Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Life In Kenya: A Musungu Memoir -- Part 5

Power & Money

One thing about the Church in Kenya makes me grateful for the way we do Church here; another thing I saw makes me think something in Nevada is off the mark.

Power Analysis Here And There.

If it sounds like I am being critical of how they do it in Kenya, I am – if we cannot honestly criticize each other, how are we to learn from each other? -- but with major, MAJOR qualifications on my criticism. I do not know that it could or should be different in Kenya now.
My criticism is that the power structure is centralized and hierarchical.

Qualification 1: We need to keep in mind that compared to the Episcopal Church, most of the Anglican Communion is centralized and hierarchical. Our democratic structures balancing lay and clergy authority, checks and balances, etc. is born of the American Revolution which in turn was an off-spring of the English Civil War. In England the monarchy, monarchical episcopacy, and hierarchical power structure eventually won (in the Restoration) and has been gentled by democratizing forces ever so slowly. In these colonies, however, we have always been committed to a far more democratic polity, despite the vestments, titles, and other trappings.

Qualification 2: Bishop Kanuku, by comparison to other African bishops I have known, is a true populist, a “man of the people” kind of guy. He spent his early childhood living in a 2-room grass hut. He is so approachable he cannot walk down a street without being constantly button-holed by people who want to talk. He has no running water in his house. He refuses to be wealthy in a land of poverty.

Qualification 3: I know next to nothing about the culture of Kenya. The way power is held and exercised depends on context and I do not begin to understand the context.

Qualification 4: I know full well that our system frustrates people in Nevada and that by keeping my oath to adhere to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church and refusing to exercise authority I don’t canonically have, I frustrate people. I often hear Nevadans say they would rather have an autocratic bishop.

So here’s the difference in how we do things. Nevada parishes pay 25% of their income to the diocese, and then make most of their own decisions with just enough oversight from the diocesan office to keep them identifiable as Episcopal churches. Parishes in Kenya pay 100% of their income to the Diocese and the Diocese has total control of their operations. After sending in all their money to the Diocese, a parish submits a proposed budget which the Diocese approves or not, funds or not. All clergy and lay staff of parishes, are hired, fired, assigned, reassigned, and paid by the Diocese. As you may imagine, the conversations between bishop and priest are different. They go mostly like this: The bishop calls the priest’s name, and the priest says “Yes, Bishop.” Thereupon follows a series of questions to which the answers are “Yes, Bishop,” “No, Bishop,” or “I’ll try, Bishop.”

It is not my place to say how they ought to do Church in Kenya. But the example of hierarchical centralized power intensified my commitment to decentralized, democratic processes – spreading authority and responsibility as much as possible. It is the way our Constitution, Canons, and Prayer Book prescribe. It is the trajectory begun by Bishop Frensdorff and continued in successive Episcopacies – not that we are doing things the same way we did in years past, but that we are continuing the trajectory of democratization of the Church. It is the kind of bishop I promised to be in the election process. I believe in this – not as a leadership style, a management practice, or a strategy, but as an article of faith.

The Church’s job is building people up, growing them into the full stature of Christ, empowering them become fully themselves. A church full of strong, free people may be a pain in the neck but it is also the glory of God. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” (St. Ireneaus of Lyons). And a strong free Christian, a human being fully alive, does not sit in a submissive position saying “Yes, Bishop” and “No, Bishop.” We want people to think and feel out of their own souls, not to do our bidding.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer says that a free society depends on what Alexis de Tocqueville called certain “habits of the heart”—habits such hospitality, hope, tolerance, open-mindedness – habits which are becoming in short supply in our society today, especially in our government. Those habits of the heart are formed in intermediate social institutions – groups that stand between the solitary individual and the state. Palmer writes:

“The impulses that make democracy possible – and those that threaten it – originate in the heart, with its complex mix of heedless self-interest and yearning for community. From there, these impulses move out into our relations with each other in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, voluntary associations, and the various settings of public life. . . . (F)or those places comprise the vital prepolitical layer of our common life, the social infrastructure on which democracy’s well-being depends.” The church is such a “setting of public life.”

The Brazilian educator Paolo Friere argued in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed that march in line, rote recitation schools train children to become good (i.e., docile) citizens of dictatorships; while schools that encourage creativity and thinking for oneself liberate citizens for freedom, justice, and equality. What Friere said about schools is also true for churches. But for us the stakes are even higher. It is more than politics. It is a matter of empowering human freedom so that we may in our freedom know God, truly in our hearts, a God who calls us to life and liberty, a God who does not dominate us with terror.

So I intend to persist in my bewildering questioning and deferring. Legalist that I am, I will keep in mind that I have a little authority over a few things, but only a little authority and only a few things. That is not and will not be popular. Eric Fromm in Escape From Freedom explained the anxiety-avoidance and responsibility-avoidance psychology of why we hand things over to dictators. “Every woman adores a Fascist, the boot in the face.” (Sylvia Plath) Guys do too. But I will persist in my legacy of the American Revolution democratizing – perhaps out of necessity. For better or worse, I simply lack the capacity to do otherwise. If Palmer, Friere, and de Tocqueville are right, it may be just as well.

Wealth Analysis Here And There.

But when it comes to sharing our resources for the common good and God’s mission, I fear we in Nevada are way short of Kenya, and this is not unrelated to the freedom, equality, and decentralization that I value so highly.

80% of the people in Kenya live on less than $1/day – that’s actual buying power. Yet, their contributions enable the Diocese of Machakos to support 90 priests, 30 evangelists, and a significant support staff. They are building a large new Cathedral. They were building churches and schools left and right. Everywhere I turned, I saw construction. They are funding a mission that is spreading the gospel and growing the church at the rate of a range fire in a windstorm. They get very little outside aid these days. The Church in the West doesn’t have it to give anymore. The people of Machakos are the ones making this happen.

How is that possible? I asked Fr. Lloyd Rupp how the church in Kenya raises the money to do such impressive things while we languish, and he gave the incredible answer that appears to be true. He said the people are poor and the poor are generous.

Thinking back to my parish priest days, I know that is true. The folks in the pews with the most money all too often hang onto it pretty tightly. They are not so much possessors of wealth as possessed by wealth. It is the poor who are apt to be most generous. That is what I saw in Kenya. People gave what they had; they brought sacks of maize to the altar as their tithe. Those who had no money worked for the church or made things to sell for the church. Secular critics would say the church is exploiting them. But because they support the church, the church grows and is strong enough to form Ukamba Christian Community Services which does the community and economic development work to lift them out of poverty. Once they are no longer poor, will they still be generous? There will come the spiritual test.

In Nevada, the church is particularly poor. We have organized ourselves in a way that was designed to survive on very little. The church here is like a desert plant that does not grow large or flourish, but it survives, just barely survives, with minimal water and nourishment. I respect that about the church. We are tough and resilient. But I am concerned about two things.

First, I am concerned that we have not formed the habit of the heart called generosity. Instead we have made a virtue of asking as little as possible of our people, and by asking little of each other we have weakened each other in our spirits. Bishop Kanuku said to his flock the same thing they say in several Native American tribes, “Wealth is not measured by what you keep, but by what you give away.” What if our members gave more to their parishes so that the parishes could give more to others? What if every parish did what some dioceses mandate by resolution – what if every parish tithed to the poor by giving away 10% of its income for community ministries? We do not serve each other well by asking as little of each other as possible.

Second, I worry that we are short-changing God’s mission, both monetarily and spiritually – they go together because money expresses what we value in our society. We have been right to organize ourselves for freedom. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote, but in the same letter he said, “You were called for freedom but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh (self-interest) but in love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13) “Each of you must give . . . not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God who is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9: 7-8)

To “give abundantly in every good work” is not a burden laid on us by our religion but a spiritual practice in faith and generosity, an opening of our heart to give and to receive blessing. Generosity is a moral duty; but it is also a spiritual opportunity. In Kenya, I saw that spirituality flourishing like blossoms on the Flame Trees of Thika. At home, I often hear parishes asking “What’s in it for us?” If the parish asks that of the diocese, it bespeaks a spirituality in which the people are saying to the parish “What’s in it for us?” What’s in it is freedom rooted in faith, freedom to “love not with word or tongue but with actions in truth.” 1 John 3:18; “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and has no compassion . . . ., how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 4:20 “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ but does not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?” James 2: 15-16. This is as true if the brother is starving for food or starving for hope and truth.

So I return from Kenya thankful for our freedom but called to uneasy reflection about how we are using it.

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