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From the President

Friday, June 6, 2008
Reflections from Africa

I just returned this morning from Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa.  A massive encampment of between one and two million people built around a river that is extremely polluted … I think you get the picture.  It is pretty close to as bad as you can imagine, the one exception being that recently the Gates Foundation installed public toilets, fresh water and security lights in different locations.  Prior to that, there was no sewage system. 

The Kibera area was the scene of some of the worst fighting during the recent unrest.  Many churches, shopping stalls and homes were burned out.  Thousands of people fled for their lives and were housed over the last few months in a nearby soccer stadium.  They are just now being forced to return to their homes.  Some are still afraid because of what they experienced during the unrest.  Others return to find their “homes” have been taken over by others.  Things have settled down considerably, but the situation is still tenuous.  Graffiti covers many walls, usually calling for sustaining the peace. 

We walked back in a ways through the very narrow passages until we came to the Church of the Nazarene, which is transformed into a school through the week.  The school serves three hundred fifty students, up through the eighth grade.  The headmaster walked us around to each classroom where the students stood and respectfully recited their greeting and then, in each room, sang a song for us, either in English or Swahili. 

The first room, which serves as a small sanctuary for the church, was mostly kindergarteners and pre-literate students.  Six classes were in one large room.  There were probably about 125-150 children.  The play area outside was surrounded by slum houses and smaller than our living room at home.  Each of the classrooms was tiny, no larger than our daughter’s bedroom, each with 25-40 students crammed in as tightly as they could be.  The “classrooms” were very dark, almost hard to see.  Some had a single light bulb in the middle of the ceiling, but none were turned on.  Their singing was spirited and usually had something to do with joy in the Lord, the greatness of God, or having a positive attitude (“actions are stronger than words”).  Many of the children have lost at least one parent to Aids or other diseases. The children pressed in on us and reached out across the great chasms of culture, language and social class to touch us in a symbolic moment of connection.  I remembered the stories of diseases that people pick up in the slums of Africa, but somehow, in the moment, it didn’t seem to matter… 

The pastor’s daughter, Janet, works as a teacher in the school.  She was our guide for the day.  She led us down around and through the slum area to the small, tidy space she calls “home,” a small room with a TV and a stack of books she is reading for the ministry courses she is taking from the nearby Nazarene extension.  She lives intentionally in “the neighborhood.”  She puts a whole new meaning to the words “incarnational ministry.” 

Last week I visited some of our Nazarene Compassionate Ministries in Kisumu, a short 45-minute flight over by Lake Victoria.  I was with two dedicated Kenyan young men for the day who took me to several economic development sites.  I offered a little money after visiting the first site, a day care and school for children and vocational programs for youth, including sewing for girls and carpentry for boys.  My meager gift of about $10 was celebrated.  After visiting the second site, I was so humbled that I took all the money I had brought with me out of my wallet and gave it to the two Kenyan young men who were compassionate ministry workers and told them to use it wherever it was most needed.  The words that came to mind were, “woe is me, for I am a sinful man and I live among a sinful people!” 

One of the projects was a co-op of 34 widows (mostly AIDS widows), of all ages, but quite a few who were young.  The culture continues the practice of “wife inheritance” in which widows become the responsibility and “property” of their husband’s relatives.  This obviously sets them up for any of a number of abuses.  The co-op provides an alternative to wife inheritance for these widows.  NCM helped build some chicken coops for them to house their chicken industry.  They also have a large field in which they grow maize and other garden vegetables.  They are all volunteers, and support themselves in other street economy enterprises.  The money they make from selling eggs and chickens goes to support 300 orphans in the area.  Rather than an orphanage, the orphans continue to live in their homes.  The widows make regular rounds checking on them and bringing them food.  Pretty amazing when you think about how this project weaves together grief recovery, empowerment of women, economic development and care for orphans!   

Well, I’m still doing a lot of processing.  People here have thanked me for coming, but I don’t know how to tell them what a gift it has been to me to be with them for a few days.  I feel as though I have been on a pilgrimage of compassion and justice.  It helps me know how to pray, but also challenges decisions I make in everyday life.

And I remember the call to be people of the Kingdom is a call to righteousness and justice.

Ron Benefiel

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