Don Foster will never forget the young people he helped find improbable success in Mozambique nearly 10 years ago. Working with orphans there, Foster and fellow missionaries put one young man through law school and helped another to become a doctor—uncommon scenarios, given the circumstances the men had to overcome. Foster looked at these triumphs and realized that leaving a thriving business in the United States for the mission field was the best decision he could have made.
Yet despite these accomplishments, Foster was haunted by something a fellow missionary had said: “There’s only one direction in ministry: lower still.” The Lord began speaking to Foster about his future, consistently impressing on him Matthew 25:40: “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” With this, he set off to look for the lowest of the low and found them among the Mbuti Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo—by some statistics, the poorest place on earth.
Foster’s suggestion that the Mbuti are “the least of them” is difficult to challenge when you look at the facts. Two separate studies have found their life expectancy to be between 18 and 24. The nomadic Mbuti set up simple villages, and their possessions are often limited to the clothes on their backs. Pygmies haven’t had opportunities for education and employment as have other Congolese. Their average IQ is 54—considered extremely low—which makes learning new things a challenge. And because of their short stature (roughly 3 feet tall), they’ve wrongly been seen by others as less evolved and somehow subhuman, leading to their perpetual mistreatment. The chief of one village Don and his wife Jenya minister to summed up their plight: “The life of the Mbuti Pygmy is very hard—and it’s very short.”
In addition to these challenges, the Fosters worry about the future of the Mbuti people. Societal progress may be improving the quality of life for most Congolese, but not for the Pygmies. Hunter-gatherers for millennia, they live off whatever the Ituri Rainforest provides, which diminishes by the year, as loggers displace larger game for hunting. The Mbuti have resorted to eating frogs, rats, and small fish—all meager sources of protein. And as the forest disappears around them, their shelter goes, too.
The Mbuti also face societal danger from within and without. Substance abuse, particularly alcoholism, has become a serious problem. And militants have made the forest unstable. Since October 2014, more than 500 people in the area have been killed. Just last fall, an attack in Beni, the town where the Fosters live, left 11 dead.
Because theirs is an oral culture, the Mbuti can receive the Word of God only one way—by hearing. Through a partnership with In Touch Ministries and Renew Outreach, the Fosters are able to use Messenger devices to bring the gospel to them. With 6,000 Pygmies scattered throughout 106 villages in their area alone, the Fosters have their work cut out for them. But even a few hundred Messengers can make all the difference. Don Foster is confident of that.
“These Messengers will reach people you’ll never know this side of heaven,” he said. “But one day they may come up to you [there] and say, ‘Thank you. I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ because of a Messenger.’”
Despite the difficult odds the Mbuti face, the Fosters have hope for the future—particularly the next generation. Their name points to a deeper reality: The couple have found themselves the de facto foster parents to a couple dozen Mbuti children who aren’t cared for by their birth parents. Don and Jenya give them food and shelter while also providing an education that previous generations never received.
The Fosters have no plans of going anywhere—unless, of course, it’s farther into central Congo to reach some of the estimated 10,000 Mbuti in that area. “As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll find anyone poorer or in more need of ministry than the Mbuti Pygmies,” Foster said. For him and Jenya, every moment is the 11th hour. Because the Pygmies have such a short life span, not to mention danger all around them, their needs become all the more urgent—with none more pressing than hearing, and receiving, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Photography by Tommy Trenchard