Well, the best news today was that the only storms were of the thunder and lightning variety, which was kind of pleasant for a guy who hasn’t heard the rain since the first Edmonton snowfall some months ago. Most of our participants arrived in good order today. A few did not make it, but for the kinds of ordinary reasons that usually prevent people from attending conferences. Things are still peaceful in Nairobi and most of Kenya.
The last group to arrive was the contingent from Kisi, the most embattled western part of the country. But their delays were of the normal traffic variety – which can be utterly fierce in Nairobi. They got here in fine fettle and great spirits.
Others arrived earlier, of course. At lunch I had a wonderful discussion with Rev. Adeyinka Matimojou of Nigeria about the nature of pastoral care. It seems we both like being with the dying and performing funerals. We found a common thread in our shared belief that the pastor needs to help the person and the family face the end of life honestly. “It is a time where there is only truth,” he said. We both also see it as an honour and privilege to be with people in such times of vulnerable honesty. ‘Deyinka and I found a connection across cultures and space.
The other lunch time conversation was with two social workers, one from Nigeria and the other from Kenya. As I listened to them talk about the amazing projects they work at in all kinds of settings, I grew curious. “In Canada, we have social problems, but nothing like the challenges you face with incredible poverty and unemployment, not to mention the HIV/AIDS epidemics. How do you keep hope alive?”
“You have to be a fighter,” said Olufemi, Adeyinka’s brother “You can’t do this work if you aren’t willing to fight. It has to be a calling, and it is the call that sustains you.”
I began to sense that this would be a rich week of discovery in both directions, and conversations unlike any I had ever had before. Perhaps I was discovering that this one westerner didn’t always have the answers...a fault I have been known to possess. Later in the day I would sit awhile with Moses, a young farmer from Kisi. He wanted to know in detail what kinds of crops we grew in Alberta and how long our growing season was and how our farmers managed. He was more than amazed when I told him about Guy who runs the ranch my wife’s family owns in Alberta. Guy is a good and hardworking rancher, but is far from wealthy. Moses could barely believe that a man who ran a herd of 100 cows could be anything but rich. “It is one of the inequities of my country,” was all I could say.
After supper we went into the opening worship. Everything was done in French and English, for our school includes eight francophone Unitarians from Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville. Vincent Desroches has generously come over from Michigan in order to translate. I think he deserves a medal, for live translation is an exhausting art. I stumbled through my own parts of the service translating my own words into French. No one laughed, so I guess I did okay. Next came Kenyan entertainment laid on by our Nairobi UU hoists. There was a young, but gifted musical group who played, sang and danced their ways into our hearts. Then a young girl stood and recited a lovely poem about Unitarianism from her church that I hope to reproduce in a future edition.
I was deeply moved by the welcoming speech of Ben Macharia, the Chair of the Kenyan Unitarian Universalist Council in Nairobi. Though I cannot reproduce it all, here are some of his thoughts:
“This leadership conference, the first in our country, comes at a time when our country has witnessed and is still witnessing violence of unprecedented proportions. Even as we meet to share ideas on the future of UUism in the world, an estimated more than 1000 Kenyans have lost their lives in the senseless slaughter that marked the aftermath of the disputed December , 2007 elections. More than 30,000 Kenyans have become refugees in their own country...
“But all this notwithstanding, we are excited that this important conference which marks a milestone in the growth of UUism in Africa has taken off in an atmosphere of tranquility and brotherhood. It is a testimony to the resilience of the people of Kenya...
“I wish to note here that in this trying time, KUUC was not left behind in the massive humanitarian effort aimed at alleviating the plight of the internally displaced. We have chipped in where we could by donating whatever items we collected, be they clothes or food items.
“As far as the conference is concerned we wish to thank the organizers and the financiers for their efforts in ensuring that everything was done to make it a success. We also wish to thank all the foreign and local participants for their faith in this beautiful land and its people.
“My dear brothers and sisters, this leadership conference takes place against the backdrop of what happens when brother turns against brother and people who have lived together suddenly turn against each other in a senseless orgy of violence.
“It is our hope that this conference will explore the role of UUism in engendering equity and lasting peace among peoples of the world – that it will live up to our principle of promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We pray that as we continue our search for truth and meaning, we shall get nearer to our desired goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, words that are also echoed in our national anthem.”
As a UU minister, I have been preaching the Principles ever since they first came into being. I have always loved them, and tried to live by them. Never was I so moved by those words. Never did they seem so real, so hopeful and so powerful. All I could think was, “Amen, Ben.”
There was a good feeling in the air as we broke up, mixing with the varying degrees of travel weariness of the participants. Many pictures were taken, hugs and handshakes shared. But tomorrow’s 7 a.m. worship (groan) comes early. Most headed for bed...besides, the Methodist Center doesn’t allow alcohol on site. That sure slows the partying down a bit!
We have begun in earnest.
P.S. Thanks to so many of you from all around the world for your kind wishes and responses to this blog. I have been sharing them. We are all finding them a great support and encouragement.