Sunday, 10 February 2008

Kenya Day 5

It had to happen. It was waiting to happen. During Saturday evening worship it finally was unleashed in all its joyful splendour. Eight Kenyan men and women from the Kisi stood at the front and unleashed a passionate and powerful song that had everyone singing and soon after, dancing. In the classic call and response style the high soprano voice washed over us like a cool and refreshing rain on a hot day supported by strong bass and baritone rhythms. In seconds we were clapping. In minutes we were dancing and euphoria swept the room. What a wonderful close to the day!

Of course, the start of the day had been pretty nice as well. The cats did not disturb the night this time. I woke early and was ready for the day about 6:30 a.m. Here, just a degree below the equator, day and night are equal. Daylight shines from 7 to 7. I collected a strong black Kenyan coffee from the dining room and wandered to the upper verandah and watched the sun leaped into the sky just beside the giant eucalyptus in the distance.

And it also had been a deep and challenging day rich with power and moments of meaning. In our early session I had the privilege of leading a section on church structure and organization. African Unitarian Universalism is a mix of ages and stages. Congregations in South Africa and Nigeria date back to the 19th century. But in Uganda, Kenya, Congo-Brazzaville and Burundi, our liberal faith is a brand new presence on the religious scene. These newer groups have formed since 2000 and some as late as 2004. Many of them first learned of our religion from the internet. Bless Tim Berners-Lee (a Unitarian) for his wonderful invention of the worldwide web! These New UUs called to the International Council asking us to come and teach them more about what Unitarianism is all about.

Most of the people here are considered to be ministers by their people, but few have the formal training that we expect ministers to have in other parts of the Unitarian world. That’s not a criticism of their ministries, just an observation of fact. None are paid. In fact, the most common question I received this week from these ministers was, “What do you do for a living?” They are amazed to learn of such a thing as professional paid ministry and that I not a farmer.

My new colleagues display a wonderful passion for their faith and are courageous in working to make it grow. Indeed, many in my world who could learn a lot about growing churches from them. For all that they have many needs to help them grow in ministry. “Lack of resources for study” does not begin to describe the condition here. They need books and articles and teachers to help them understand our history and approach to religion, for use in creating worship and for the development of leadership skills. ICUU Executive Director John Clifford brought a small suitcase of used books about our faith, some of them quite old. He laid them out and invited people to come and choose a book or two to take away. They were snapped up in minutes and carried like treasures.

With the novelty of the UU experience in many parts of Africa, and this lack of resources, a session on church structure seemed like a good idea. The ICUU will circulate a couple of short papers we produced before and during the conference on this topic, but in short I suggested that structures were shaped by the religions that came before, the social context in which the church exists and the understanding of God and faith in the community. But the most important factor includes the people who both create and shape the structure.

I did not speak for long. Instead I asked people to talk awhile amongst themselves about how these factors impacted their long standing or emerging communities. And then we had an open conversation. That’s when it got very deep. Two main issues emerged. The first was the struggle of social context. To be blunt, nearly all of the participants are unemployed or are poor farmers working in a communal setting trying to get enough to eat. Kenya and its conflicts are in the news right now, but all of these nations have faced strife, exploitation, HIV/AIDS and poverty in recent years. The ‘churches’ here have to address those issues in some way almost before they begin if they are to have any credibility. I say ‘churches’ in quotes. Daniel from Kisi told me that his congregation meets under a shady tree outside the village. You can bet that makes regular worship tough in the rainy season! Other groups meet in restaurants or homes. Very few have church buildings of any sort. I am not sure I would have the strength of character to pursue religious leadership under such situations.

The second issue is even more deeply felt. Unitarianism is a new kind of thought, a new approach, a new faith in most of Africa. But Africa is a collection of cultures where elders are often revered and given an extraordinary amount of control over the affairs of the community. Perhaps half of the tension-laden conversation dealt with how to build something new in a place where new is not always welcome. It is a painful issue for the young ministers who are torn by their inbred respect for elders, and their passion for moving ahead with this new religious venture. For them it’s not just a matter of making change. They must find loving answers for a difficult situation.

The best I could offer was a North American analogy about the equality of women in our movement. In the 1970’s, UU women came together and in gentle ways and harsh demanded their place at the table. That place was given grudgingly at first, but in time a new generation of ‘elder’ males grew up as supporters of change in a climate where women were perceived to be fully equal, and the struggle lessened. We suggested that these people in the room were the elders in training. When their time comes to assume that role, perhaps they would be the ones to let go the power.

The second session was focused on worship, led by Rev. David Usher. He encouraged a networking experience where people reviewed their worship practices in their communities and then shared them with the group. There is nothing like the exchange of ideas to spark new thought and new ways of doing things. The high point came when he asked us to recite the Lord’s Prayer in our native languages.

I am continually amazed by the language issue here. We are conducting affairs in English and French, but almost every participant is working in a second (or third) language. I would guess that there are 10 different ‘native tongues’ being spoken among the 50 participants in the room. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more. Most Africans speak at least two and often as many as four languages. Hearing the Lord’s Prayer spoken in so many ways was a powerful experience.

In the afternoon I had a little free time. As often happens at conferences like these days, it suddenly became urgent to go ‘off campus’ for an hour or so. I headed out into the local neighbourhood in search of more bottled water for our room. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the water in Nairobi is fine, but I am reluctant to take the chance. The consequence of guessing wrong would be unfortunate for me and the work here.

So I headed out on a Saturday afternoon to find a still crowed street in this mostly residential neighbourhood. Men, women and children were walking in numbers I usually only see at West Edmonton Mall. The street vendors were doing a good business selling corn cobs roasted over an open brazier, selling sodas and lottery tickets and a host of fruits and vegetables in tiny stalls. The businesses, including our guest house, all have uniformed security. The mini-busses scurried about honking with the bus-boys waving to see if I wanted a ride. Two police officers armed with cut down AK 47 rifles talked earnestly with a man in a late model car – a rare sight around here...the new car, not the police.

About a kilometre up the road I arrived at the little open air mall we visited on the first day. Now well past my jet lag, I looked around a little more and sat awhile under a tree reading a novel while enjoying a Coke (no Pepsi here!). Okay, there was the chocolate donut too... I wandered into the grocery and found my water and then noticed a very well-stocked liquor section. This is a well-to-do area of town. With the devil in my heart I purchased and smuggled a couple of bottles of wine into the dry Guest House in order to lubricate our nightly staff meetings. Sometimes it’s sooo good to be bad!

After a few days together, relationships among participants and between participants and faculty are building. People are feeling safer with one another, and I am finding myself continually involved in ever-deepening and rich conversations, about religion, about vision, about struggles and about life. I am indeed fortunate to be here. I suppose that was underscored last night when I Skyped home and talked with my wife and daughters and learned that it is a brisk -30 Centigrade in Edmonton!

More tomorrow. Bye’ from Nairobi!

1 comment:

ms. kitty said...

Brian, it's so exciting to read your posts from Kenya. A new kind of missionary work, indeed, and a far cry from traditional efforts by the Baptists of my youth. Thanks for your words. I look forward to many more.
Kit Ketcham, PNWD, USA