A Sermon on a Short-Term Missions Trip to Kenya
Sermon on Short-term Mission Trip to Kenya
Having spent the last month in Kenya, I’m used to standing before full churches like this one and speaking for 2-4 hours. But don’t worry, this morning I’m going to talk to you only for a few minutes.
This summer a team of 18 Americans, including nine of us from the seminary, went to Kenya to build and 8-room secondary school for the village of Chavogere and to offer catechism lessons in surrounding villages. But I don’t want to stand here and tell you about the things we offered to the Kenyans; instead, I would like to tell you what the Kenyans offered to us and to every American.
Joy and Love of the Kenyans
The first thing I’d live to talk about is the joy and hospitality of the Kenyans. When our van arrived into the village of Chavogere, we were immediately embraced by the people as family. Hundreds of people surrounded our van and welcomed us with smiles, clapping hands, dancing, and beating drums. We received the same kind of welcome with every different village we traveled.
Now most of the time our team stayed in the village of Chavogere to help with the construction of the school. But every other day or so, a group of two or three seminarians were sent out into surrounding villages to offer catechism lessons to the people. Usually we spoke about basic aspects of our Orthodox faith, such as the role of icons, the Divine Liturgy, the Jesus prayer, etc. Every time, after teaching for about 2-3 hours, the people of the village would beg us to stay and teach them more. The Beatitudes say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Truly the Kenyans are filled with the Holy Spirit, as we saw the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Reality of Situation
I can stand here and tell you about the joy and love of the Kenyan people and romanticize their lives for you, but the reality of the situation is that they are suffering terribly.
Every night before I fell asleep, I would lie on my bed in the dark as I heard the monotonous sound of beating drums from a distance. For the first week, I didn’t think too much about these drums, as I figured it was a custom for the Kenyans to have late night celebrations.
But one day, as I was walking along the dirt road with one on my Kenyan friends, I heard the drums again—but this time during the middle of the day. I asked my friend about the drums, and he said come with me, I’ll show you. We walked through an open field, and as we made our way over a hill I could see a burial procession in which a family was holding a casket about 4 feet long. Now I understood that the familiar pattern of drums was a Kenyan expression of mourning used for funeral and memorial services. My Kenyan friend turned to me and said, in my area a child dies of malaria almost every day. As I watched this family bury their ten year old boy, it occurred to me that every night I heard the beating drums indicated another death—most likely the death of another child who had died of malaria.
There is another story that expresses the profound suffering and inner strength of the Kenyans. Mama Theodora is a leader of the village who opened up her humble home for us 20 Americans to have a place to stay for a month. She and her children welcomed us and treated us with the most loving and caring hospitality. After a week of living in Mama Theodora’s home, we found out that just a week before we had arrived, her 21-year old daughter, Brenda, had been stung by several bees and died. I could not believe it when I found out. How could Mama Theodora show such love, warmth, and hospitality to us so soon after her daughter died? I tried to imagine my own mother in the same situation. I imagined, what if I died and a week later my mother had to welcome 18 strangers to stay in her home for a month? It wouldn’t happen. My mother would be so stricken with grief that she would not be able to accept the guests.
This mystery of Mama Theodora’s and every other faithful Kenyans’ joy amidst terrible suffering is a great paradox to the world. Only the truth of the Gospel can unlock the mystery of this reality.
Another Beatitude tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Most Kenyans are in a constant state of suffering and mourning, and as a result Christ is with them comforting them. Despite the great sadness and suffering they experience in their lives, their mysterious joy is a result of Christ’s presence in their lives, who is by their side at all times comforting them.
The Need for Missions in Kenya
You may be thinking to yourself, if the Kenyans are so virtuous and holy, then why are we sending missionaries over there? Maybe we should be asking them to come over here and be missionaries for us in America. You may be right, the Kenyans have a lot to offer the lukewarm spirituality of most Americans. But the reality is that Kenya does need us to send missionaries there, and they are asking us to send more.
There are many groups that go into Kenya as wolves in sheep’s clothing, such as the Mormons, Pentecostals, and Quakers, who do whatever they can to seek converts. They do everything from exploiting the poverty of the Kenyans to putting on heavy metal converts to persuade people to convert. We as Orthodox do not go into other countries competing with these groups. We simply go in to share the treasure of our faith which has been preserved for the last 2000 years. We do not force anyone to convert, we simply go in and say, “Come and See. If you are seeking truth, our doors are wide open and we welcome you with open arms. If you are not interested, that’s okay, we will still serve you and pray for you.” These other groups have the freedom to be in Kenya or wherever they want to be. But we as Orthodox have the responsibility to offer a witness of Christ’s presence in the world, so that these other groups will not be the only alternative for Kenyans seeking truth.
I would like to finish by sharing a story with you that expresses the need for Orthodox missions overseas. It occurred on the third Friday during our time in Kenya. My good friend from the seminary, Nektarios, and I were asked to go to another village to offer catechism lessons for the faithful of the Sts. Joachim and Anna church. Nektarios and I arrived in the village and were greeted with the usual love and enthusiasm. We decided to offer 2 different sessions. Nektarios taught the first session on the role of icons in worship, and he spoke very beautifully for the children who were all seated at the front of the church. When he was finished, he led the children outside as the adults filled the church to hear the next session on the Divine Liturgy which I was to teach. As I spoke about the Divine Liturgy, I could hear the children laughing and playing outside with Nektarios. A tremendous warmth filled my heart to think that we’d only been in the lives of these people for 2 hours, yet we have already bonded as a family of believers.
When my session came to a conclusion, we saw that our vehicle had arrived to pick us up and we prepared to depart. However, as we were leaving the people had a meeting, and the priest speaking on behalf of the village, asked us to stay and teach the people more. They all waited with anticipation, and when the driver agreed, we said that we would stay to the delight of the people. So I offered a third session on the Jesus prayer, followed by a period of Questions and Answers. Finally, after 6 hours of teaching and fellowship, parted with our dear friends from the Sts. Joachim and Anna Village.
That was on Friday. Saturday and Sunday passed, and on Monday we were back on the work site in Chavogere. That morning, 2 representatives from the Sts. Joachim and Anna parish walked 10 Km. to Chavogere to give Nektarios and me a message. They said that we probably assumed that our audience on Friday was mostly Orthodox, but in fact most of the people were Pentecostals who came out of curiosity to hear 2 Americans speak about the Orthodox church. We were told that these people were so impressed by the Theology of the Orthodox Church and more so by the love showed to them by the two Americans, particularly with Nektarios who showed such affection towards the children, that they wanted to become Orthodox. They approached the priest on Sunday morning and asked to be baptized into the Orthodox Church. The priest agreed to catechize and baptize all of them.
This story brought great joy to me, since it showed that we never know where the seeds of faith will fall and bear fruit.
As you can see, missions, and especially short term missions, is not only about giving, but more so it’s about receiving…
The people in Chavogere thanked us every day for building them a school. They asked us to thank all of you in America who pray for them and who gave financially to fund the building project. They told us that they would be praying for all of us. This is a great blessing, because we have saintly people praying for us, and I know that God hears their prayers in a special way.