SHUSTER: This is an interview with Mr. Bert Ogren by Robert Shuster for the Missionary Sources Collection of Wheaton College. This interview at...on August 25 at 10 am in the Billy Graham Center. Mr. Ogren, you were mentioning that there were a few points you wanted to correct from your last interview, the first one being, I believe, about your mother’s conversion.
OGREN: Yes, I believe that I said that she become a Christian in Joliet, Illinois probably at 25 years of age or so, but on pursuing some correspondence and checking it out, I realized that she obviously became a Christian sometime after she went to Stockholm as a young lady in her middle teens and becomes a Christian there through meetings in Salvation Army.
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. And you also mentioned something about your daughters illnesses?
OGREN: Yes, my eldest daughter who had serious paralysis in her face when she was twelve years old in the Congo, I had previously mentioned that the doctor suggesting that he give her strychnine or some arsenic.... And the arsenic was not correct, but it was strychnine. And both are deadly but in the right doses prepared by the right physician, it was not deadly and it did the job and she was relieved of her paralysis in her face, was almost 99% cured.
SHUSTER: And the purpose of that was to give a shock to the system?
OGREN: Yes, the strong medications were for that purpose and he had mentioned to my wife,“You probably think I am going to kill your daughter but that is not the case. It is just something very potent that is needed. This will release the...the muscles and [I] hope make her well,” which it did.
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. How did your family adjust to life in the Congo, moving from Lockport, Illinois, to a land they knew very little of.
OGREN: Well, as little children, it seemed to be no difficulty. Kathleen was four-and-a-half and Erik was three when we arrived in the Congo and Mary was just five months old. The children immediately started to play with the Belgian children and they were playing in French language and in matter of few days or a couple weeks, the were speaking French. And would come back even in the house and be babbling French back and forth themselves and there seem to be no difficulty with adjustment. The school program I think maybe had a different...[pauses] I should say, there was a different response to that, because being a different language, the oldest child, Kathleen, she was a little older when she started in school and probably she was more easily adjusting to the foreign language. But Erik, even though he was a smart little kid, he never really...never really was completely happy in school all the years we were there and...I think after the sixth grade was about the time we returned to America, I think if we had been there for another year or two he may have had some...some difficulties with the class...with the class program and the studies but....
SHUSTER: Why do you think that was?
OGREN: I am just not sure. He was...Kathleen was doing well, she was in the honor roll, was first in her class and sorts of enjoy it all. I don’t think that Erik had the same approach to studies. He was smart fellow but he did make the most of...even in his college years. He did what he had to do and that was it. Seemed like he couldn’t wait to get out and he has been very successful since he got out. So that’s a difference in personalities. Our youngest daughters....
SHUSTER: As opposed to something caused by a difference in school systems?
OGREN: That’s right. Kathleen is a student and loves to study even to this day. Erik is a mechanic...mechanically-minded fellow and a business-oriented... and he just likes the complications of the world we live in and...and didn’t really go too much for the school. And that was difficult for him to adjust to. Mary, she grew up there. She was this tremendous...as far as adjusting, no problem. She was very happy. And I think the two boys probably had most difficulty in adjusting. Mark was born in 1949, a year after we had got there.
OGREN: And he...he too didn’t really fit in that well. Plus the fact that the boys had a little harder time making friends. They weren’t American, in that sense. They didn’t play baseball and the things that American kids would be acquainted with, they were missing all that. That quite bothered them a little bit. Where the girls played house, dressed up and socialized. I think it was a little bit easier for the girls.
SHUSTER: There was no American community in...?
OGREN: There was...there was some [coughs]...excuse me. And that was a relief and a release for children to get together with American children and especially when they came through, traveling through Leopoldville, missionaries families who had children. Our children enjoyed them and.... But basically it was...it was kind of difficult. It was long hours in schools and they had...in Erik’s case he writes left-handed and his writing is atrocious to this very day and he had to write with pen and ink when he was in kindergarten. He didn’t like those things. He could have just as well taken the inkwell and thrown it off the widow. While Kathleen consider it a challenge and a joy, was very neat and proper you know, there was the difference. He could have cared less. He wanted to play football, baseball and those things. He was just a typical American kid and so on.
SHUSTER: How about your wife and yourself? Were there..what did you notice...differences, if indeed there were differences, between life in Leopoldville and life in Lockport?
OGREN: First of all it was the climate. It was always like living in a soup kitchen, steam heat, all the time. [chuckles]
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. Year round?
OGREN: Right, year round. Even though in the dry season it was a little cooler in the morning. You may want put on a sweater to keep warm before ten o’clock and sort of foggy. But it didn’t rain for three, four months. That period of time was...it was all right, but the weather was always on top of you. The fellowship was tremendous, actually. We enjoyed that, we benefitted there because we had travelers from all over the world who came to Leopoldville and living across from the mission hotel we were always having travelers and visitor of various kinds coming in to dine with us and be able to do errands for them and do them favors, take them to the airport and arrange their travel and help them with anything they needed. Fixing somebody’s trousers that had hole in it, sowing some buttons, or somebody’s sick, getting them from a plane to another plane, or to a doctor or to a hospital, whatever. So we were occupied. Life was very rich, really. If you love people...and we love people and we had a few who come and so we had...this was a really plus for living in Leopoldville.
SHUSTER: So the only minus was the climate?
OGREN: I’d say that was the only thing. We...we didn’t have some of the food we had. We didn’t have good ice cream but we didn’t need ice cream. In fact, I considered that a blessing for all the years that we were there I didn’t have cream in my coffee and I didn’t put sugar either because the sugar was almost like molasses, it absorbed all the moisture. So we did without sugar, we did without cream. And that’s...that’s healthy in today’s world. [chuckles] So we had a lot of green vegetables, because they came to the door, the Africans did, every morning and sold spinach and bean and carrots. And so we were fortunate there. I...I considered that really a plus, those years. I haven’t used cream in my coffee since, [chuckles] sugar either.
SHUSTER: Where did you live there in Leopoldville?
OGREN: We lived in the first year...first term, I should say, we lived in a nice home about a block from the...from the operation of LECO [Press, where Ogren worked], a nice Spanish-styled home that had three bedrooms and a dining room, living room, kitchen, sun porch (or screen porch, I should say, we didn’t need the sun) but it was very, very nice. We had a fireplace there that we would use on cooler days, evening or morning. And well-screened. Well, we didn’t have any insects. Of course, it didn’t take many insects to make you sick. If one mosquito bit you that was infected with malaria, you’d most likely get it. So all of us had malaria sometime or the other.
OGREN: We had nice yard, garden, nicely landscaped, the kids could play and we were just a block from the Congo River so that there was all these excitement with the boats coming and going, and going down by the river edge and going out by the edge of the river at night and looking at the sunset. The river just north of Leopoldville there is just 25 miles wide [sic] and it is a fantastic river actually. The ferry boat going from Leopoldville to Brazzaville was very interesting.
SHUSTER: Now, is that Congo River?
OGREN: That’s the Congo River. One of the largest, the second largest as far as volume of the water in the world, second to the Amazon. So that was...that made living different than we would in this country [the United States] but very interesting.
SHUSTER: I noticed in one of your letters you mentioned you traveled from...you traveled on the Congo River up to Bomba...Boma by steamer.
OGREN: Well, we didn’t go up...we were going to come back on river steamer, but we never had a trip on river steamer.
OGREN: We flew up on 13th of June in 1950 and we were there for two months. And then we were planning to come on the river boat. We waited for a few days for the river boat at Masala to take it down to Leopoldville. And the captain said there was no room. So there we were with our family of six, and no room on the river boat. The trouble was, like there still do today in travel agencies and with the airlines, they had just booked too many people. I suppose that somebody at Stanleyville, which is up river 1,000 miles or whatever it was, just took our place. They figured, “Well, we’re going to get on here, it will be too bad for the Ogrens when the want to get on.” So we had to stay another three, fours days at Masala with British missionaries and we flew home then. But even those three, fours exactly days were kind of interesting. We got to know the British missionaries a little better. However, the captain did agree to take the freight that we had accumulated. We had some boxes of curios and things and he agreed to leave them on deck and he would drop them a Leopoldville. We could pick them up. There was no charge for that. He said he was sorry that this happened but....
SHUSTER: Were you in Masala on vacation?
OGREN: Well, we were up in the mission area of the Covenant Church for vacation. That had been prearranged before we had left the Africa that in a couple of years time we would be guests of the mission or of Covenant Church, as guests of the church up there at the annual meeting for the conference. So we went up there for that and got a chance to be in mission conference for a week with all missionaries from all over that come their with all their trucks and all their belongings. And it was a great time. That’s why we were there. And then the mission gave us an automobile. And we were able to drive all over the Ubangi area and it was a...a very nice two months. We had lot of ...lot of friends that we made, lots of friend we had met in Leopoldville and helped them out, so now they were happy to return the hospitality and we stayed with them. And they put out the finest feasts and we just had a great time and we saw the mission work really the way it functions. And that was really a highlight of our...of our first term. Our youngest son Mark was a year old in 1950 and Ralph Hansen who was then secretary of the world mission for the Covenant [Church] was there on a visit for the same meeting and he baptized Mark out there at mission station Masala.
SHUSTER: How was life different at Masala and Boma compared to Leopoldville?
OGREN: Well, the life wouldn’t be different in those cities upcountry compared to Leopoldville except that the amount of people.... Leopoldville was a good size city then, a lot of traffic, lots of building, lots of excitement, some skyscrapers being built up to twelve, fourteen stories high, so it was.... The tempo was so much greater in the cities. Up in the Ubangi. You could walk a few paces and you’d be out sort of in the jungle. And the roads were in many cases atrocious, there was no excitement of any kind. The missionaries had to make their own...make there own fun. And....
SHUSTER: What kind of things did they do?
OGREN: Well, they did...did have a rest place, where they went up and where there was a little lake where there was no crocodile or any poisonous fish or anything else, they used for relaxation. But for fun they would do hunting. That probably was the biggest thing. The women, I am not sure what they would have considered relaxation except just to sit quietly and read and maybe take a walk somewhere. And the men did...did hunting which was really a relaxation for them, plus, of course, it brought some food in. They always took opportunity for going hunting.
SHUSTER: What kind of animals were there?
OGREN: They were hippo of course, elephants, monkeys, and wild pig and [pauses] buffalo, leopards. Many of them shot buffalos and elephants. Sometime, of course, the elephants would come into the garden. That was another thing as far as relaxation. It was relaxing to have a garden and also a necessity to feed the family so that they had... [brief gap in recording] ‘cause they needed it.
SHUSTER: Did you take part in any hippo or elephant hunts?
OGREN: Well, I did. I was out once because they figured out...they figured, “Well, everyone that comes out, they ought to get a gun and go out and shoot.” And I went out one of the first nights, I went out and sure enough, I was never a hunter or anything, but I had pretty good aim and there was a monkey up the tree, shot this monkey, and down it came. And the African boys, of course, went to get it and took it up. And it happened to be a mother who had just given birth to young ones and I said, That’s just my luck.” It took the fun of it right there. I didn’t want any more part of it. Then we were out one other time we were out with some missionaries and an African or a couple of Africans one night. And we were looking for a boar, wild pig. We didn’t see any but we had an exciting evening that night because it rained like it can only rain in the Congo. And I remember a guy trying to keep protected by a banana leaf, about an 8 foot leaf. It was tremendous thing, over my body. But we were soaked, soaking wet. I went home that night and I went to bed. I was sick. I had 103 fever the next morning and I had really gotten sick. I don’t suppose from that but from then on, I did have dengue fever or giardia, I should say. Giardia at that time, so I was sick in bed for several days.
SHUSTER: And what is giardia?
OGREN: Now giardia is an internal parasite that is quite potent and can be deadly.
SHUSTER: And how do you spell that?
OGREN: Giardia? I‘m not sure. I assume like it sounds.
SHUSTER: What do you remember when you were traveling with your family through the Ubangi area? What was going through your mind?
OGREN: One of things [laughs]...one of the things that I remember (because we had this station wagon or carry-all, Chevy carry-all that the mission had let us use and it was fine for the family).... And when we went out into the interior away from the mission stations and the Africans would see us coming, we ‘d stop, of course, and we would get out. And our two little children, Mark and Mary, were both blonde, blue eyes, a little bit of contrast with the African children...
OGREN: ...and the African ladies, some of them I supposed hadn’t seen kids like that. And they just couldn’t keep their hands off those kids, just in love and admiration [laughs]. They...we just had to finally close the windows, not just being kind to them, and pull the way and there were people all around us, so we would just edge our way like in big parade to get away and the African ladies run down behind the lane us, just waving their hands. They were happy, the were joyous and they thrilled to see two little blondes with blues eyes, both had curly hair, Mark a year old and Mary was two-and-half.
SHUSTER: Did that happen everywhere you went?
OGREN: Well, up in that area yes, it was very common. They just wanted to touch those children. Anyway, you know, we weren’t concerned with that. We could live with that. I suppose some people would think, “You couldn’t let them touch.” Oh well, that was no problem. So that was very interesting. The other thing was that meeting all these different people and ...and... and the scenery was very interesting. And we saw some wildlife. Of course, we didn’t see any big game on the roads because we would be out traveling in the daytime and the animals are traveling usually at night. But we had a great time with the missionaries up there.
SHUSTER: How...what impressions did you get as far as the effectiveness of the spread of the gospel?
OGREN: Well, that was one of the...the thing that struck me mostly, I guess. I had said, coming to Leopoldville and being in printing business in the big modern city, there wasn’t much mission romance involved with that. So that when we came to the interior and sat in services with all these Africans and they were holding the hymns books that we printed down in Leopoldville and we into to the classrooms and saw the kids there were just, just hungry for education.... If you told the kid there, “There is no room for you,” that kid couldn’t believe it. He could crawl back in the window and say, “I want to be in school.” And the textbooks, pamphlets and the lessons that we had printed in Leopoldville were being used. And there we could really feel the purpose of our coming to Africa, to make it possible for them to read, to use the hymn books to study. That was the biggest satisfaction. The other thing was you could really experience what conversion meant - the word “conversion.” In this country [the United States] it’s a little bit more difficult, there aren’t very dramatic conversions. But over, they really turn from darkness to light. They are born again and they appreciate the new life in Christ, because of all the fears, superstitions and things they have had to live with, it’s just been tragic. So they are born again....
SHUSTER: What kind of superstitions?
OGREN: Well, for instance if a mother had twins...delivers twins, one is thrown away because they were supercilious. You shouldn’t have two babies, you should have one. And so one of the babies would be left in the bush to die. That is one standout in my mind. That alone is...is...is tragic. So that Christian life to the African.... And then they took on a whole new attitude. They became clean to their bodies, wore clothing, whatever they could have, usually the African wrap around cloth and all. But they just look so much happier, healthier, and all compared to the women who in the jungle, living the life that they had been used to for all through the centuries before Christianity came. If I ever experienced anything in my life that’s really what Christianity can do for...for even the lowly Africans, uneducated, with no wealth of any kind, that can just turn them around into very happy, successful people. [something missing in this, I think]
SHUSTER: What about the effect on Africans who come in contact with the West but did not become Christians?
OGREN: Well, I’d say that in Africa...in the Congo...(I can’t speak for all of Africa because we didn’t have any competition with the Muslims in...in...in that part of Congo). North Africa is a different of story, so there wasn’t that much competition. And the percentage of people who became Christian was really very great and they became anxious to be educated and to learn and to.... Maybe some of them were taking advantage of the Christian church the Christian school because they saw that was the way to go. But initially when we were there I don’t think there was a problem with the individuals that were exposed to Christian faith but didn’t really accept it and they just wanted to take advantage of it. That, however, changed. And we wouldn’t have same the experiences having lived in the city and two months [living] up in the interior wouldn’t answer the question, of course. The missionaries who worked with the Africans in the interior would have a better answer for that than I would. But they were hungry for gospel, they were hungry for education and...and they became Christian. And there wasn’t a competition. Now later years there was competition from different sects and cults that sprang up and the Moslem religion was...was coming in really stronger and competing for...for the lives of the young people.
SHUSTER: I know some missionaries I have interviewed from Korea said that the idea of Western technology and society was combined in Korean minds with the Christianity, so a desire for one...
SHUSTER: ...became a desire for the other. Did that seem to be true for Africa?
OGREN: In those years we were there, the African out in the interior (not in the big cities) was really not aware of all the potential education that they would have even today. You know, radio was the one thing they had, they had a little radio and so they heard some new from the outside world but they weren’t exposed too much, actually. The saw some airplanes, some of them that live near a runway or they may have seen them fly over. But...and they started seeing some automobiles and they began to get hungry for some knowledge there, I suppose. But it would be different in a country Korea like it could be in a country Africa...Congo at that time. That has obviously changed in the last 25 years, I am sure of that. And the Africans in the cities, they were interested, of course, in getting education and all but as far as education, higher education, in the Congo, there was [sic] no Africans that was released to go out outside to get education out of the Congo. And the first one that left Congo, (I am not sure if we had mentioned that before)... the first one that left Congo for education to Belgium, left when we were there. He was a friend of ours and he was a minister. The first two that went were ministers so.... But that changed, as I think I said before that, one of my men went to Belgium for three years and studied in sort of a business course and so forth. But he was a Christian man and was not lost to the church. He went back to Leopoldville and he went back to the Press as a manager.
SHUSTER: Did it happen that people would leave Congo and come back and would be not Christian any more?
OGREN: The Africans in Congo didn’t leave.
SHUSTER: Well...when they started to, later?
OGREN: Well, that was after our time. So I really don’t have the answer to that. I have met some Africans here, since we have been home, but...ministers actually. They were over here to advance their education and in theology and so forth. I have no information about any of those that went into secular work or something else or left the church. I just don’t know. It could very well be.
SHUSTER: Was there any resistance that you are aware of to the preaching of the gospel or to the Christian work [unclear]?
OGREN: Not in the years when we were there. I am sure that came after. It came with independence and the struggle to be free and all. I always felt that the Africans were so receptive to the gospel in the years we were there that it was beautiful, more so than our society. Now that I saw begin to change a little bit in the fellows. Instead of talking about spiritual things they were talking about making money and the difference between black and white and racial problems in the world. So their eyes were begin opened to the problems, you know.
SHUSTER: That was towards the end?
OGREN: Yes, that was towards the end and it become more pronounced after we left (we left in 1956) and they were still under the control of the Belgians until 1960. So...so by that time things were changing. I am sure we were in the Congo the best years, from 1948 to 1956. It was after the war and the government was willing to assist all Africans, there was money available, there was personnel available and those were good years in the Congo as far as we were concerned. Now, the Africans may not agree with that but I have heard that Africans have said in later years, “We had it really good for those years [chuckles] and didn’t realize.”
SHUSTER: Why would they say that? Compared to what?
OGREN: Because the government in...in...in Zaire is known to be corrupt, a dictatorship and there’s supplies that they used to have.... You went into these stores, you could buy...Africans could buy anything and everything, And that not true now. I am not talking about today, 1982. I am not sure what it is. But I have heard it is just not like it used to and there is a lot of thievery going on, crime of various kinds. There was very little when we were there. I agree that the African are...were not free; they were under the control of the Belgians. But the Belgians were attempting, that I could see, to do a good job for them. But people want to be free if it kills them and it almost killed them [laughs] and they’re sorry for it at this point but that was inevitable. You wouldn’t ask the Belgians to go back and run the country, that would be contrary to the way the world structure is, so....
SHUSTER: How was the Belgian control exercised? Was there simply a handful of officials or where there a lot of police around or was it...?
OGREN: Well, they...they had their policies that were established and they had good leaders and they tried to incorporate Africans in as secondary officials. And they saw that the Africans were all fed. There were no starving Africans in the Congo. They all had medical help and that....those are the basics. And they were establishing public housing where an African could buy a little house, two bedroom in a nice, new subdivision, very little money down and, so much over a few years, the houses were painted in different colors and they had running water. And it was a great improvement over the old grass mud huts. So I thought that the Belgians were doing a good...good job for them, really, and the African was protected He certainly couldn’t be abused. If he was abused, he had every right to go to court. And we had one lady friend who called an African a macaque, which is a monkey. And he took her to court and she had to pay a fine and had to apologize to him publicly. And that was kind of good, I think. [laughs] That is the experience we are familiar with but the African was...was protected. But he was not his own boss and so with the independence movement throughout the world and especially in Africa, there was no way of stopping it.
SHUSTER: What was the basis of economy in Leopoldville and the Congo in general while you were there?
OGREN: Well, Lever Brothers, the conglomerate had many, many thousands of hectares of palm trees and they made palm oil and soaps, they had a soap factory in Leopoldville. They grew cotton in the Congo and they made cloth in the Congo and soap and there was, of course, copper, a big industry. Diamonds, commercial diamonds. I think seventy-five percent of the commercial diamonds used in the world came out of Belgian Congo.
SHUSTER: What about food crops?
SHUSTER: Food crops.
OGREN: Crops. Well, the African themselves had many [unclear], a plant that they used the roots itself and they would take that out and dry it, grind it up, make flour out of it. They make a sort of mush that they used like corn meal and that their basic food. And then they had these vegetable. And, of course, they killed game when they could. There was a lot of good fishing in the rivers, so fish was a good product. There was plenty of food for the Africans. And, of course, timber, they shipped a lot of timber out of Congo, a lot of hard wood, including ebony. Ebony comes from the heart of Africa. And they grow coffee up in east Congo, Arabic coffee, better quality which is shipped overseas. They have since we have lived there harvested...or harnessed, I should say, the power on the Congo River with a big hydroelectric plant there, which we haven’t seen but I know is supposed to be greater than the Grand Coulee Dam [in the United States] in output, so this...this gives them production.
SHUSTER: What about industries? What kind of industries were there?
OGREN: Well, they wasn’t much industry there, actually except cloth making. They were making clothes. There was the mining and the forest industry and agriculture, those were the basics.
SHUSTER: What...? You mentioned in some of the papers the International Committee on Christian Literature for Africa. What was...?
OGREN: Well, that was something that was established many years ago and I didn’t have any contact with...with them directly. We did no work for them. I can’t even recall that they were involved in preparation of any of our literature that we published. But I think basically where their affiliation would have been before the Press got started and before the bookstore was established, before we were there. I think they were instrumental perhaps in getting it established.
OGREN: And that was before my time, so that I had no direct contact with them. The work that they had done I guess was the spark that made it all possible and after that we were on our own. I think that’s the way it was. They had no direct relationship with us.
SHUSTER: So they were made up as well of a number of different mission?
OGREN: Well, I really don’t know that much about the committee.
SHUSTER: What about the on Committee on World Literacy and Christian Literature?
OGREN: That...we had no relationship with them either. We were sort of, you know, provincial in that sense, we worked for the missions that paid the bill to get the place started. And that was about it, it no broader than that.
SHUSTER: What were your impressions of Jack McAllister?
OGREN: Jack McAllister was out there when he was young and first getting started. And I was impressed with his enthusiasm and I thought that his goal was tremendous, to get Christian literature or the scriptures into the hands of everybody in the world. And I thought he had to be a great man to have that vision. And time, I think, has proven this...same spirit. I have seen him preach on TV and heard him speak. He just...his spirit is abundant and his commitment is, of course, beautiful.
SHUSTER: When did you first meet him?
OGREN: Well, we met him, I don’t know which year it was, it was probably ‘48 or ‘49, soon after we arrived in the Congo, he was there. Because as I said before, these were very interesting years, the war was over, things were happening, and LECO was establishing and the educational program was going forward, people were welcome, and accommodations was good, and air transport was available and.... So it had broken things up.... It was a different era, actually. Children were in school in Leopoldville where before that they were not in school. There was no school system. It was established in 1947. So children...white children (and I am talking about white children, European) went to school in 1947 and we come to Leopoldville in 1948 and there were 125 kids and that developed into a mammoth campus of elementary and secondary school in two languages: Flemish and French. And so there were hundreds and hundreds, 2,000 students in school in Leopoldville alone and this was duplicated in centers throughout the Belgian Congo. These are the things that made Congo interesting to people all around the world...
SHUSTER: ...so there was a great interest. Everybody wanted to come to Congo and see what was going on, I think.
SHUSTER: What struck you as the main characteristics of McAllister’s leadership?
OGREN: I...I would say his enthusiasm and his vision.
OGREN: Or his vision and enthusiasm for his vision for sure, I was impressed with him.
SHUSTER: Did you work for him at all at the Press?
OGREN: No. That’s why I say it must be the first year or two when we there, because we really were getting started. We didn’t do anything for him. I think perhaps maybe he was disappointed with what he saw in what we were doing, maybe he thought we could something for him there. And I don’t think...I don’t recall that we did something for him specifically and we would have been glad to it if we could.
SHUSTER: When you came back to the US again in ‘56, what kind of attitude did you find among Americans as to the Congo? Was there more awareness...?
OGREN: Well, I am not sure if I speak for everyone who have lived overseas for several years. The one thing that stands out is the lack of any understanding, hardly any at all about anything that goes on in the rest of the world. And really not very interested. This does not sound very kind but this is true.
SHUSTER: That’s all right.
OGREN: And I guess maybe I am the same way, even though I try not to be that way about things throughout the world. Maybe I look things differently because I lived oversees and we’ve traveled many places and all. But that is the one impression I have had without a question in my own mind. Because I remember in our own denomination, first of all, and I guess I have a right to talk about them, a men’s group. We were talking about sponsoring missionaries or some missionary and the comments that they made...this was after I was home and the things that were said they didn’t know anything that was going on. It didn’t seem...
SHUSTER: Do you recall any...?
OGREN: [laughs] ...it really didn’t seemed to be concerned. It was just sort of just the frosting...
OGREN: ...on some idea but really no depth.
SHUSTER: Do you recall any typical comments?
OGREN: No, not really. More typical that I can recall is when we were speaking in a Methodist Church of Lockport. And this was their annual missions rally. Seventy-five to eighty women there. And there happened to be many good Methodist missionaries in the Congo who were part of this church, ladies missionaries, tremendous missionaries as far as commitment and accomplishment. And I remember when I asked the question to these ladies, after we were answering questions or whenever we were doing, we were given the opportunity to express our selves, not one lady knew one lady missionary in the Congo and I said, “Well,”, to Jean, my wife, “Well, let’s go home, why waste our time here?” This is the way you feel. And it is unfortunate, ‘cause who is the loser? Those seventy-five ladies in the Methodist [laughs] Church are the losers. The missionaries girls in the Congo don’t rely on them for their enthusiasm and commitment. They have it and they do it and the Lord’s work is done and it’s tragic.
OGREN: I don’t know if that true all over...I know that not true all over. It amazing how many people that you come across that you come across that are really concerned about mission programs and missionaries and do something for the missionaries. It’s one thing to drop a dollar in the envelope or the offering basket on Sunday. It’s another thing to see when a missionary is coming home, meet him on the train, take him out for dinner, ask him if he needs a new pair of shoes. Does he need an new automobile? And there are people like that who do those kind of things and that is the indication of real interest and that the best way to do it. A missionary doesn’t need a lot of books on theology or a few new Bibles, or that kind of thing. He needs practical support and a real interest. And that I know from experience. We were there for eight years and the best church in all the Covenant, barring none, was this church in Jamestown, New York who sent us every Christmas a package of gifts, a very unique gift for each one in the family. They took time and patience and went to the store and bought this for Eric and this for Mary and this for Kathleen, and, and this for me and this for my wife. And they were always nice gifts, good quality. And if they did that for us, they did that also for another 200, 300 missionaries in the Covenant Church. And they did that every year. Now that is being interested. And I sure that those people who went out and bought those gift knew who we were and were interested in our work. So it is only by giving that we receive. You don’t give any interest in missionary work, you don’t get much back. [chuckles]
SHUSTER: What about from the other perspective? What kind of view did the Congolese have of the US...of the church in the US?
OGREN: The Congolu...Congolese and their interest and their impression of church in America?
SHUSTER: And also just their impression of America?
OGREN; Well, like I said before, I have to always remember that we were there in those years and not today. The were always interested in the...in the church in America, the people, the Christians. And the were also interested....
SHUSTER: What kinds of things did they want know?
SHUSTER: What kinds of things did they want know?
OGREN: Well, they were limited, of course, in what they could ask. But they would be interested in services and how they were and if there was enthusiasm on the part of the people. They were interested...they were interested, really. And they were interested in this country too [the United States], but they were limited in what they...obviously they couldn’t comprehend, what a city like New York or Chicago was like, it was impossible and you couldn’t even explain to them, clearly. But they were interested.
OGREN: And I haven’t had letters in the last few years but through the years I have had letters from Africans that I lived and worked with and asking questions. Most of the...most of them who have been corresponding would be interested in getting some of their family, some of their children to come to this country. And that I have never been able to accomplish or make possible. I have given them money and encouraged them to do certain things. But that has been a difficult thing for Africans to get someone out of Congo to come out and study. Those who have come have been very unusual individuals and been leaders in the church and....
SHUSTER: Why is it that difficult?
OGREN: Well, I...I just think that in many cases they feel it is not maybe the best thing to take Africans out of that society and put them over here. It may be hard for them to adjust and become acclimated. It’s better for them to stay where they are and get their education, their growth with their own people.
OGREN: Plus the fact that African family life is so strong. And if you uproot a man to come to this country for two, three years of studies, he has left his family, his children. That is a difficulty on him, a hardship on him. I mean, that could lead to problems. And to bring his wife and children here, with the race problems that we have, it...it wouldn’t be really a smart thing to do it. Because I been with them, they have with me, some have stayed with us overnight, some of them. They really are not happy once they get here. That’s my feeling. Now I could be wrong.
SHUSTER: They find it so different from...?
OGREN: They really are better off in their country. But that’s changing, of course, but I don’t know if there are many Congolese going overseas today either, ‘cause they probably just won’t get the permission.
SHUSTER: Permission from their...?
OGREN: From the government. They’d have to have a passport.
SHUSTER: Of course, a few years after you returned, there was the so-called Congo crisis, with the independence and the civil war and the UN [United Nations] intervention. What impressions did you have of that, looking at it from the US?
OGREN: Well, I heard it first hand in 1959 from Trevor Shaw....
SHUSTER: Who was?
OGREN: Who was the editor of the...the magazine Envol, which we were publishing. And we had invited Trevor Shaw to come to Leopoldville and set his shop there and to work for us to establish the paper. So he was a good friend of ours and had a deep insight into African thinking and so forth. And he was coming to Leopoldville that Sunday that [Joseph] Kasa-Vubu [later first president of the independent Congo] was scheduled to speak before a gathering about independence and what the problem with Africa and all. And the government said that he should not speak....
SHUSTER: This was the Belgian government?
OGREN: Yes, this was in Leopoldville, suggested that he should not speak but the gathering was already there. He did not speak but many of the Africans were upset. That is the Sunday when things started and they did go into town and turned some vehicle over and burned...burned some of the vehicles and smashed the windows and so forth. So that really was the initial day and Trevor was right there and saw it and was really broke...broken with it and he saw what might come of it. And looking at it from my standpoint, I figured it that the Africans would not have it good as individuals for a long time to come and that’s the way it has been. That’s 20 somethings years later and I don’t think that Africans are doing well as they were at that point. But their independence had to come, like birth you cannot stop it but as difficult as childhood is, you have to go through it to mature and that’s where they are now.
SHUSTER: Had you met any of the leaders, people who became leaders in the civil war?
OGREN: The only on was Desenka Moka Emile [?] who was a Baptist minister, and went to Belgian for his.... He had three years equivalent to college education in Belgium. He did go back and was equivalent to the minister for education in the...in the new government but he is the only one that...that I recall that I met that...that had a high position. And he was a committed man, a good man, a Christian man. But he unfortunately got cancer and died after a few years, so it was a real loss to the country I am sure.
SHUSTER: As the crisis developed did you find people asking for comment or asking for you viewpoint because you had been there?
OGREN: Occasionally, right, and I would express the same then as I am today. That it was inevitable and it just had to come and hope it would not take too long to straighten itself out.
SHUSTER: Do you have any final comments on your time in the Congo or your experiences there?
OGREN: Let me say this, because this is...we are in a Christian atmosphere here and this whole building [the Billy Graham Center] is committed to Christ’s ministry. I have always said that those years in the Congo and the Lord’s work were the greatest years of my life. We didn’t know what we were going to get for salary when we went, we didn’t know the problem that might come up. We didn’t know what health problem we might have, we didn’t have answers to those things. But once we finally were agreed to go, even though most of our friends, ministers included, figured, “Well, you know, three children, you’re are going to Africa, that God-forsaken place, you must be little bit off.” [laughs] But they were the best years of our lives. And because we were in full-time service and we made contact with so many of people, I am sure we were a blessing to a lot of Africans. And that...who knows how far where that extends itself. The one operator of the Montauk machine [Montauk is a well known producer of printing presses], who was one of the friends and has written to me since. His son was born and he named him Ogren. His first name was Ogren. The second son he named Carl, after my father. And...and both those boys today are college...I don’t know about college teachers, but teachers at the secondary level in the Congo, because he has written to me about that just a few years ago. And that is sort of [sic] emphasizes what I am talking that you don’t know the seeds that you are planting and that the blessing in a number of Africans could be a result because we were there. We hope that is the case.
SHUSTER: Is the Press still going ?
OGREN: The Press is still going, even though today they have had problems along with the government getting paper supplies. You can’t get this, you can’t get that. The shipment comes in at Matadi or wherever it come in, and it may be stolen, maybe taken out and sold to somebody else, you know and the custom officials want to be paid under the table from what I understand. So it’s not pleasant. When we there, everything worked, worked well. We had...the government official were high class people. And the Africans working in the customs office, most of them were familiar with the...with the Christian church and with LECO and were doing everything they could to push it through and, you know, make it work. The attitude was that way, you needed some help you there was no problem. You never had the attitude of indifference that is so prevalent...we always felt respect and honored, we felt very much at home there those years. And I did say that African people are lovely people, happy, forgiving, just most gracious.
SHUSTER: Well, I want to thank you Mr. Ogren for coming in today for this interview to finish off some of things that we talked about last time.
OGREN: Well, I really appreciate
this opportunity. Whatever I can say good about the mission program generally and especially about the mission program in the...in the Belgian...Belgian Congo, whatever good I can
say about the Africans.... And I just pray that God would bless them and make the church grow out there in the Congo so it could spread through all of Africa, because Africa is in
turmoil. And if any continent in the world...of course, with today’s news you could say that Christian faith is needed all over but it is certainly needed in Africa. And I just
pray that Africans can get to be a blessing to all their whole continent.
END OF TAPE
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