The story accelerates over the 1950s into 1960, “The Year of Africa,” when 17 African nations gained independence. In Upper Congo, ECC missionaries saw it coming, and struggled to prepare the Congolese to assume primary responsibility for the church, schools and medical system. With unexpected speed, Independence came in June, 1960. The election of Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba could not stabilize a nation torn from within and without.
The army mutinied against its Belgian officers. The mineral-rich Katanga province seceded. Lumumba demanded the UN intervene. Deeming the response too slow, he turned to the Soviets. Suddenly, the Cold War became hot in the Congo. Belgium landed troops, as did the UN. Lumumba was deposed, imprisoned and “shot while trying to escape.” His supporters set up a rebel government in Stanleyville. Thus was set a tragic tone of violent instability for next fifty years, as local rivals backed by powerful outsiders brought endless war and devastation.
With Independence, the Congolese medical system went into free-fall. The colonial hospitals and clinics were all-but-abandoned by European doctors and nurses. The missionary medical system was collapsing, too. The UN, Red Cross and mission agencies called for volunteers.
At that moment, a young Covenanter in California was finishing his residency. Dr. Paul Carlson had always felt the tug of a missionary vocation, through undergrad at North Park College and working as an orderly at Swedish Covenant Hospital, where he met a young nurse who became his wife. Yet the comforts of the American Dream were beckoning Dr. Paul and Lois Carlson.
Then came the call from the Congo. In the summer of 1961, Carlson stepped away from his escalating trajectory and went on a short-term emergency medical mission in several Ubangi clinics. Back home in the US, through Christmas, he couldn’t get the Congo out of his mind. He understood the situation now in a personal way, and realized he had what people there so desperately needed. In fact, the Congolese church requested Dr. Paul come back for a longer stay – an invitation the ECC mission department also extended.
It turned out to be the call of a lifetime in more ways than one.