I woke up today somewhere that I’ve never been before–in Africa, just below the Equator. After two days of almost non-stop flying across the world, we had made it by Saturday evening to Kisumu and the comfortable surroundings of St. Anna’s Guest House. I was assigned the “Hobbit Room”, a diminutive suite all by itself with a doorway about 5 1/2 feet in height, sized perfectly to seriously dent my 5 foot 11 inch head, until I quickly learned to duck. It’s been a strange night, sleeping in this tiny room for the first real time in about 30 hours. After the also fairly surreal experience of eating Indian food in Africa with our travel group, I headed back to the room, ducked (this time!) under the door, and studied my sermon for a bit before I finally crawled under my mosquito net and instantly succumbed to the sleep of exhaustion. In what seemed a few moments, the alarm was buzzing on my phone, and our first Sunday morning in Africa was in motion.
I learn we will walk to church this morning, about a mile or so away; we set out with a few of the group who’ve thankfully done this before. We walk along a roadway lined with some large homes and older estates. This part of Kenya has been here a long time, and I wonder at the history. Before too long, we turn the corner and see a larger highway, then meander across a field, navigate an ominous drainage ditch, and cross the asphalt. The typically chaotic traffic is less so this morning, early on Sunday. Even most of Kenya sleeps in on Sundays it would seem. We walk down an incline, and then are quickly swallowed up by the narrowing corridors of Nyalenda slum, the second largest slum in Kenya; a slum is defined here as a community where people live without running water or electricity. At the low end it is estimated that some 300,000 live in this one. We must be a strange sight, this gaggled queue of jet-lagged white people, purposely walking along a path I dare say not too many Americans travel. There are ramshackle houses and storefronts all along the way. I see vegetable stands, banana sellers stalking about, charcoal dealers, a butcher shop even, with an indistinguishable hock of meat hanging in the open air. I wonder for a moment how much a pound of mystery meat might cost in the Nyalenda slum, and who here might be able to afford it, and how fresh it might be. Lots of questions with no answers.
We walk deeper, much of our path strewn with trash, or muddied with the laundry water and tributaries of sewage from the hundreds of homes without plumbing. The smell of wood fires and acrid burning plastic mingles with the damp odors rising at our feet. Not enough wind here! At one point I watch a child draw a little bucket of water from a depression, scooping it up in a pail and running toward home with it. Even my one semester of microbiology makes me shudder at the thought of what might be in it. Up and down and across the one-car-wide road we continue, dodging the worst of the sinkholes and trying to look inconspicuous. It doesn’t work very well. Finally we come to our destination, a large clinic building on one side, flanked by a large schoolhouse on another. These buildings are blue, brightly decorated, almost out of place in the dinge of the slums. I will learn that they are indeed jewels of Nyalenda, specifically planted there to touch and bring light to life in the slum as much as possible. As we walk into the gates, the sound of singing wafts around the corner of the clinic building, and I am surprised to see a large, well-worn, blue and white striped tent awning. It is the Ringroad Church of Christ, and it is bursting at its open-air seams. This is where I’ll be preaching today. My stomach feels funny. Our journey (and this article) have already taken a long time; but the church here cannot be understood apart from its setting.
What follows this morning at church may not have been the strangest worship experience of all my preaching years, but it certainly was the first time I’ve had a goat wander up to the platform and take a seat underneath the communion table. (I’ve seen donkeys in church before, but that was at a pageant, or some of the more stubborn two legged kind who tend to show up often!). I still get a little tinge of nerves every time I stand up before a crowd. But this is different, as we are given seats of honor in the front row. We’re sitting backward on the seats of desks from the school, ordered on a slab, chunks of concrete and rebar symmetrically forecasting a real building someday. And now that we’re here, the real service begins. A few songs are sung, some with vaguely familiar tunes. Even though many Kenyan’s speak some English, their accents make it hard for my West Texas ears to assimilate, and most of what I hear is their native Swahili. As the service progresses, the butterflies in my stomach go on the rampage. The goats 20 feet away in the field next door are teaching a biology lesson that’s hard to miss, and all this time, with everything else I’m trying to take in, I’m fairly certain I’ve brought the exactly wrong message for this crowd who have emerged from the slums to become a congregation.
It wasn’t even my fault. A few weeks before Larry Wu heard me preach a sermon on avoiding the pitfalls of materialism, or being sure to live with loose-handed approach to the things we have. He said it was exactly the right message, and that it was the one I should preach in Africa. I trusted him. He’s a smart guy. He said these folks needed to hear it. But my first impression is that these people have next to nothing, that they know and live out abject poverty every single day in a way I can’t imagine. And the more I think about the disequilibrium between their circumstance and my sermon, I’m unnerved. And I’m really missing Sunday back home!
Since there are no alternatives, as my turn comes I stand and rather awkwardly prove how out of place I am, by spending both of my Kiswahilian vocabulary words in the same opening phrases. “Jambo”–“greetings” I say, and they answer back, “Jambo”. Wow, I’m bi-lingual. I mention the other word, tumaini, which means hope. And I, more than any person present perhaps, am hoping I can pull this off. I’m saved in part by my interpreter, a gentle giant of a man named George Obonyo. George is the pastor of this slum church; I am instantly impressed with his demeanor, and his voice. He is the James Earl Jones of Kenya. I had instructed him before I began to not let me say anything stupid, and to improve my message any way that he could. I quickly believe him to be capable of both requests. Having gone too far to quit now, I wade in deeper and George and I learn quickly this dance of sharing a sermon in two languages. He mimics my inflection, he gets excited when I do. He sometimes uses 20 words for my one, and occasionally one for my twenty. It’s interesting, and the crowd is riveted. I must be quite the oddity, or entertainment must be in short supply in Nyalenda; perhaps both! I’m thankful for the 20-plus other white faces in the crowd. They look out of place here too; at least I am not alone!
I give it my best, and do finally manage to land the sermon, still wondering if I’ve also managed to offend a church with my message that seems to fit spoiled and wealthy Americans so much better. But the response is warm, and later Larry will remind me of what I know already–that even those who have very little can still be gripped by it; they have fewer idols to tempt them than we do, but the idols are still ever-present and just as real. If I only have a bowl, a cup, the clothes or shoes I wear–it is still all-too-easy to think that these are MINE, and that having so little I have no responsibility to share with those who have less. Any people who have been helped significantly can come to expect the help, come to almost demand it. Materialism is a disease for which there is no known inoculation; the only known cure is radical unselfishness and gratitude.
So after what is probably much too long, or at least seems that way, I’m done. I sit down, so very thankful to be finished. We move fairly quickly into the Lord’s Supper, perhaps the one thing in the entire service that resonates in it’s familiar commonality. As I commune there I think of my church family back home who in 8 hours will be doing the same thing. And I think in a new way about the whole word “communion.”
After this the leaders introduce and pray over a new baby, sadly uncommon in a city of orphans in that it has two parents who both know and love The Lord and who desire that life for their child. Their devotion is touching. An offering follows, and I wonder how these people can have anything to give at all. We visitors give generously from our rolls of newly acquired Kenyan Shillings; I suspect the offering that day may cause quite a commotion among the deacons and treasurer. I’m sure it will be well-used, as it is certainly well-needed. And then, just when I think it is safe to begin to feel a little more comfortable, what happens next is the most striking thing of the day, and possibly the entire trip. This crowd, men, women and children who by my standards have next to nothing–the difficulty of whose lives I can’t even fathom–begin to sing with all their hearts what seems to be their favorite song. It goes like this: “He’s done so much for me that I cannot tell it all, I cannot tell it all, I cannot tell it all. He has done so much for me that I cannot tell it all, my Lord has done so much for me.” They sing it over and over with energy I rarely see after church has lasted two hours! And as they sing, I realize they understand what I was preaching about, and now they are teaching me, and showing me, after all, that they are the richest people on the planet. That’s the real sermon of the day, and I will never forget it.
A long time ago God brought a message himself to a world that was diseased, destitute and lacking. While he had been showing us himself and his love for a long time, we weren’t understanding very well. So to interpret and demonstrate his love in a way we could understand, this God became one of us, and lived right in the slum of sickness and sin and disease and heartache, right here with us for a time. He became poor, clothed in our rags, confined to our skin and our seasons. Ultimately, that skin was shredded for us, and all of his perfect sinless blood was spent to pay for our sins. Through that gift we orphaned slum-dwellers became the adopted sons and daughters of the King himself. This is good news that he brought. And now I am guilty no more, and filthy no more and sick no more. He’s done so much for me that I cannot tell it all….!