In a time when women in the West and certain other countries are standing up for their rights, especially through the MeToo movement, I am reminded of one courageous Congolese woman who stood up against sexual exploitation of women in school and saw God answer her prayer to be involved in pastoral ministry.
Emilienne Mboungou Mouyabi is an uncommon hero and a foremother to the women pastors in the Evangelical Church of Congo. Born a day before Christmas 1957, in Congo Brazzaville, Emilienne Loubota was the eldest child of eight. Her parents were God-fearing members of the Evangelical Church of Congo. She took her role as a big sister seriously, caring for her younger siblings much like a mother.1 In Congo, girls learn to take care of their siblings and help with household chores at a tender age.
Emilienne’s parents believed girls and boys deserved equal educational opportunities and sent her to school. Though she started school at age eight, considered late in some cultures, Emilienne loved school and excelled at it. Many children started school at about this age because they had to get stronger to walk long distances or their parents wanted them at home a couple more years to help with chores. Being the eldest and a girl, Emilienne was likely assigned to help with younger siblings. Nevertheless, she was grateful for the opportunity to attend school, knowing not all young girls at that time were so fortunate.
In 1972, fifteen-year-old Emilienne finished elementary school with flying colors. She plowed through her first year of middle school with the same gusto, but male teachers soon asked her to exchange sexual favors for good grades. After her second year in middle school, Emilienne was weary of being “courted by teachers.”2
Sexual harassment and abuse of female students has caused many young women to develop sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, or a troubled life of sexual promiscuity. Sex for grades reduces girls and women to objects and prevents pursuing their studies in peace. It drills into their heads that they are not smart enough to do well on their own, and that instead they need to exchange sexual favors to make it in school. This practice has been going on for years in Congo and other African countries. Many parents do not inquire about the sexual harassment of their children, and girls are often afraid and ashamed to bring up the issue. Additionally, the police have not been sufficiently involved in helping young women. So Emilienne and young women like her are on their own. Many give in and experience the consequences cited above. Sexual harassment, or “a thigh for pass” as it is referred to in some other African countries, demeans all who are subjected to it.
Allegations of sexual abuse by university lecturers and high school professors are pervasive in Africa. In a video from BBC’s “Africa Eye” on October 7, 2019, undercover journalists posing as female students and wearing secret cameras were sent to prestigious African universities to investigate. By exposing the injustice that happens behind closed doors, reporter Kiki Mordi also exposed this unwritten code, in which male lecturers solicit sexual favors from students in exchange for good grades, and the emotional toll on helpless young women. Such investigations have given hope to victims and have helped expose and condemn wrongdoing.
But in the early 1970s in Congo Brazzaville, the subject was taboo. Emilienne realized she was no match for these teachers who wanted to have sex with her. She gave her life to Jesus in elementary school and was baptized in 1972. She knew that, as a child of God, giving in was not for her. She had felt God’s call, and she needed to be able to train one day as a pastor. But her love for God was stronger than her love for education.
Therefore, in 1974, seventeen-year-old Emilienne did something unprecedented and drastic: she quit school instead of compromising her integrity. She took the only decision that was within her reach to fight against a practice that degrades women. Emilienne’s courage and obedience to the Lord, in a situation where there had been no human help, did not quell her strong sense of calling to pastoral ministry.
Emilienne then devoted herself to God’s work in her local church. She taught catechism and was a leader in the church’s choir. When the evangelist Jean Paul Makosso noticed her zeal, he took her under his wing and mentored her. He then recommended her to serve as Pastor Roger Bavibidila’s secretary. As she worked under Pastor Bavibidila, who oversaw five parishes, her call to serve the Lord full time grew in intensity. Though she did not know how she would become a shepherd of God’s people, Emilienne prayed for God to fulfil his call in her life. She continued to challenge herself intellectually and also sought God for guidance.
As an aspiring woman pastor, Emilienne’s path was fraught with stumbling blocks. No woman had served in the Evangelical Church of Congo as a pastor, even though the denomination’s council had voted that women could become pastors.3
Emilienne’s difficulties started with her own parents. It was a shock for them to learn that their daughter was thinking of becoming a pastor; nothing like that had ever happened before. How would she hold her own in a male dominated ministry? Her brother, Misere Loubota, remembers that their “parents believed that it was a risky endeavor to have a woman practice pastoral ministry.”4 Some male ministers did not approve of the idea of a woman pastor and could be vocal about their feelings. But that opposition did not stop Emilienne. She talked to Pastor Bavibidila, who believed in her calling. This support was important in Congo Brazzaville, which, like many African countries, is a patriarchal society in which men are considered more important than women.
In a context in which most men believed women to be inferior, Pastor Bavibidila was a forward thinker, a humble man full of wisdom and God’s spirit. By taking a stand to support Emilienne’s calling, he went against a century of beliefs supporting male-dominated pastoral ministry. He decided to recommend Emilienne, as well as two young men, as candidates for the pastoral examination.
In 1976, the three candidates came to Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, and took the exam for theological training at Mantsimou Seminary. Emilienne was the only one of the three who passed.5 At the age of nineteen, on October 1, 1976, Emilienne started her classes as the first woman to train at Mantsimou Seminary to become a pastor! This was a turning point in Emilienne’s life and in the Evangelical Church of Congo’s history.
Because Emilienne did not have a middle school certificate, she started with the pre-pastoral cycle and took and passed the national middle school certificate exam. Then she started with her pastoral training.
At the beginning, Emilienne felt inadequate in her biblical and theological training. Not only was she behind academically, but she was also among men and felt the need to clarify misunderstandings that arose, to refute wrong criticisms, to stand up against unfair treatment and ridicule, and to prove herself to her peers. But as time passed, she became more relaxed among her classmates whom she “now considered like my brothers and I was their sister.”6
A year before she graduated from seminary, Emilienne married Dr. Pastor Mboungou Mouyabi, one of the professors at the Seminary.
In 1985, after nine years of pastoral training, Emilienne was among the twenty-seven students who graduated from Manstimou Seminary. In an interview for the church journal Le Chemin, she says, “The joy of being the first woman pastor translates in me as a sign of our church growth and Christian women’s awareness to work more with the men for the advancement of the work of the Lord. That is why I invite all women, including girls who feel the calling to become pastors, to not back down, but pray and go forward in faith.”7
Emilienne’s accomplishments were colossal within the church and the country. Since the founding of the Evangelical Church of Congo by Swedish missionaries, this was the first time a woman had become a pastor.
The national newspaper Mweti published an article saying that among “the 27 students graduating this year from the Theological Seminary of Mantsimou, a place of honor is bestowed on Mrs. Mboungou-Mouyabi, born Niangui Loubota Émilienne.”8
The conviction in her heart—that one day she would shepherd God’s people—came to pass. God, through Emilienne’s achievements, brought change to years of male-dominated pastoral ministry. Women celebrated her accomplishments with joy; something impossible for them was made possible by the courage of one incredible woman. When I interviewed Monique Loubassou, who became the second woman pastor in the Evangelical Church of Congo, she said, “When I saw her, I thought to myself, as the pastoral calling has been burning in me for years, why can I not be like this woman pastor? Since she has dared, I can also do it.”
As a pastor, Emilienne was indomitable. She was first appointed to a remote village while her husband served in a small town. She braved primitive conditions, battled malaria, and served her congregation with love and perseverance. Her soft spoken and gentle voice could be heard expounding Scriptures and encouraging parishioners to trust in God.
Because of repeated bouts with malaria, the local physician recommended that Emilienne, who was also a young mother, leave the area. She rejoined her husband in the small town of Mouyondzi as copastor of the church there, while leaving a powerful testimony in the small village. She served for two years with her husband before being promoted to the church’s women’s ministry department. Pastor Emilienne broke the myth of pastoral ministry being a male calling only.
After Emilienne and her husband shepherded God’s people for three years, she met an untimely death caused by high blood pressure, after giving birth by C-section. Her passing shocked the whole church and robbed the women of the Evangelical Church of Congo of the only acclaimed icon of women in ministry at that time. One woman summed up in a heartfelt prayer what many were thinking: “Lord, in our churches we have many men pastors and we only had this one as a woman pastor. Why did you not choose to take a pastor from among the men and let the only and first woman pastor live? God, you’re unfair.”9
Even though her life was short, Emilienne galvanized Christian women in Congo Brazzaville. Her burden and vision for the women of the Evangelical Church of Congo was captured in the following motto: “The hour of women has come [Kilokola ya bakento me kulunga]; we need to serve the Lord; not only me, but all women after me.”10 Her vision was to see Jesus touch her people and country through a cohort of women ministers.
Her message was joyfully received and many women felt bolstered in their faith and calling by Emilienne’s example and words. Her example gave courage to women to step into pastoral ministry. She is an emblematic figure and a pioneer in the field of female ministry in the Congolese church. Her courage, passion, and devotion to Jesus are an example for all to follow.
1. Interview with Misere Loubota, Nov 24, 2010.
2. Loubota interview.
3. This decision is found in the minutes of the Synod Council of the Evangelical Church of Congo, held March 18–20, p. 16.
4. Loubota interview.
5. Interview with Francois Mvoumbi Pongui, Jan 26, 2010, in Brazzaville.
6. Interview with Raymond Bitemo in Le Chemin #12, p. 11.
7. Le Chemin #12, p. 11.
8. Mweti #1193 (July 5, 1985) 4.
9. Prayer reported by Misere Loubota.
10. Interview with Balehola.