Friday, July 20, 2018

Addicts, Drunkards, and Orthodoxy in Kisumu

All of the pictures used in this post come from the web and are of street boys in Nairobi. 

This story starts in an unexpected place.  I had taken the overnight coach (bus) from Nairobi to Kisumu.  We arrived at the station at 4am.  The last time I had done this, I had paid too much money for a ride in a tuk tuk [three-wheeled Indian contraption that apparently is powered by a lawn mower engine) from the station to my house.  This time I decided I would find a boda boda (motorcycle) driver to take me home.  So we agree a price and I climb on board the back with my suitcase, and then spend a period of time praying because neither of us are wearing a helmet.  Then I started chatting with the driver, as one does.  Turns out his name is James.  He became very interested when he found out I was an Orthodox Christian and we had started a new church in Kisumu.  He told me about a group of boys that he would like for me to meet and speak to, street boys who hung out in down town Kisumu.  I said I would love to have the chance to meet them.  By this time we were at my gate.  We exchanged phone numbers.  And I went in and made me a cup of strong coffee to start the new day.

That was in May.  This past Tuesday I was walking home from town in the afternoon when a boda boda driver pulled his bike off the road and in front of me.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but he greeted me - ‘Dr. Joseph, it’s James Ouma with the street boys.’  We chatted for a while and then he said, ‘I have talked with the boys and they would like you to come and speak to them.’  Ok, when?  ‘On Friday morning at 9.’  I will be happy to come.  Where?  ‘In the public park on the square downtown next to Barclays Bank.’

So this morning came.  I had to arrange for my househelp to come early.  I went early, parked my car at a nearby parking garage, and walked to the square.  I was expecting my friend James with a group of 5-6 street boys.  I turned the corner, and there, sitting on the grass was a group of about 40+ young men, and my friend James.  There were more people on the fringes - passersby, security people, shop owners, all watching to see what was happening.  So I prayed ‘Lord have mercy’ and decided to greet and introduce myself to each one.  Some of them were ok in English, some not, some of them were entirely present, others had the glassy stare of being under the influence of something, probably glue.  Many of them carried little plastic bottles filled with something which I suspected was glue.  Some of them were in their twenties.  I asked one who looked really young how old he was and he said ‘Thirteen’.  None of them have a home.  All of them live on the streets of our city.  Most if not all are addicted to glue or some other substance.  And here they all were, spread out in front of me, waiting for me to say something.

So I told them something about myself.  I told them what addictions had done to people I know and love.  I told the story of the garden I had when I was a young pastor, and how it started out so beautiful, with so much promise of lots and lots of produce.  But obligations took me away from my garden for three weeks, and when I came back, the weeds had taken over.  The garden failed and was unproductive.  And we too are God’s garden, created to be beautiful, productive, fruitful, and a blessing to everyone around.  But when we allow the weeds to grow, and we don’t cut them down and pull them out, it chokes the life out of what God intended to be good.  And look at us, all of us, we are all being choked by the weeds.  But we don’t have to stay here.  The weeds don’t have to define our life.

The small plastic bottles carried by some of these boys are filled with glue.

I went on to tell about Jesus and the good news of the salvation he can bring to each of us, if we choose to follow him.  Jesus will give us a new life.  But we have to be willing to leave the old life.  And that is very very hard, because for so many of us, the old life is the only life we know.  And the old life may be killing us, destroying us, but we are afraid of leaving it.

I went on for some time.  And then I introduced our priest whom I had invited to join me, who shared his testimony.  And then we were done.

We were immediately mobbed by a bunch of young men who were hoping for a handout, or for breakfast or something.  I have a personal policy not to give out money at events like this, because first it sets a bad precedent.  Second it is essentially paying people to come.  Thirdly, I can’t afford it.  I learned long ago that an addict cannot be trusted with money, however sincerely they may intend to use it for proper purposes.  The Father and I said our goodbyes to the boys and to James and went and debriefed at a coffee shop.

James is keen for us to come again.  I don’t know how many of the boys will show up now that they know we aren’t coming with handouts.  But it is an opportunity to meet young men who are at the very bottom of Kisumu society, and to share the hope of our lives with them, the Lord Jesus.  Ironically, there were many times more young men sitting on the grass in that park this morning than their are Faithful attending our Divine Liturgy on Sundays.  Sometimes God raises up a congregation from the most unexpected places.

But this experience also raises very hard questions.  Why are there so many boys and young men sleeping rough, sniffing glue, abusing alcohol, engaged in petty crime just to survive here in Kisumu?  What happened to their families that they are treated as cast-offs, worthless to everyone?  How can they be delivered from the grips of the addictions that are strangling so many of them.  And given that this is the only way of life that so many of them know, how is it even possible to help save them into a new way of living?  And with no resources to help?

I have no answers.  I only have this morning’s experience.  And the fact that for whatever reason, the Holy Spirit has used the boda boda driver James to bring these boys to our attention.  We are like the disciples when asked by Jesus to feed the 5000.  With what? they said.  With what? we say.

Jesus overcomes, not with money or programs, but one by one through relationships.  It doesn’t seem very efficient.  But relationships are the only context in which love becomes free to work.  And love is the preferred miracle that Jesus employs when He is reaching out through His people to save someone.

I have no idea where this will go.  Only that every journey, however long or short, begins with a first step.

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