Goma airport, the gateway to one of the largest and most strategic cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s unstable and mineral-rich east, is the city’s only connection to distant Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital and a place unreachable from Goma by road. Consequently, it’s also one of the few places in town where anyone seems to be in charge of things.

Its single-level terminal and lone runway are ringed with barbed wire and U.N. peacekeepers huddled in bunkers and armored vehicles, and the airport road is a rock-strewn thoroughfare bordered with concrete security barriers. Because its single runway streaks through the center of downtown, the perimeter road brims with activity: Bony peasants sell charcoal and bundles of wood; traders hawk off-brand clothing smuggled in through Uganda. Rebels lurk in the nearby hills while mineral traffickers and army officers live side by side in gabled villas overlooking the shores of nearby Lake Kivu.

More than a million people are crammed between an active volcano and a palm-lined equatorial lake, and the city itself mirrors this contrast. It is volatile and changeable; beautiful at times but impossible to control or predict.

Goma has bounded from crisis to crisis over the past twenty dependably disastrous years, whether it’s been the arrival of more than one million refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a cholera epidemic in 1996, the destructive blast of the Nyiragongo Volcano in 2002, or more recent battles between Congolese government forces and the Rwandan-supported M23 rebel movement, which was finally defeated in late 2013. It’s a city where lots of people have guns—or small rocket launchers, as the case may be—but where governance and public order is something of an ambiguous concept.

When I visited the city on a reporting trip for The Atlantic last spring, it was possible to drive an hour in any direction and cross into the domains of multiple armed groups. On the outskirts of Goma, pickup trucks packed with gun-toting militiamen would zip by, and it would never be entirely obvious who they were or what they were doing. Uniformed officials try to exact bribes at the downtown border crossing with neighboring Rwanda, but it was unclear to me what other purpose the government served beyond harassing its citizens.

The country’s distant and corrupt government is viewed with wariness and suspicion. Few Congolese really trust Joseph Kabila, its reclusive and sub-competent president, whose office is nearly a thousand miles from Goma. The Congolese army is one of the region’s serial human rights abusers; when I visited Congo in late April, word had recently broken that an army division had gone on a rampage of sexual violence in a town called Minova, not far from Goma. Even the United Nations has pulled most of its personnel out of the city when things have gotten dangerous, as during the M23 rebels’ November 2012 offensive and brief takeover of Goma.

The frenzied security around the airport communicates a shared expectation of chaos.

Across the street from the airport, the Institut Technique Industriel de Goma, a Catholic school affiliated with the Salesians of Don Bosco, must convince Congolese in their early teens—promising, uncorrupted, and on the brink of entering a society that’s liable to turn them into militants or emigrants or to discourage or frustrate them—that there is some inherent value in living a structured and decent life. Warlords thrive and the honest suffer, but this isn’t the world as it actually is, the institute insists: Despite all external evidence, a violent and unjust Congolese reality is merely a distraction from a higher and more ordered one.

The school’s walls are sturdy and thick, and its schoolhouses are organized around an overgrown courtyard with a pair of rusting basketball hoops in the middle. Behind it are three warehouse-like buildings, colonial leftovers of a vaguely industrial character where students dissect old washing machines and tool with electrical switchboards, even long after school hours have ended.

Counseling students with a kind, clerical serenity, unhurried even when surrounded with thirteen-year-old boys, is a thin and older man in a lab coat and wire glasses, with multicolored cables draped around his neck. He is dressed more like an electrician than a priest, although here—where religion is the last thing standing, the most enduring instrument of socialization in a place where the state is ineffective in all but preying on its citizens—the spiritual and the practical are never far from each other.

Fr. Honorato Alonso is a Spaniard who first arrived in the DRC in 1979, when the country was still called Zaire, and when the twenty-year regional war that has so far killed somewhere between 3 and 5.4 million people was still seventeen years off. As I’d learn when I interviewed him later in the day, he has witnessed almost every deprivation a human being can suffer, and has acquired this grim roster of experience simply by staying in the same eastern Congolese city for over thirty years, and by refusing to leave.

“What can you say to people when you leave when it’s getting worse?” Alonso said, when I asked him to explain why he had remained here for so long. “You must share the good and the bad periods with them.” It is as simple as that.

The Catholic Church is one of Goma’s few genuinely thriving institutions. While the government can’t be trusted and nongovernmental organizations will not necessarily stay through times of danger, Catholics have dug in deeper. Goma has Catholic convents, colleges, hospitals, lay institutes, and even a seven-year seminary for aspiring priests. Two years ago, the city got its first Catholic university, the Institut Supérieur la Sapientia. Its rector, a Congolese priest named Innocent Nyirindekwe, says that the university has two hundred students, most of whom are studying for five-year technical degrees.

A technological education at the university is a means to a higher end, as it is at the institute. “We want to rebuild morals and ethics here,” said Nyirindekwe. “In this country, a university becomes where politicians manipulate young people and students. The presence of the church in a university helps to build good manners, and good values.”

In the DRC, God and his earthly representatives enjoy far greater legitimacy than does the state. Nyirindekwe was conscious of his unique responsibilities, mindful of how a religious institution can fill vital social functions when the government is both incapable and unwilling to promote public virtue.

And he seemed aware of the long task ahead of him. “We don’t want to grow too quickly,” he told me. “In Goma University, there can be a thousand students in a little room. We need rooms with fifty students. We’re going step by step. We can’t receive many people. We’re going slowly: buying books, sending people for training. The project could take ten years.”

This is an audacious statement. No one can claim the wisdom or clarity needed to glimpse that far ahead in the DRC, not in a place where militant groups splinter and re-form with dizzying frequency, or where war can seem like a chronic social ill rather than a passing crisis. But people like Nyirindekwe will still be in Goma in ten years, regardless of the chaos the decade is almost certain to bring.

“It’s a question of love,” said Ingrid, a German-born volunteer with the secular Catholic Institute of St. Bonaventura. She had stayed in Goma for two years, and in Rwanda for the previous, sometimes violent decade and a half. “You have to love the people where you work. If you love them, then you are able to stay. If you don’t love them, you distribute your help and then you leave.”

“It’s not easy to have a mission here,” she conceded. “You try to do something and continue your work, and then there’s insecurity and M23 comes and you wonder, ‘Oh Lord, what can I do now?’ It’s not easy to live here . . . . You have to promote in yourself something like hope. But it is difficult to live it.” The institute operates a food dispensary for orphans in one of Goma’s poorest neighborhoods and performs outreach for HIV patients. “The mission is to live with people, to be in the same situation with them.”

In her mid-forties, Ingrid had spent more time living in Africa than in her native Germany. She had spent the last several years in a city that had been besieged and violently sacked, and the M23 frontlines were still less than an hour’s drive from where we sat. Goma is a place where every success is reversible: Even with M23’s recent defeat, it’s far from clear whether the country is stable or well-governed enough to reap lasting peace.

I asked her what she had learned from this constant uncertainty—this idea that no progress or potential source of hope ever rests on stable ground. “To be present in everyday life,” she said, after a long pause. “Here, you do not have a very large view of the future because of the war. And it’s important not to look back—it gives no hope. I have to be a person of hope: present in the present moment, open to what the situation is like, and to the people I meet every day.”

I should have asked her how long it took to achieve this sense of presence. Had it taken a month? A year? Half a lifetime? It had taken more time, I suspect, than a lesser and less motivated individual would have bothered to give.

Back at the institute, I had been introduced to Fr. Alonso by one of his former students, an aspiring journalist and speaker of a half-dozen local languages in addition to English and French. The school had saved his life. “If we didn’t have education like Catholicism or basketball—” he said, and then interrupted himself: “It pushes you to know that before anything you need to work hard. It was a little. But it was enough.”

Catholicism or basketball—for my guide, they were practically synonymous. Fr. Alonso was a hoops-mad, shop-teaching Catholic priest, and he had raised generations of students on the sport. “Basketball transmits human values,” he said. “With basketball, you play with a small group. You’re in touch with each boy. It gives you a means to transmit values. If a boy is lazy or doesn’t study, the group is small, and you can give attention to everyone.”

After decades of troubles, Alonso continues to embody a courageous and quotidian decency. “People here in the DRC have a big belief in God,” he said. “Even in a war situation, they know they have to report to God, who will give them a good answer—the force to fight, and to live.” He has seen the worst that man and nature can do.

If the rebels had ever returned to Goma, they would have marched down the airport road, right past his school; even with the M23 confined to the hills, Goma could barely maintain a facade of order. For Alonso, no facade is needed: Through everything, he continues to teach young people how to box out on a rebound and repair a broken electrical circuit.

Armin Rosen has reported from Congo, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East for The Atlantic and other magazines.

Articles by Armin Rosen