When we weren’t visiting schools in Kenya, we were visiting churches. They often expressed their gratitude to us for visiting them in “such a remote part of Kenya.” I did not have the context to know it was “remote.” But it reminded me of the appreciation our rural congregations in Nevada express just for my ordinary visits. There is a blessing in having one’s presence and mission acknowledged from the outside. We felt blessed to be so welcomed.
The first thing to impress me about the Diocese of Machakos was the number of congregations. There are 120 parishes, but a parish can include several congregations. There are about 300 congregations. The second thing to impress me is that they are growing, growing, growing. Everywhere I looked, they were building new churches for new congregations or building larger churches for congregations that had outgrown their buildings. Why is that? I suspect the very different process they use for discernment, formation, and ordination may have something to do with it.
Evangelists. While visiting churches, I learned something fascinating about the ordination process in Kenya. While visiting the Philippines, I learned that the discernment and formation process leading to the ordination of a priest can take 8 to 10 years. Well, it is similar in Kenya, though the process is different in a fascinating way.
The first step toward priesthood is training as an evangelist. The training is very short and simple. But the newly trained evangelist is then put to work building up the church. Only after putting in one’s time in the field as an evangelist can one begin formal training for priesthood. How long? Some had gotten a fast track – 2 years of evangelism work. Others had spent 6 to 9 years doing evangelism.
This evangelism-first process affects the Kenyan Church in two ways. First, it insures they have people in the field with the sole job of church growth. There are 90 stipendiary priests, 30 non-stipendiary priests, and 30 evangelists at work in the Diocese of Machakos today. Second, the priests are formed as evangelists. In the U. S., we still labor under a 1960’s therapeutic model of priesthood. The emphasis is on counseling and pastoral care. That made sense when the society was already churched; but not in a place where 87% of the people have no faith connection. In Machakos, the emphasis is on sharing the gospel truth and bringing unaffiliated people into the community of faith.
Here in the U.S., we talk a lot about division and decline. The church is making plans to retrench, to adapt to the inevitable process of shrinkage. Those who still hope to spread the gospel message are looking for ways to replace the church family with a no-demands individualistic spirituality. I call it Dollar General Christianity – sell more by cutting the cost. But Kenya has a different idea. We go about being the church in different ways to achieve different results. I understand the goal in Kenya far better than I understand whatever it is we are up to in the West.
Exorcism. We visited one congregation where the Bishop’s specially designated team of exorcists does a lot of mano a mano combat with witchcraft, demons, and supernatural evil. I feel fairly sure Bishop Kanuku took me there with a bit of mischief in his mind. I think he figured me for a Western rationalist who would be utterly wierded out by exorcism. I was grateful for three things that had me ready for them – my experience in the charismatic renewal movement, my training in inner healing training where we learned a thing or two about these practices; and some reading I have done in cross-cultural pastoral care. I learned that what happens or is perceived to happen has a lot to do with our assumptions about what is possible, those assumptions are different in different cultures, and what happens here ain’t necessarily the way it works on the other side of the world. So I was able to have a good give and take conversation with the exorcists – a conversation in which we respected without pretending to completely understand each other. I promised to send Bishop Kanuku the prayers for blessing Holy Water I recently shared with the Nevada priests. Water blessed with this prayer will cure what ails ya, including the random demon.
So much can get lost in translation cross culturally. A nice young man in my church in Georgia kept urging his wife to come meet me. He thought she’d like what I had to say. But the one day she finally showed up, I was away and the supply priest was from Nigeria. His sermon was a long tirade against “witchcraft.” Well the poor young woman there for the first time was a practicing tree-hugging Wiccan. The sermon did not leave her heart strangely warmed. Let me just say that the witchcraft African clergy are up against is nothing like the rituals of New Age Americans. It’s about dominating others, often hurting others. The world in which the African Church serves is different. We may not understand it. But we need to respect it.
LGBT Issues. Speaking of respecting what we do not understand, yes I was asked about “gay marriage” (the hot button term for a number of LGBT issues). This was a question on which we simply were not going to agree, but the conversation was honest, authentic, and respectful. Again I felt grateful for prior preparation. The Indaba Group process and Bible Studies from Lambeth Conference 2008 had given me a sense of what Anglicans in Africa fear from decisions we make in the U.S. I explained, albeit only in part, our experience and the theology that influences us, but did not try to persuade them that I was right – only that a person could genuinely believe what I believe and still be a Christian. No one walked off in a huff. We discussed it, moved on, and had continuing friendly conversation about other matters. I don’t think that would have been possible a decade ago. It is today. In God’s time, things sort themselves out.