Today's reflection is from Kenya team member Jeff Eller.
Our bus driver slammed on her brakes to swerve around a man on a motorcycle carrying sticks of wood piled five foot high. The motorcyclist balanced the wood like a tight rope walker balances his pole, careful not to lean too far in any direction. I’m surprised he didn’t fall over just from people like us passing by him in a big bus. We are traveling from our lodge in Kenya to our host village of Kawira, about forty-five minutes away. We are a mission team of nine people, from Church of the Nativity near Baltimore, traveling in our blue and white bus.
All around us are the sights of thousands of people selling their wares. Most have makeshift stalls or simply blankets to display their goods. The blankets are yellow, white, pink, red, dark blue, and many shades of green. Perhaps the many colors represent the dozens of tribes that have come to live in this urbanized part of Kenya. The men and women are selling mangoes, avocados, sweet potatoes, bananas, and the most beautiful flowers and plants.
There are stores as well, with names like:
“Success Hair Salon.”
“Clean Shelf Supermarket”
“Sparkling Fresh Milk”
Ah, Sparkling Fresh Milk – that’s how the Kenyans greeted me this morning at our lodge: Sparkling, Fresh, Smiling. The Kenyans I am meeting, greet me with sparkling eyes and smiling faces. They make me feel good about myself and about them.
As our bus bumps through the marketplaces, I see hundreds of little churches interspersed among the buildings. One of them calls itself, “New Dominion Church, A Home for Winners!” I’m thinking, “I don’t know if I’m winning or losing or what to expect in Kenya, but I’m hoping for a life-changing event, something truly miraculous. Wouldn’t that be great?” Since my father died, I have been burdened with the care of my invalid mother and the legal troubles of my brother. These issues don’t make me feel like I’m winning.
“How Not to Give”
Before the trip to Kenya, we were thoroughly instructed about charity giving. We studied the book, “Toxic Charity,” which describes how well-intentioned charitable giving backfires most of the time. Our purpose in Kenya, we are told, is to create and build relationships with people in Kawira, not to give them money or possessions.
We were also told that we would be tested on giving. We would be asked to give, or tempted to give because of their lack of things, and that would be an important part of the trip.
When we first arrive at the school, we are welcomed by the village women, who break out into song. Now, that’s never happened to me in America. They are singing in African rhythms, and dancing in a big circle. When we get to the circle, a woman takes each of us by the hand, begins to dance with us and brings us into the circle. In this way we are brought into their family circle.
That afternoon, we play soccer with the kids. Frank (a member of our team) and I are throwing a ball with three boys about, seven to nine years old. One little boy, about five, joins us. He’s a fighter, thinks he can do anything, full of spirit. I can’t believe how much these kids like playing with the soccer balls. I’ve coached soccer for years, but these kids will play forever. I realized, when it came time to pick up the balls and return them to our bus, that they did not have any other balls. One reason, they wouldn’t stop playing was because they were treasuring just having the balls for a short while.
On the way back to our lodge for the night, I felt guilty for leaving the balls at the school. Why not leave the balls there? “My son has more soccer balls than this whole school does,” I thought. At our nightly wrap-up I spoke about my wanting to give the kids the soccer balls. I was roundly opposed by the group. I was called paternalistic, accused of toxic charity! I was in the dog-house.
Over the next few days, the men in our group, made cement, shoveled cement, spread cement, and tamped down cement. We were building new floors for the school. I had lots of time to reflect and wrestle about my motivations for giving soccer balls. All the while, we were being embraced by the community of Kawira. And we were being guided by our Kenyan leaders, Alex and Kate. Both of them know very well the poverty and needs of the village. In their talks to us they dealt with problems one at a time, very deliberately, yet with compassion. When we talked about lack of health care, they spoke with a centeredness and a timelessness that made the problem less urgent. They were so relationship focused and God centered, that even the gravest of problems were faceable. Alex and Kate brought up problems that other people preferred to avoid: Like helping teenage girls with personal hygiene, like telling kids directly what was hindering their success in school. And they addressed these problems with great compassion, so that we wanted to help.
In the afternoons we went on prayer walks with the women and prayed and talked with villagers on the streets. The streets are not urbanized; they are more like streets in a small town in the south a hundred years ago, where every small house is also a small farm. Kawira farms are full of fruit trees and lush growth; food and foliage are in abundance.
My favorite moment was on one of these walks. walked We would walk along the red clay streets with no name and visit homes where there was an elderly or sick person. At one point we met the oldest man in the village, who was a hundred years old. We stopped and prayed at a little country store where the drinking men sat. The men just looked at us, broken and listless. We prayed with an old woman who was sick but greeted us happily. We saw children from the school, playing in front of their houses, with their siblings and mothers. As we walked back to the school, the women started chanting and dancing to a rhythmic beat. It was easy to follow the beat with my feet and be right in the middle of their parade. Yes, it was a parade of happiness, and family, all one, with the Holy Spirit at the center. As we got to the school we were met by another group of chanting women and we all converged on the school where we were surrounded by the school children, who were so excited to be with us. I felt like, “this is it, this is everything, this is God’s love.”
These spirit-filled times with the villagers and with Kate and Alex, helped me realize that they had a lot going for them. That I had to trust the timeless rhythm of their village and the wisdom of their ways. I realized that I did not have the authority to give these kids soccer balls. Only the leadership council of the village has the authority to do that. Just because I have the means to provide them with balls does not mean I have the authority. It was in that moment that I realized I had been assuming authority for other inappropriate giving in my life. For example, I had been assuming authority (responsibility) over my brother’s and mother’s feelings. I had been doing this so long that I felt like it was my duty. How had I been given this authority over my family’s feelings and resentments? Regardless of how it came about, I realized that I had often taken on authority and responsibility that wasn’t mine. Even more, I felt that I could relinquish this false authority and not feel guilty about it. The trip leaders always told me, “you are here to build relationships, not to do or give things.” In that instruction there is no guilt for not giving things.
“Sparkling Fresh Milk”
Toward the end of the trip I asked Kate, our Kenyan leader, what effect we actually were having on Kawira. How much did we “matter,” to use a Nativity word. Kate said, “oh, you are having a huge effect. The effect will be seen in the next generation of this community.”
“Next generation,” I thought. “Wow, such a long-term basis.” She helped me see that good relationships can have a powerful long-term effect. The trip helped me re-orient my thinking from “what can I do for this person(s)” to “let me relate to this person and the doing will come in its time.” If I look at each person the way Kawirans look at me, like “Sparkling Fresh Milk,” then I can have a long-term loving relationship. The trip taught me to be God dependent and to teach those I would help to be God dependent rather than to be USA dependent. I will always be working on this because by nature I am self-willed, but having this experience of being God dependent I will always treasure. And don’t forget to enjoy some sparkling, fresh milk today!