This article is, of necessity, vague about place and people group, and names have been changed. Although the tribal people it references walk miles for water and live in homes built from sticks and mud, there is a strong Muslim presence with surprisingly sophisticated ways of exercising oversight and control, including internet surveillance. Anyone who leaves Islam to follow Jesus risks being ostracized from the community they depend on. Persecution can include having one’s children taken away, so care has been taken to protect anonymity.
Roger and Sue, my husband’s brother and sister-in-law, have lived in the arid savannah of Kenya for thirty-three years. In June, Rich and I visited them for the first time. Wearing layers of ankle-length clothing and two head coverings in the hot climate was easy compared to being unable to speak the language.
Adjusting to Kenyan culture
Only with concentrated effort could I make my way through even the first few complicated series of greetings the tribal people relish every time they see one another. And if and when I managed those, more greetings followed. I tried not to dread interactions (and there were many; Rog and Sue’s home is open to everyone and always bustling). My body seemed to stay on high alert six days of every week. The language barrier was stressful.
But on Sundays I woke with a sense of well-being. Roger and Rich wouldn’t be away working on the water tower and Sue wouldn’t open the clinic; all four of us would be together. We could speak English some of the time, and at other times Rog or Sue would translate. And the whole morning, from 9:30 a.m. until lunchtime, we would worship. For three hours a week, I’d feel at home.
Not that worship with Rog and Sue was much like worship back in upstate New York.
How worship in Kenya is different than New York
When worshiping in New York I look forward to the beat and energy that Aliajah and Steve draw from the drums, to the evocative note Tim’s harmonica adds to the guitar chords, and to the lyrics that engage my mind and heart.
Back home I worship standing with my friends Janet and Tana. When gratitude and wonder well up, we raise our hands. We greet and laugh and hug. We make announcements, do liturgy and read Scripture. We hear an energetic, challenging message. We eat from one loaf. It’s a rich experience.
Here in Kenya, we gather the ten green plastic chairs from wherever they’ve migrated during the week. We arrange them in an oval so everyone can be in the shade. On a small table in the center are weathered song sheets and worn paperback New Testaments.
A Sunday worship service in Kenya
Nuru, a teacher at the local school who is bilingual, has walked some miles to worship with us. There are a few adults from the village, too—even though the imam might hear about it—and a few children wander in and out. Nuru is a follower of Jesus, as are Rog and Sue and Rich and I. Those who come from the village are noncommittal but interested enough to walk the hot sand to come.
Sue strums the auto-harp. First are songs in the tribal language, which Roger and Sue know fluently now. This people group has no music of their own but Sue has adapted some simple choruses. Nuru, who is very soft-spoken and carries herself with quiet dignity, raises her voice in clear, sweet tones. We sing some songs in English, too, songs I remember from Sunday School and youth group decades ago.
Bibles are handed out. Those of us who can read English take turns reading a paragraph at a time, and then Sue reads that paragraph in the local language. Roger, holding a few index cards packed with tiny notes in blue ink, begins his message, pausing every few sentences to let Sue give the English translation. Back and forth the languages flow. Everyone is invited to offer thoughts and questions. Applications are straightforward and practical.
Nuru asks us to pray for students who can only attend school irregularly and for those with whom she has talked about Jesus. She tells us that this next Monday morning it’s uncertain how many teachers will make it back from visiting their far-flung families. Nuru must be ready to teach whichever students can be spared from herding the goats tomorrow morning. The day will present difficulties; she would like us to pray for her.
A Kenyan teacher’s sacrificial faith in Christ
Nuru’s own husband and children haven’t seen her for several weeks. The Kenyan government randomly assigns teachers to schools anywhere in the country. Jobs are scarce, so teachers go where they’re sent and families manage the best they can. Nuru doesn’t say so, but she must be homesick and lonely.
Her unselfconscious example of sturdy allegiance to Christ is lovely and compelling. Despite the possibility of persecution from the Muslim community, Nuru bears witness to Christ with no sense of it being heroic or unusual, while in my own safe situation I’m still struggling to find my voice. Maybe Nuru has heard of creature comforts, but certainly she has none; my small home and simple life are full of them. I would be undone by the starkness of her circumstances; she would be baffled by the lavishness of mine. I’m grieved by the disparity.
I look out over the hot sand and thorn bushes—this Old Testament terrain—and recall God’s promise to Abraham. A phrase of the theologian Tom Wright’s comes to mind, about God’s faithfulness to his covenant plan “to renew the whole world by giving Abraham a vast, uncountable sin-forgiven family.”
Connected by Christ across cultural and geographical lines
Separated by geography, culture, and life experience, this is what we share, Nuru and I, and it trumps all the rest. The vast sin-forgiven family is our family, Nuru’s and mine. The God we’re worshiping together is the Lord whose eyes “range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). I’m comforted by this—by God’s omniscience, by the fact that he knows Nuru. He knows when she rises up and when she lies down; he is acquainted with all her ways. And he will reward his good and faithful servant.
Even right here, today, in this simple service in the arid Kenyan bush, she finds, as do the rest of us, that the Shepherd King we gathered to worship has brought us to an oasis. The water is sweet and good. We drink and we’re revived.