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.