On Being Kenyan

Ruth is trying to make me into a Kenyan, and, according to her, I am making progress.  The Director of the Joy Village, she and I met Sunday morning to finalize plans for worship at area congregations.  Seeing a Kenyan-shillings bill on top of my Bible, she asked if I had reminded the team about the offering, as everyone in a Kenyan worship service goes forward during the offering.  I told her I had.  We then discussed the invitation from the church next door to join their congregation for worship and a fundraiser.  As the women on our team were each heading to other congregations with their host families, we decided it was important that Ruth and two of our men worship at this neighboring church as a means of expressing our gratitude for their support of Joy Village. 

Then came my next lesson on being Kenyan:  Ruth said, “Nicole, you need to know that, in Kenya, when a Mzungu (Swahili word for “white American”) participates in any gathering, his or her presence is an honor.  Kenyans will assume that everything you say and everything you do must be right – and so they will pay attention to everything you say and everything you do.” 

With those words, it was time to go to worship.  So I slipped the shillings into my Bible, and we began our walk to the Catholic church. 

Whenever I preach, I always enter into worship with some degree of nervous energy, out of a desire to be faithful in my proclamation of the Word.  I wasn’t preaching that morning, but my nervous energy was higher than ever after hearing Ruth’s words.  In part, the feeling was one of humility, as her words reminded me of the Western “we-are-here-to-give-to-them” mentality that has long plagued our history of mission – when my experience has taught me that I have as much to receive (if not more so!) than I have to give my Kenyan brothers and sisters.  But what caused my spirit to tremble most that morning was the other reminder I heard: the importance of, not just the Word preached, but the Word lived. 

I enjoyed a wonderful time of worship with Mama Lucy’s family, spending most of the hour and a half with the two twins Mary and Jane taking turns sitting on my lap and with Kennedy trying to teach this Presbyterian when to sit, stand, and kneel in mass.  In the Catholic tradition, Sunday was the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Among the narratives and writings of these two great ancestors of our faith that we read in Scripture was II Timothy 4:6-7, where Paul writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 

Then it came time for the offering. 

I turned to reach for the shillings in my Bible….and they were gone.  They had fallen somewhere on the way to worship.  What was I going to do?  According to Ruth, that wasn’t just my question, but everyone’s question, for just as she predicted, every eye seemed to be on me, watching what I would do.  Everyone goes up for the offering, she said, but now I had nothing to offer. 

As I sat there aware of the eyes on me, suddenly my eyes became aware of those around me.  During the time of offering, sure enough, everyone was coming forward to the altar.  But they weren’t just offering monetary gifts.  They were also offering spontaneous singing, joyful dancing, and heartfelt prayers.  For my fellow Kenyan worshippers, there didn’t seem to be any concern for what others saw.  Who they are is who they are, and who they are is “Christ in [them], the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  That hope was what compelled them to come forward and pour out all of themselves as an offering to the Lord. 

So I, too, got up.  I, too, came forward.  When I arrived at the wooden offering box, I placed my hand on it and prayed that I, too, might be poured out as a drink offering for the Lord. 

I still have a lot to learn about being Kenyan.  And about being Christ-like.


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