Saturday, May 2, 2015

Tales from the Strange Land of In-Between: The Archbishop’s Vestment Closet

Fifteen months ago, my world as I knew it was coming to an end.  I had made a special trip back to Nairobi to sell or disperse all the things that had defined the contours of my life – my car, my books, my furniture, the beautiful four-posted bed I had bought when we first moved there, the not-as-successful bathroom cabinets I had a local fundi make, my desk, our dishes and pots and pans I used every day, our stove and refrigerator, all the flowers and potted plants, and my two eccentric shelter dogs, Cinnamon and Omega.  It was a time of endings.  Relationships were ending, my ministry was ending, and the career that I had worked so hard to undertake was ending.  I felt utterly desolate.

Our living room in Nairobi.  Scene of so much happiness, and sadness, too.

I had allowed nine days for wrapping up 7 years of life and ministry in Kenya.  I was staying at the Orthodox Seminary about 10 miles from my former home.  His Eminence, the Archbishop of Kenya, was traveling out of the country.  My friend who was then serving as the seminary administrator had been very busy all week long and, between his busyness and my busyness, we hadn’t been able to connect.  Finally, I was able to have a moment to meet with him in his office.  My purpose for the meeting was to sign over ownership of my car – I was donating it to the Archdiocese.  My friend asked me to explain again why I had to leave.  And so I told him.  I told him of my brokenness and my desolation.  And when I was done, he said to me, ‘You know, it is for this very reason that Jesus came.  He came that our sins might be forgiven, that our brokenness might be healed, He came that your dead end might be transformed into a second chance.’  God knew this is what I needed to hear.  But what he said next stunned me.  ‘We want you to come back,’ he said.  ‘We would like for you to come here and teach on our faculty.  And we want you to come here and live in our community.’  By ‘we’ he meant His Eminence.  And then he said that His Eminence was cutting short his trip to return to Kenya so he could see me before I left in two days.  I could hardly take in what my friend was saying.  And finally, he took the papers that I had signed for the car and said, ‘Rather than take these to the government office and process them, I’m going to put them in this cabinet behind me and keep them here.  Because when you come back, you are going to need a car.’  Words fled then, as they do now.  I could only manage a ‘Thank you’ along with my tears.

My Kenya car, a 1996 Toyota Rav 4.  Yes, it's purple.  For Lent.

His Eminence did come back, and he repeated everything my friend had said.  It was like a dream.  In the meantime I had gathered up the few things I could afford to take back to the US with me, 5 boxes in all.  Special books, the footstool I loved from my childhood that I had kept from my mom’s home after she died two years before, the manuscripts of my 450 sermons preached from Pilot Mountain, NC to Reading, PA to Cambridge, UK to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and to Nairobi, special keepsakes, my diplomas from Cambridge, Gordon-Conwell and Duke, pictures of my girls, and my clothes.  At $170/50lb box, I could only afford checking three boxes beyond my 3 bag-allowance.  When His Eminence saw my boxes--all that remained from my life in Kenya and Ethiopia--he said to me, ‘Why don’t you leave them here?  I have just the space for them.  I will put them in the storage room where I keep all the vestments.’  Now, with only two hours before leaving for the airport to catch my flight back to the US, I had a choice to make.  Did I really believe that God could bring me back to Kenya?  Or, was this just a nice gesture by some kind people?  

I decided that this must be a God-thing, so I accepted his offer.  His Eminence then became as animated as I’ve seen him, getting a couple of students to help carry my boxes, sending someone else for the keys, bustling about as he led this small delegation to the vestments closet, which turned out to be several rooms of vestments.  And there, in the back, behind a corner, my life as I had known it was tucked away, to await my return.

Yours truly in front of OCMC Headquarters in St. Augustine, FL

The past year has seen one astonishment after another.  OCMC took up my application again and, after careful deliberation, accepted me to become an Orthodox missionary back to Kenya.  And since Thanksgiving, I have been working hard to raise up the support team I need to make my return possible.  It always amazes me who God motivates to become a partner with me.  There are some old friends who have walked with me over many years through many things, and there are people who don’t know me from Adam’s housecat who have felt moved to offer help and prayers.

'Crozet YMCA--Good morning, this is Bill.  How can I help?'  Not a classroom of students, but it pays the bills.

That being said, it is a strange place, this land of in-between.  Who could have ever guessed that this would be my life right now?  I work at the local YMCA to help pay my bills.  I have great colleagues and I’ve met many people in our little town.  Some of them have taken the time to hear my story, and seem genuinely surprised upon discovering how missions really works. “You mean you have to raise your own salary, and your own expenses?”  And then there is the awkward lag time between when one is accepted to go back to Kenya and when one ultimately deploys. People were asking me back in January how fundraising was going.  “I’m at 50%, God be praised.”  In March, when asked, “‘I’m at 70%, thanks be to God!”  And this week, “I can account for 91% - God is good!”  Sometimes people say, “I thought you were going back to Africa?”, which is better, I suppose, than, “You’re still here!?”  I certainly wish there was an element of instantaneous about this missionary support raising, but I also have come to realize that God has his purposes for me being here right now, and when the time is right, it will all come in, and then I will return to Africa.

My home away from home.  I live in the upstairs room on the left.

So what does life look like for someone who is preparing to be a missionary in Kenya?  In my case, it’s a life pared down to necessities.  I am grateful to have such a gracious friend who has allowed me to stay in his home for all these months.  I am grateful to have an old but well-maintained car that friends let me buy for blue book cost.  And, I am grateful to have a three-quarters time job that gives me the flexibility I need to travel but also helps me pay my bills.  Most of all I’m grateful for my parish, who took me in when I washed up on their shore two years ago, and who stood with me through the hardest months of my life and who have been the love of Jesus to me.

My parish, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church - some of the planet's most wonderful people!

I also have experienced the love of Jesus in meeting a lot of new people as I visit parishes from Pennsylvania to Georgia and points in-between, where I offer presentations and invite them to support my work in Africa through prayer and finances..  It is so energizing to be with groups of people who are interested in and engaged with what God is doing through His people in Kenya and the rest of the world.  And the time is coming when enough people will want to respond to God’s call on their own life to become financial and prayer partners with me in the work.  Then the day will come when OCMC will say, “You have what you need – it’s time to go!” 

Many people have already given sacrificially to help make my return to Kenya and my ministry there possible.

Some of you reading this have already helped, and I am very grateful.  Others of you may be the ones God is going to use to put me over the top.  You can become a monthly supporter of my ministry by going to the OCMC website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button on the page that talks about my ministry .  You can shorten this in-between time by doing so, and I, for one, would be grateful.

His Eminence Makarios, Archbishop of Kenya, speaking with a student.

The day is coming when I will walk with His Eminence Makarios back to the vestment closet, and we will carry 5 boxes back to the little room that will be my home in Nairobi.  And I will open up those boxes one by one and take out all of the things I so carefully packed in those desolate days of my former life.  And I will remember the times that I had and the people who were so important to me then.  And I will think about how I never thought this day might come, when I could come back to Kenya, both to pick up where I left off and to start all over again.  It seemed like a dream then, and it still seems like one now.  But those boxes are still there, in the Archbishop’s vestment closet, waiting for me, to come home.

Nairobi skyline
Nairobi's skyline from the neighboring game park.

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