Last Christmas, our Zimele immersion group, formed in the spirit of Edmund Rice, ventured north from Nairobi, over the equator, to visit our dear friends at Education for Life in Eldoret. Stanley, our indefatigable driver, had things well under control so I was able to stare out the window and take in the endless colour and vitality of Kenya.
I noticed ‘Gate to heaven’ inscribed on the rusty door of a large shed, hanging by a single hinge. This amused me but then I realised it was the entry to a small church. I soon began to notice just how many other types of churches there seemed to be dotted along the highway and listed a few of their names: Ebenezer Mountain of Deliverance, Better than the Best Sinners Church, Rock of Ages New Church, Year of Explosion Church, Psalm 64.1 Church, Impact Faith Church, Fast Faith, Mountain of Prayer, Wednesday Miracle Church, Kingdom Prophetic Encounter, Creator View House, First Born Fruit of Faith, Addicted to Jesus Ministry and Seek and Save the Lost Church (this one had a signboard showing how to find it).
I filled pages with these names. At Education for Life, Angie Obutu, the director, told us that some of these places double as bars by night. Her favourite was Helicopter to Heaven. Mine was Forever Funerals. I mean, could anyone imagine a place called Temporary Funerals?
Part of me wondered if we were travelling through at kind of religious supermarket. Is it possible that some of these places were relying on the desperation of poor people to create something much more like a business than a community? Certainly, Australia can be similar to this, perhaps in more subtle and devious ways. We seem to be living in a trade war of ideas. Young people, in particular, can be vulnerable to intellectual fads and trends. The question of what it actually means to be human is becoming harder for them to answer.
That very question lies at the heart of the vocation of teaching. Edmund Rice had a powerful message for the desperate kids he invited into his first school, a message that was expressed through making sure they had decent clothes and enough to eat. There are no gradations of human worth. We are all children of God. Our touchstones lead us again and again to the same discovery. They are not ideas and still less marketing tools. They are an invitation. Each of them asks us to share the kind of vulnerable and life giving relationships that Edmund Rice discovered.
This is also where the very simplicity of Christmas is so profound. Christmas peels away all our ambitions and pretentions to bring us back to the heart of being human. It reminds us that God has nothing to sell, only to give. If we are humble enough to look in a stable in Bethlehem, we will find there the key to understanding our humanity. It doesn’t need hype. It is a place of quiet wonder.
In 2014, on my first visit to Eldoret, I met Walter Odhiambo, a lanky gentleman with a winning smile. During a lull in the dance party that marked our arrival, he stood up in his customary bright green shirt and blue waistcoat. He told us he was 51 years of age, the proud father of six children and had been living with HIV since he was diagnosed in 2004.
‘I was completely without hope when I found out I had the disease.’
Walter caught the virus from his wife, Sarah, who, in turn, contracted HIV when she was out collecting firewood and was sexually assaulted by three strangers. The offenders were arrested but used bribes to ensure their release. Both Walter and his wife had tuberculosis to start with and it wasn’t long before Sarah passed away. There is a long and well-documented relationship between AIDS and tuberculosis (TB).
‘I just lost hope,’ said Walter. ‘Our six children were very young.’ HIV was a source of shame. ‘It was a stigma and I suffered discrimination.’
Walter found that potential employers demanded a health check and would not employ anyone who was HIV positive. So he began as a volunteer at Education for Life, paying home visits to the sick and helping people with their medication. He was particularly concerned about a number of churches in the area which did damage by convincing people they are able to perform miracles and cure them of HIV. This was good for business but dreadful for the people who got conned and stopped taking their medication. Walter had heard a lot of nonsense about Satan.
Walter was living in a shack similar of about twelve square metres, the kind of place where many people in my suburb keep their garden tools. With children, grandchildren and others, there were eight people in the space for which he paid about $35 a month. At the time we met, he was two months behind with the rent and the family was about to be evicted. His daughter had to sit at the door of the classroom because he was behind with the school fees. His smile belied a life of great stress and stress, he found, makes his physical health worse.
‘I believe in God,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard when you don’t have something to give your children. I just pray every day that I will have the ability to find work.’
‘I have seen these people so low,’ Angie Obutu says, ‘that I could not believe they would be able to dance. But they do. That’s what inspires me.’
Angie is a widow herself; she has adopted the children of her brother because both their parents are dead. The community is far more than a place of work. ‘This is the face of God for me.’
At Christmas, we find the face of God in a poor and vulnerable child. It is this discovery that leads us over and over to the needs of the dear friends we have made in Africa. The four touchstones of EREA aren’t just slogans. Their purpose is to draw us into godly relationships. The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. That light is less like a neon sign or a large screen TV. It is more like the inner glow that keeps Walter working for his people.