I spent a week last month in Kisumu, Kenya, seven miles south of the equator on Lake Victoria, preaching and teaching about creation care for the Africa Inland Church, an evangelical denomination founded a century ago by missionaries.
The pastor who oversees the region’s health and environmental concerns had invited me. Never having visited sub-Saharan Africa, I was apprehensive about what an American might teach people living a world away. Thankfully, I didn’t know enough to fret about mastering squat toilets, nor about managing the matatus (group vans), tuk-tuks (three-wheeled diesel rickshaws), and piki-pikis (motorcycles for hire) that would transport me throughout Kisumu and its surrounding countryside.
Most in the church are very poor. Kenya has been devastated by AIDS. I met many widows, and dozens of orphans living with HIV. Sunday’s prayers included two families who had just lost children, one in a car accident and the other from malaria, and a young boy whose only parent was dying. Of the three churches I visited, only two had concrete floors and outdoor toilets, and only one had electricity. The third possessed none of these luxuries. But it did boast a small tree, under whose welcome shade a dozen women sat to study the book of Ruth.
They told me their dream of buying land to build a center for women, for mutual support, learning, counseling, and community projects. They had already rented a field together to grow rice for cash to fund their efforts. They discussed crops and cooking, disease and uncertainty, the woes of polygamous marriages — legal in Kenya — and their worries about the next generation, as well as their belief in God’s grace to keep them strong. They were as astounded to hear of the U.S.’s lack of mandated parental leave as I was to learn of Kenya’s guaranteed three months of paid leave for mothers and two weeks for fathers.
They — and the men — discussed their environmental worries. Lake Victoria, on which many rely for food and work, suffers increasing pollution from farms, industries, and damming. Tilapia populations are disappearing as lake water evaporates and deforestation erodes the shoreline. The already tropical climate is overheating and rains are less predictable. Reliance on wood for cooking leads to deforestation and haze.
Yet rather than complain about realities they lacked voice to change, these Christian women and men studied Scripture intently and expressed gratitude in their prayers, music, and speeches. Facilitated by the multilingual pastor, our conversations flowed between English and Luo (the language of President Obama’s father, born some 25 miles away), as church members pondered what they themselves might do to protect their land. We planted trees together, and they made plans to start a tree nursery to benefit all the region’s churches. They discussed animal husbandry and crop farming. One man listened with incredulity as I described Indiana, covered in snow, where crops grow only seasonally. In tropical Kenya, fruits and vegetables fill local markets year round. I wondered out loud what had ever inspired our distant ancestors to migrate from tropical Africa to Iceland, Siberia, and the Midwest.
The physical and moral strength of those I met in Kisumu impressed me, as did their hospitality and their kinship to the soil. Reading together the stories of Eden, of the Exodus manna, and of Ruth the gleaner of grains, I saw that not everyone today stands at so great a distance from our agrarian past. Hearing the Luos’ matter-of-fact descriptions of hardships Americans wouldn’t tolerate, such as frequent electrical outages, expensive schools, high unemployment, and dilapidated medical facilities, renewed my recognition that, seen to scale, most of us have little to fret about. Gratitude is not a product of advantageous circumstances, but a learned grace.
March 6, Lent’s Fourth Sunday
· Joshua 5:9-12 relates the first day that the children of Israel eat food grown in the land of Canaan.
· Psalm 32 remembers the dangers of drought and flood, and reminds humans that God has taught us the way we should go.
· 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 reminds readers that God’s new creation begins now, in this world, where we might become “the righteousness of God.”
· Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 narrates a father’s joy when his dissolute son stops squandering his heritage and returns home.
March 13, Lent’s Fifth Sunday
· Isaiah 43:16-21 describes “a new thing” that God will do: rivers in the desert for the people that God formed “to declare my praise.”
· Psalm 126 remembers God’s restoration in the past and prays for restoration today, like “watercourses in the Negeb,” so that “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
· Philippians 3:4b-14 ponders Paul’s wish, willingly forfeiting his former status, to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.
· John 12:1-8 tells the story of Mary’s profuse anointing of Jesus, as profuse as the bounty with which God graces the earth.
March 20, Passion Sunday
· Isaiah 50:4-9a expresses reliance on God in the face of human opposition.
· Psalm 31:9-16 could be the prayer not only of the lowly, but of the earth itself, distressed, ignored, “like a broken vessel,” yet praying for God’s favor.
· Philippians 2:5-11, resisting arrogance, looks toward the day when every tongue confesses the self-emptying Christ as Lord.
· Luke 22:14-23:56 begins with Jesus’ last supper, reminding us of God’s presence even in the ordinary gifts of food and drink. It ends with Jesus’ body laid in the earth.
March 27, Easter Sunday