Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Our Mission - and God's

We arrived at our destination an hour late, due to the annoying fact that our arranged transportation for the fifteen of us did not arrive on time, nor did he arrive fifteen minutes late, or half an hour past due. After an hour, Fr. John and I decided we would both take our own well-traveled vehicles, joining a another friend who was taking his minivan, and trust that God would get us there in His time.  Sometimes ‘African time’ happens despite one’s best intentions.  Ndunyu Njeru is about 120 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, a Kikuyu town with no paved roads but with a clear view of the beautiful Aberdare Range.  Given that Ndunyu Njeru had gotten a good soaking already before we arrived, I was more concerned with plowing through the mud in front of me than taking in the scenery.  We were actually heading a further 8 kilometers towards the mountains.  Awaiting us in the middle of drop-dead gorgeous farmland was the tiny mission parish of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church.

We were there on a mission.  Our ‘team’ came from several different Orthodox parishes in Nairobi.  St. Paul’s parish meets in a cozy tin structure with a wooden kitchen house next door and a couple of outhouses discreetly sited in the far corner of the property.  But the several dozen members wanted to construct a ‘proper church’, that is, one with stone walls and a cement floor and real windows.  We were there for a ‘Harambee’, the very Kenyan way of a community pulling together to accomplish what couldn’t otherwise be done in terms of helping hoe a field or harvest maize or, in this case, raise money for an otherwise unreachable goal.  But the first task on arrival would be to worship together with the Divine Liturgy.

Fr. John, who is overseeing this mission parish, has of course been here many times, and he nimbly navigated his Toyota Corolla Wagon off the road and angled across the muddy ditch and up the steep embankment onto the grass track that led to the church.  My friend in the minivan attempted to pull off the same maneuver, and promptly became hopelessly stuck.  At which point all four ladies in my car flung open the doors and arrayed themselves behind the van and started to push.  Mind you, these were not local farm ladies in gumboots and kangas fresh from weeding their potatoes.  These were ladies dressed to the nines looking like what one might expect to see in a Nairobi church.  Duh.  I was so taken by the sight that it took a moment for me to remember that I am, at core, a South Carolina boy, and having never seen well-dressed ladies in sensible shoes pushing a van out of the mud, or at least trying to, I knew I needed to get my butt out of the car and help.  So I did.  And I had the unprecedented presence of mind to take off my cassock.  This was fortuitous, given what happened next.

I added my not-quite-rugby heft to the scrum and pushed, and my friend accelerated, causing the rear tires to spin.  It takes not much imagination to picture the resulting spray of mud.  I was totally painted from the middle of my dress white shirt to my shoes.  Totally.  And it’s not like there was a nearby restroom where I could wash up and change.  All I could do was laugh.  It's about the dirtiest, nastiest I have ever been in my life when also dressed for Sunday.  And I had four hours of church, Harambee and lunch ahead of me.  What to do, what to do?

Fortunately, I had a burlap sack back in my car which I used to wipe off great gouts of mud.  And then I observed that the remainder was drying pretty fast.  I was, at this point, very glad that I had removed my cassock, because now I could put it back on and nobody (but the fifteen people who were laughing with me) would ever know that I could double as a shamba (‘farm’ in Kiswahili). 

But as it turned out, my misadventures were the least of our traumas.  No sooner did we arrive at St. Paul’s and get underway, than did one of the ladies who had ridden with me received a phone call from her brother saying that her son had died.  She was, as one would expect, devastated.  I watched from the chanter’s stand as different ones from our group took time to be with her through the service.  I debated whether I should offer to take her back to Nairobi straightaway, but I decided that the community would know better than me what was the best thing for her.  And our community decided it would be best to be with her through our time at St. Paul’s, and to hold her close until we could get her to her family.

I was amazed as I watched my Kenyan friends handle the time at St. Paul’s and their newly bereaved friend.  They were able to communicate to the little Church – ‘You are important and we want to help you grow!’  And they were able to communicate to our friend – ‘We really care for you and we are going to help you walk through this.’

Our Reader for the morning.  She is much better in Kikuyu than I ever could me.

The service was beautiful, with drums and dancing and lively Kikuyu songs during the offering time.  The preaching was superb and included the first Orthodox altar call I’ve ever experienced!  The preacher was a businessman member of another Orthodox parish, who talked with me afterwards about enrolling for his Bachelors of Theology at St. Paul’s!  Small world.  And the ladies of the parish made a wonderful lunch for us.

Fr. John standing where the little monastery chapel will be built, God willing.

After we said our goodbyes, we had two more stops to make.  About 5 kilometers away, Fr. John has bought land and has taken the first steps to build a monastery.  The foundations are laid for a small chapel and a building for living.  Bit by bit, as he is able to raise the money, the buildings will go up.  Presently, there are no monasteries in Kenya.  Fr. John’s vision becoming a reality would be a crucial step for the Kenyan Church.

The second stop was just as we arrived at the main road.  All of the ladies wanted to pay visit to the series of farm stands on the side of the road and load up on potatoes, carrots and peas.  We bought a lot of potatoes, carrots and peas.  Even the woman whose son had died, she bought several big bags of produce.  She told me, ‘You know, we will have a lot of company, and I will need to cook.’  I was told that what would cost 450 Kenya shillings/kilo in Nairobi cost 250 KSh here.  Everybody likes to save money!

St. Paul's Orthodox Church, outside Ndunyu Njeru

I had agreed to go with Fr. John on this little journey several weeks in advance, thinking that I was going to visit his mission parish and see his monastery.  And these things we did.  But God had additional matters to cover on His agenda.  He gave our group the opportunity to bless this small Church.  And he gave my bereaved friend the gift of being surrounded by people who cared for her when she experienced that crushing news.  She was in my car as we returned to Nairobi.  My friend in the front seat with me asked about my own children, and I made a comment about having wonderful memories of them growing up.  But when I glanced in the mirror, I noticed that my friend had tears down her cheeks, and now they were talking behind me about children and memories and not being ready to have all that’s left of one’s child being a memory.

Missionary work – dare I even say just ministry itself?- is mostly about simply being there, and being available, being willing to get dirty, being willing to laugh, and then giving what one has.  Sometimes it seems like just a couple of pieces of bread and a few paltry fish.  But Jesus has a knack for making a little go a long way.   

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Migration Crisis and the Orthodox Missionary Imperative; and/or, How Not to Do Orthodox Missions

The desire amongst us Christians to stay at home and be with family and with my own people and find plenty of Christian things to do and be here in our own context is completely understandable.  It is also understandable that we would feel put-upon should our way of life be threatened by an influx of people who are different than we are.  And yes, it would certainly be easier if those people would just go away and bother somebody else.  Understandable and easier, yes; Christian, no.

Christians have struggled from the very beginning with comprehending the radical call on our lives that comes as part of the total package we call ‘salvation’.  The Church in Jerusalem was relatively comfortable with their growth and evident success in penetrating all levels of Jerusalem society.  But Jesus didn’t just say, ‘You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea’; he added the much more uncomfortable ‘and in Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)  The persecution unleashed after Stephen’s martyrdom sent many Jerusalem Christians packing, pushing Christians and their leaders out of their comfort zone.  Only at this point do we hear about Philip in Samaria and then with the Sudanese official on his way back to Africa.  Only then do we hear about Cornelius and the gospel breaking through to the Gentiles.  Only then do we hear about Saul and Barnabas being sent by the Church in Antioch to Cyprus and Asia Minor, launching a movement that would eventually reach many of us reading this.  None of this was comfortable; none of this was easy.  But reaching out to, going to those who are not like us, is simply what being a Christian and being Christ’s Church is all about.

So it is not surprising to read in my Nairobi paper this morning that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is saying – NO MORE MIGRANTS!  The actual headline is even more unflattering: Halt Muslims Inflows [sic], Says Orthodox Church  I’ve already read the comments of the usual crowd of ‘better-than-the-rest-of-you’ folk who are ‘OUTRAGED’ (such an overused and tiresome word) that Christians – CHRISTIANS, FOR GOD’S SAKE!! – could be so,  um, un-Christian in their attitude towards these poor people streaming from their destroyed lives in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not to mention the others coming from north Africa and the Sahel.  Tsk.  Tsk.  Tsk. 

With exceptions, most of these displaced people are Muslim.  Never mind that most of the Outraged have never had to live in a Muslim-majority culture.   And so the Outraged can lob their affronted indignation from the safety of their computer screens far from the millions of people affected by more than a decade of war across the Middle East.  Those who are actually on the front lines, in churches, NGOs and government institutions attempting to address the flood of human need inundating Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, lob away, I suppose.  But just remember, the Ottoman Empire is not so long ago for folks living in Bulgaria.  And that wasn’t a pleasant experience for Bulgaria’s Christians, as I recall.  So perhaps it helps to put the current migration crisis in the wider context of the times when Muslim armies conquered their way across Christian lands in Asia Minor, Greece, Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Or more recently when Christians in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Armenia were dealt with pretty poorly in places where Muslims were in control.   Memories are long here.  And in many places Christians suffered.  In many places Christians are still suffering.  Simply for being Christian.  I know that there are times when Christians have not behaved like angels, but that is not what I am talking about now.

So I think I understand the many reasons behind the hesitation (or outright refusal) on the part of Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria to facilitate the unprecedented movement of people, again mainly Muslims, through their country, and allow some to settle there.  I understand how hard it is to be levered out of my chair in my house in my way of life in my neighborhood in my city in my country where we all speak the same language and share the same culture – I understand how inertia works.  I understand how fear of ‘them’ works.  I, as an American from South Carolina, also understand how racism works.

But the Gospel calls us to get up from our easy chair; away from our dinner table with family and friends; out of our neighborhood, out of our mostly monochromatic and monocultural world where we are all on speaking terms, usually; out of our ethnic ghettos.  We may believe the headlines that war or deprivation or the desire for a better life is driving these people over land and sea to risk their lives and families for something better than what they were experiencing in what used to be their home.  We may feel justified as we take a stand to keep those people out of our back yard. 

The Gospel calls us to see these people not as a threat to our way of life but as an opportunity to share with them what has been given to us (St. Basil says that the things God has given to us belong not to us but the poor for whose sake God has blessed us), to extend a hand of help to them at their point of greatest vulnerability, to love them as Christ himself has loved us (at the point of our own greatest vulnerability).  In the case of the Jerusalem Church, unhappy circumstances pushed Christians out of the city and into the places where all ‘those people’ lived who had never heard of Jesus.  In the case of Bulgaria, unlooked for and unhappy circumstances are bringing ‘those people’ and their world of need right here to where we are.

It’s totally understandable that the Orthodox in Bulgaria feel the way they do.  It’s totally understandable that they are afraid of what might happen to them as this crisis continues to unfold.  But for the Church’s leaders to stand in the doorway and block the way for any more of ‘those people’ to come through, a la Governor George Wallace blocking the big door at the University of Alabama to keep out those, um, people of color from ever darkening that beloved (white) institution – well, I think you get the picture.  It doesn’t look good.  And that's because it actually isn’t good.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, preventing an African American woman
from enrolling at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963.

Why do you think God is allowing all of these very needy, desperate Muslim people to come to the very gates of your country, your city, your Church?  Could it be that God knows that you, Bulgarian Christians (and Hungarian Christians, and Polish Christians, and Russian Christians, and American Christians [think of the children from Central America!], etc) have the only real solution to their crisis?  They would never stand a chance of being loved by a Christian, or being cared for by a Church family, or of hearing the Good News about Jesus had they stayed in their homeland.  And now they’ve risked everything and have come to you.  And you want to chase them away?

My Orthodox Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and my Brothers and Sisters, this crisis is a gift from God.  An opportunity like this comes once in a lifetime, sometimes not even that often.  This is your chance – this is our chance to show to Muslims and to the rest of the world the difference that Jesus makes in our lives.  At the very least, do unto them as you want them to do unto you!

But the real reason to mobilize yourselves and your churches and reach out and welcome and help and love these people is that these people, these men and women and children – they are actually Jesus.  ‘When did we see you hungry and not feed you, or thirsty and not give you something to drink, or a stranger and not take you in, or naked and not clothe you, or sick or in prison and not come to you?’  Then the King will answer them saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:44-45).

Enlightened self-interest would be enough of a motive to repent.  But love makes so much more sense, in cases like this.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

'...and I live in Kawangware.'

‘…and I live in Kawangware.’ 
Whether I’m talking to my Kenyan colleagues at St. Paul’s or to students or members of the choir I sing in or old friends from my previous life here that I meet from time to time, the response is interestingly the same – a slight widening of the eyes, a tilting of the head, followed either by, ‘Oh’ or ‘Why?’

The first time I came to Nairobi in 1980, Kawangware didn’t exist.  It was a combination of small Kikuyu farms, forest and bush.  As Nairobi’s population exploded over the past thirty years, ‘informal settlements’ as they are called spread out from the center in every direction.  This was not the orderly expansion overseen by well-paid city planners that we have grown accustomed to in the West; but rather the totally chaotic, put-up-tin-shacks-and-sort-out-water, electricity, toilets and roads-later sort of development.  The result is covered by the catch-all English word ‘slum’.  But this word dehumanizes and distances us from what is really going on in a place like this.  Families live here.  And there are businesses and shops and schools and places to get your hair cut or buy clothes or get a bite to eat or buy a soda or buy petrol or get your car fixed or buy a living room suite.  Dads and moms head out before dawn to work either in an office or a shop or selling things in the non-stop markets along the roadsides.  Children dressed in school uniforms troop off to school.  Little by little, families who own land work to improve their properties.  Sometimes companies buy out land owners and put up apartment blocks.  Proper roadside shops replace the plastic sheets on the ground on which traders display their wares.  The result is a jumble as far as one can see in every direction.  In the evening parents and children come home to one or two-room tin-walled, tin-roofed tenements.  Water is bought by the jerry-can full and has to be carried in.  You don’t want to know about the toilet facilities that are shared by all the neighbors.  After a hard day at work, either mom or dad or even both may go off to their evening school classes, trying step by step to get the qualification that could mean a better job and a chance to leave their tin life behind.  I have been here in Kenya for many years, and I know no lazy people, least of all in Kawangware.

But nothing is orderly.  Everything is in flux.  Corruption is a debilitating tax that everyone ends up paying.  But the burden is most heavy on those who can least afford it.  The road system in Nairobi is what was left by the British in 1963 and was woefully overcrowded thirty years ago.  Some improvements have been made, but not on our side of town.  Buses and matatus clog the roads and carry commuters to and from the city center about 10k away.  The main roads in Kawangware are paved, but traffic is regularly frozen because somewhere some group of matatus thought that driving four minivans abreast on a two lane road lined with market stalls and wall-to-wall people was both possible and to their advantage.  It gets even more exciting when buses decide they can play, too.  And then there is the fleet of human-powered push carts, which reduces the traffic that instantly backs up to the speed of brisk walk, maybe.  And the road I live on, Kabiria Road, has been paved numerous times in the past, but corrupt practices ensured that the newly paved road would disintegrate into massive potholes and dust within six months.  Presently they are attempting to redo our road and put in proper drainage the way it should have been done decades ago.  We’ll see.  What it does mean is that for the time being, we live in a dust bowl.

Kawangware is not as desperate a place as Kibera or Mathare Valley, ‘informal settlements’ in Nairobi that are rightfully considered notorious.  But Kawangware is also not a destination location.  I can’t think of anyone who would choose to live here, if they had a choice.

However, we are here – I and my colleagues who teach at the Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary.  And my friends who teach 300 or so children at St. Clement’s Primary School within earshot of my room where I’m sitting.  And the workers at the Orthodox Clinic here.  And my friends on the faculty and staff at the Orthodox Teachers Training College.  And His Eminence Archbishop Makarios is here.  We are all here, on a huge compound that was given to the Orthodox Church back in the 1970s by the then President Jomo Kenyatta.  At that time, the outskirts of Nairobi were to the east about 4 or 5 miles.  And now the wave of Kawangware has swept over and around us and this is where we are.  We are here trying to reach out to the community around us in love, educating their children and giving them two good meals a day with our food program.  We are here training future teachers with the only early childhood education program in the country.  And we are here training the future generation of priests and leaders for not only Kenya’s growing Orthodox Churches, but those of Eastern, Southern and Western Africa as well.

So I live in Kawangware.  Pray for me.  Pray for us.  We are called to be the presence of Jesus here.  And if there was ever a place that needs desperately what we have, this is it.

And one matter for fun!  From 2011-2013 I was part of an acapella singing group here in Nairobi called the Greenwood Singers.  When I returned earlier this year, I was welcomed back with open arms (though I am the least accomplished of the 15 singers in the group).  We are putting together a program for early December.  Here are a couple of the pieces we working on – you can listen to them on YouTube:
Baba Yetu (Christopher Tin) -
Missa O Sacrum Convivium – Kyrie  (Pierluigi da Palestrina) –

Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us!


Here are some pictures of the neighborhood where I live:

I spied some schoolboys playing after class when I set out with my camera to
get some pictures for this post.

This is the wretched dirt/mud track that connects our compound with the rest of the world.
Notice the push cart guy delivering water.

St. Clement's Primary School kids lining up for lunch.  When Orthodox Christians here noticed a number of kids in the neighborhood without enough to eat, they started a food program.  And when they observed that the children were not going to any school, they started St. Clement's.

Tuesdays are Chapati days!  Everybody loves them, but they are rather labor intensive to make.

Schoolboys, eating lunch.

Good, simple, healthy food.  Except for the chapati :-) !

When I am not teaching at St. Paul's, I join the teachers from St. Clement's for lunch.

Several other schools and youth programs take advantage of our football (as in rest of the world, not American) field
and what passes for a basketball court here.

This window shop is run by Catherine.  I bought some bananas from her.

Esther runs this shop.  She's cutting up greens to sell.

Franklin runs this kinyozi (barber shop) where I go to get my hair cut.  He charges me
50 Kenya shillings, or about 50 cents.  I give him a big tip.

This is the 'supermarket' up the hill from our compound where I go when I want
something small and don't feel like undertaking the challenge of driving.

This is the very dusty Kabiria Road.  Our compound is down the track on the left.
Those are shops on both sides of the road.  Those rocks are meant to slow traffic
and keep the dust down.  It doesn't work.

Kids on their way home from school playing in construction culverts and drainage pipes
with buses, matatus and cars careening by, and dust, dust, dust.
 Welcome to my world.