Thursday, August 6, 2015

So It Ends; Thus It Begins

Christ is in our midst!

I get up to make myself a cup of hot tea as I ponder what to write in my prayer letter that can help you and my other friends back home understand something of my new life as a missionary in Kenya. And then I put on a jacket over my flannel shirt as I sit in my room at my computer because it’s cold here. Because this is just what Nairobi is like in early August.

Chai and Chapati - it doesn't get much better than this!

I take a friend home from church and I find myself driving on beautiful new roads past kilometer after kilometer of well-to-do high rise flats whose occupants may be paying $1500/month in rent; and I stop at the ‘Nakumatt’ on the way home and find myself overwhelmed in the middle of a retail jungle every bit as immense as a Super-Walmart, crowded with middle-class Kenyans paying for shopping-carts-full of stuff with their credit cards.  This, too, is just what Nairobi is like.

I venture out in my purple 1995 Toyota Rav 4 and am immediately embroiled in a hair-raising traffic scrum with amoral matatus (minivans that hold ‘14’ passengers and are the primary/only way those without a vehicle get from one place to another in the city) and buses competing to subvert every known traffic law in order to get around/over/under or even pass through whatever is in their way, and when they do they immediately stop in front of you (no signal or brake lights, of course) so as to block everyone until their hapless passenger gets off.  One of these on the road is a menace, but a whole traffic jam of them is a total maelstrom.  This is just the way things are in Nairobi.

cartoon by Chris Freeman

I find myself in the ‘home’ of a man who works as a gardener (as I did not so long ago).  Only his home, a relatively short walk from where I live, is made of tin walls and a tin roof and is maybe 10’x10’.    For this room he pays $25/month.  He can’t afford a place with two rooms, because he simply doesn’t have the $50/month it would cost.  In this room he lives with his wife and their 8 year old daughter and their 4 year old son.  The room is divided in two by a sheet.  The daughter sleeps at night on a small sofa.  The boy sleeps on two chairs pushed together.  Mom and dad sleep on a small bed on the other side of the sheet.  In this room the children play, the daughter does her homework, the parents entertain guests and the mom cooks meals, although sometimes there is hardly anything so parents go without so the children can have a little something, because there is no money left to buy good.  The father has gone several months without pay because the organization he works for has no money.  While I was visiting, the man offered me orange squash and biscuits, and would have cooked up some eggs for me if I hadn’t stopped him.  And though by Western standards he is a poor man and lives in a slum, yet even in his poverty he joyfully offered hospitality to his guest.  This, too, is what one finds when one comes to Nairobi, where great poverty and great generosity often go hand in hand.

Not my friend's room, but his is about this big, only not as nice.

But I should add a further point of detail.  The gardener who lives in the tiny room with his family in the Nairobi slum is also an Orthodox priest.  The Orthodox Church in Kenya has always been poor, but the economic troubles in Greece and Cyprus, from where much of the funding for the Archdiocese in Kenya has come in the past, has put many priests and students and parishes and projects into very difficult straights.  It is true that these troubles are serving to move the Church here to think anew about stewardship and take responsibility for its own finances.  But a culture does not transform instantaneously, and necessary changes are incremental and painfully slow.  In the meantime, many people, like my friend who is serving an impoverished parish in the rural areas about 20 miles from here, are suffering.  In the midst of a Church that has come such a long way and has such potential, there is also profound need, and a poverty that threatens to blight any future growth before it can happen.

My old friend, Fr. John, at Orthros/Matins this past Sunday

On the other hand, when I drove through the gates of St. Paul’s University last week on my first visit upon returning, I could hardly recognize the place.  The University has somehow raised a huge amount of money and used it to improve in a massive way its infrastructure and teaching capacity.  I wandered through six new buildings – a new Student Center (with a cafĂ©, a gym, and a large auditorium among other things), a Post-Graduate Center (where I will be teaching many of my classes), a new administration building (enabling the library to take over all of the building it previously shared with admin), a conference center and hostel, two women’s dormitories.  But in the new offices I found old friends, my colleagues and supervisors from when I served as a Senior Lecturer here before.  And they were pleased to see me, too!  So pleased that they immediately gave me a Church History survey course to teach at the extension site in the Kenyan town of Kitale next week (August 10-15) and then a Masters-level course on the History of Monasticism back in Limuru at the main campus for the August 17-28 module!  So I guess I’m not the front desk guy at the YMCA anymore.   There are between 4000-5000 students at St. Paul’s, crowding our two main campuses here in Limuru and downtown Nairobi, as well as at extension sites such as in Kitale. This, too, is the Kenya I’ve come back to, crowded with young men and women who see education as the way to enable their dreams of bettering themselves to become a reality.

I ate lunch at the top floor cafe here just yesterday.

So it’s been a month of transition, saying farewell to my parish and friends, to my Linnea and her William, and my Caroline and her Will, to parents and siblings, as well as the rush to divest myself of everything that wouldn’t fit into three suitcases.  And then of my arrival back in Kenya, into my new room at the Orthodox seminary, and seeing so many old friends and already blessed with wonderful new friends.  These first two weeks I’ve been able to reorient myself and get a few things to help make my four walls feel more like home.  So I enlisted a local carpenter to make a couple of bookcases and I found a rug on sale and after much internal debate broke down and bought the floor lamp that gives light to both my desk and reading chair.

Home Sweet Home!  The exciting rug was marked way down :-). 
My work space (aka the other half of the room)

God is good.  And you have made it all possible with your prayers, with your encouragement, with your financial support.  I am grateful.

And now the real work begins.  I covet your partnership with me in prayer.  And here are some things you can pray for.

Altar boys during the procession at the consecration I attended two Sundays ago

First, praise God with me!  He opened doors I thought were shut.  He brought me to OCMC and led them to accept me as one of their missionaries.  He moved the hearts of many men and women to provide the funding that makes all this possible.  And He provided a place for me to live and serve here in Kenya under His Eminence Makarios and at St. Paul’s University.  This is like a dream.  I cannot thank God, and you, enough.

His Eminence has consecrated more than 150 Churches in Kenya, unprecedented for a modern bishop.

Secondly, pray that I might pull this Church History course together this week, and that my colleagues and I might travel safely to Kitale and back, and that we would have the energy to teach what will be a lot of content to these undergraduate students.  Pray that I would be an effective instructor for my students, both in Kitale, and also in my Masters-level class the following weeks.

Another new friend, and my next door neighbor at the Seminary, Fr. Athanasios

Thirdly, pray that I would be a friend and a servant among my colleagues here at the seminary.  Classes here won’t start until late September or October, so I have some time to be intentional about relationships.

Speaking of answered prayer, here I am with Fr. Evangelos and my car, the day after my arrival, for those who know the story.

Lastly, I already preached at my home Church, Sts. Anargyroi¸ this past Sunday; and I was welcomed back into my old choir.  I will likely be given more opportunities to preach in the coming weeks in surrounding parishes.  Pray that I would be a good steward of every chance I have to expound the Word of God, and that I might be used by God to encourage and edify His people.

Back with the chanters/Readers at Sts. Anargyroi this past Sunday.

I am on Facebook and I will be posting pictures of things that are going on.  You can find me as ‘Joseph William Black’.  I’ll be happy to be your ‘friend’.  I also have a blog called ‘Onesimus’ where I post brief articles and sermons, including my farewell homily at St. Nicholas and my homily this past Sunday at Sts. Anargyroi.  You can find it at . And as always, if you want to partner with me financially and become a monthly supporter of this ministry, you can do so online by going to my page on the OCMC website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom:

May you know God’s peace as you trust Him more and more and become His blessing to those around you.

By grace,


PS. Here are some more pictures from a very eventful month:

I said farewell to my home parish, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church near Charlottesville, VA.  Fr. Robert led a commissioning service for me after Liturgy.

And I said farewell to my friends.  And to my family.
My daughter Linnea treated me to lunch as I was on my way to the airport.

And this is from the reception celebrating my daughter Caroline's marriage 
to her husband Will in May.

I miss my girls to pieces.  But I have left them in good hands.

Once in Kenya, things just happened.  The Archbishop was invited by several Churches to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of his consecration as a bishop, and he invited me to come along.

And then there was the consecration at Sts. Rafael, Nicholas and Irene Orthodox Church in Thogoto.

And then this past Sunday, Fr. John asked me to preach during the Liturgy at Sts. Anargyroi.  The sermon I preached is posted below on this blog - 'When Walking on Water'.  I'm back in the land of 12 minute homilies, so it's not very long :-)!

So a lot has happened!  My future updates won't be this long.  But I thought you might want to see how things were going and how God is answering your prayers in some wonderful ways!


Dr. Joseph William Black
Nairobi, Kenya

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)

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