It was fitting that our first full day in Nairobi was a Sunday, a very necessary Sabbath after an eventful and far-from relaxing day of travel. After spending 16 hours in narrow metal canisters shooting at 550 miles per hour across the sky, even the most eager travelers could use a day of rest.
We woke to big blue skies and a perfect Kenyan breakfast – chipati, potatoes, fruit, and “African tea” – from our entirely lovely host mother, a woman who immediately made us feel at home and who cared for us as her own children. There will be much more to say about her through the week – not least of all about her cooking – but for now it will be enough to note that even from the very first morning, after little sleep and a list of aches, she was only ever kind and singing and joyful.
The three of us staying together in this nice little gated community (nearly everything in Nairobi – shopping centers, grocery stores, neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, etc. – is walled and gated), were scooped up by the chief coordinator from Nairobi Baptist Church (NBC) – a beautiful, cheerful woman in her own right (it seems we only met these kinds of women) – and drove about a half hour toward the southwestern part of the city to an enclave called Ongata Rongai.
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Rongai is the site of one of NBC’s current church campuses, the others being in Kibera and the main Ngong Road mega-campus. (NBC planted many other churches as well, but they have gone on to self-sufficiency and to become, some of them, among the largest churches in Kenya.)
Rongai is vast. A huge and growing plot stretching upward and outward on the Maasai land south of City Center. It seems to have a lot of people, but not a great deal of infrastructure. We drove – on the left side of the road, mind you – through hilly, urban sprawl to get there.
As proved a common theme in our travels in Nairobi, you can drive along for a good while through a modern metropolis, then take a left and you are, all of the sudden, in a neighborhood comprised of sheet-metal shacks, or take a right and find yourself in almost jungle-like conditions – groves of trees filled with thieving monkeys. Because Nairobi is higher than Denver – I had no idea! – and claims lots of elevation change from block to block , it’s easy to come over a rise or make a turn and be surprised at what you see. Imagine driving in an Africanized Grand Rapids or suburban Chicago and then, out of nowhere, entering a miles-deep sea of tiny, makeshift structure. One side of the street is a lovely, rising gated community, and the other is a slum. The demarcation between parts of the city is often drastic. Things were no different with Rongai.
We made a left off a main highway, and without warning we were on bumpy dirt road with a slope on one side and ramshackle shanties on the other. Nearly all of these dirt roads – of which we traveled several – are wide enough for only one car, though their traffic goes both ways. As it did in places like Egypt and Syria, where driving seemed haphazard, I was impressed with the skill that even average Kenyan drivers had to maneuver between pedestrians, monkey crossings, cattle (yes, Maasai herdsmen graze their cows in the city) and along roads that Americans would be reluctant to drive.
We drove between the lean-tos and the universally-recognized “African trees” for a while, bumping all the way, chatting about Nairobi and the church, and with Christian music – some in English, some Swahili – playing familiarly in the background (note: they like Casting Crowns in Nairobi). Then we made a sharp right, passed through a gate and into the yard of a small, spare primary school.
This was the site of the Rongai church. It met in the yard under a large event tent.
Perhaps because they knew we were coming, or because we were clearly foreigners, or, mostly likely, because they are just that friendly, everyone around came to welcome us.
We met the lead pastor of the campus and the music pastor — who gave the sermon. We met lots of the parishioners and many young children paraded around us, particularly around C. Jaye and Erin (the kids didn’t seem nearly as taken with me). I especially liked the adult son of the lead pastor, who told me they were immigrants from Ethiopia. They’d lived in Kenya for a long time, at first unable to return to Ethiopia because of conflict there. (This is a problem I encountered numerous times; men and women from Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia who came to Kenya and stayed because of danger in their homeland.)
One of the things that struck me most was, of course, the hospitality, but also the fact that, generally, no one was impressed by us. What I mean is this: in my previous travels, a lot of people seem to be sort of starstruck by Americans — whether because they think we’re special or because they think we think we’re special — or, the alternative, they look down on Americans. At least at the church in Rongai, this wasn’t the case at all. To be sure, the congregants were happy to have us, but simply because we were guests. We seemed, as far as I could tell, total equals, at least among the adults, and as if that was never even in question. We were asked to stand up front and give a brief greeting from our church in Chicago, and the little girls were utterly obsessed with Erin and C. Jaye’s hair, but other than that, we were treated as regular people, as nothing more or less than brothers and sisters in Christ.
The sermon was from Philippians 1, about Paul’s bondage actually serving to advance the gospel.
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
But to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
No need to describe the sermon here, but I will tell you a few things I jotted down.
- Hearing a message about how trials and tribulations might help to push the kingdom forward takes on (at least for me) a greater, fresher, more vital meaning in the context of a place stricken with trials and tribulations that we don’t face on nearly the same scale in white, middle-class America.
- According to the pastor, “Christ” is the most frequent primary noun in Philippians. “Joy” or “rejoice” is the second. This is amazing to me, as Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.
- Paul saw living (in prison) or dying as a win-win situation. The world would tempt us to see such a predicament as a lose-lose situation.
- The thing that hit me most was in the lead pastor’s opening prayer. He prayed over the offering and specifically “for all those who want to give but cannot.” I’ve heard this prayer before, but it’s never hit me so solidly. From a place where most people have means to give, but don’t want to, the thought of people who can’t give really longing to struck a deep chord.
To provide a little frame of reference, the service was about two hours long, which I guess is shorter than usual. It was not particularly charismatic or loud, as one might stereotype. Apart from a few Swahili songs and the fact that we met in a warm tent, and that everyone else was African, it felt very much like a service in my church in Chicago. Soaked in prayer, very much Bible-based and Jesus-centered. The kind of thing that should make any Christian feel at home, united in the universal Church.
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After the service, we hung around the schoolyard, eating potatoes and drinking tea. We drank a lot, a lot, a lot of tea — a kind of creamy, sweet chai, a bit thicker than teas I’ve had in the US and lighter than Middle Eastern teas. C. Jaye and Erin played with the kids — which means the kids played with their hair — and talked with folks, and I chatted with some young guys and the worship pastor (who had gone to university in Oklahoma), as well as a trio of older men who I found out had been an economics professor, an insurance salesman, and a Kenyan ambassador to India, Germany, and other countries, seriously. It was amazing to me that these men, especially the former ambassador, were now living in Rongai and going to this humble church plant that met in a tent in a schoolyard. Amazing and really quite lovely. How much it proves that in the body of Christ there must be no divisions by tribes or professions or neighborhoods; we are all one in Christ, a chorus I heard several times over the week.
Later, we went to lunch with a few people from NBC’s main campus. We found out it was the outreach pastor’s birthday (he and his wife hosted Christin at their place, and he was one of our main contacts before and during our time in Nairobi). Of course we had birthday cake and sang “Happy Birthday” — to which Kenyans seem to know more verses than I’d ever heard.
We went to a shopping center to pick up things we found out we’d need but had not brought, then spent quite a while waiting for JimCab — the hired microbus service — to pick us up. As many readers will know, time is often viewed differently in Kenya (and many other countries). JimCab might arrive 45 minutes early or two hours late. You just go with it.
We visited the outreach pastor at his home, meeting his wife and two young daughters. We had more tea and birthday cake after they invited us in — hospitality! We also strolled through Kenyatta Market, a little outdoor food market near where we stayed. Everything you could want — produce, meat, fish, baked goods, desserts, etc. — sitting out under tents and being sold for cheap. We befriended one fruit vendor in particular who was exuberant in greeting us. He gave us free oranges and bananas and taught us some Swahili words (we made sure to stop by to see him later in the week as well!).
We finished the day at our host mother’s where she talked to me about a volunteer organization she was connected to (I can’t remember now how she was connected). She told me about how volunteers come to help feed the people who come in, but how most of the volunteers (who are supposed to make $35 per month in the position) don’t always get paid what they’re owed, and how they themselves go hungry. This led to talks of corruption and tribalism, but it struck me how the needy were stepping up to help the needy, when even their own means were not being met.
From none of what I write do I want to give the impression of broad desperation. In fact, my eyes were hugely opened to the great hope and faith in the gospel from so many people in difficult circumstances. But I must point out one of the greatest things I learned from my time in Nairobi was about the incredible work being done there by the church to really serve. The poor and rich, reaching out to the poor and rich. Becoming the least of these. So much beautiful, self-sacrificing service. It truly was heartening and beautiful, and I only hope we can do as much with all our great resources as they with theirs.