl’s list. Then in February 2019, he was working in the Congo with limited internet access when he received an email from ancestry.com. New information was available and the company was able to refine his DNA results. It shows that 43 percent of his DNA is from the Congo.
“It was overwhelming. I was like … West Africa, slavery, we all know the slave trade and the route so that’s not difficult to imagine that you’re actually West African but to get results that are so region specific, 43 percent of my DNA is definitely from this area of Africa and 20 percent from Gabon so it was like, wow!” he said. “There are no coincidences – God has a plan.”
Carl may have returned to the United States in April but he says a piece of his heart is with the people of Bandundu. He keeps in touch with the parish staff there who give him regular updates about the circumstances. The news is bleak. With Masses cancelled, the churches are struggling financially. Carl said he’s doing what he can to help out from afar, but as always, there is substantial need in the Congo.
“How are people going to survive if the church has been an anchor for their daily survival? The church was providing aid, food. Kids are not in school, teachers are not being paid, everything is breaking down,” he said.
Whenever Carl feels overwhelmed by the devastating poverty in the place of his own ancestry, and wonders if it can ever be solved, he said he remembers the advice he received from a priest during his pastoral year.
“He said, ‘I can’t do much but I can do something,’” he recalled.
“What I know to be true is that in mission you’re going to be tested in all aspects of your capacities and you’re going to have to learn on the fly. I learned here at CTU (Catholic Theological Union) to be more open to things, not just the theology, but the pursuit of being open was something that was very essential to me doing well in the Congo.”
Carl is working toward a Masters of Divinity at CTU and plans to graduate in May 2022.