Two months ago, we began our time in Nairobi by taking a week-long language acquisition course. For that week, each of us was assigned to work one-on-one with a Kenyan who would serve as our first language tutor. Mine was David (not his real name), an outgoing, always smiling young man who stood out as the unofficial leader of the group of eight Kenyans. He was always very encouraging as we worked together that week, for example, proclaiming that I would be preaching in Swahili in a matter of months. (Doubtful.) We were often sidetracked from focusing on language and talked about Kenyan culture and politics here and there (in English, of course), until our teacher came by and encouraged us to get back on task. He informed me that Obama stands for Original Black African Managing America (hence the title of this post). All week he called me Jimmy, although due to his accent it didn’t occur to me until the end of the week that he actually didn’t know my name. At the end of the week we exchanged contacts (at which point he realized my name is Jamie) and hoped to stay in touch.
It just so happened that we were assigned to attend and become involved in his church, AIC Milimani, for our two months in Nairobi. It’s a fairly large church, and they have a screen above the pulpit in front and a camera that usually focuses on the pastor but occasionally pans around the congregation during the service. David runs the camera every week. David joked that he would find me with the camera some week.
A week or so later I attended a funeral at the church. It was well attended, as most Kenyan funerals are, with perhaps 400 to 500 people. I was late, so I sat in the back, only about 10 rows behind where the camera was mounted on the low ceiling. Again, David was running the camera. As the pastor was preaching the sermon, David began to pan around the congregation. I began to realize that he was getting close to where I was sitting. Suddenly, I was on the screen, but with about 20 others as well. Then he began to slowly zoom in. “No, David, no,” I thought. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a funeral!” He zoomed all the way in on my feet and then began to slowly pan up. In a few seconds, my face filled the huge screen above the pastor as he preached. I did my best to look like I was very focused on the preacher and ignore the fact that I was being featured on the screen, but it was hard to keep from feeling nervous. It felt like forever that the camera was fixated on me, although perhaps it was only 10 seconds or so. The pressure was getting to me, and I started to smile a bit, almost involuntarily. David immediately panned back to the pastor.
Perhaps that gives you a bit of a picture of David. Always very happy, often joking, friendly, and already a good friend. Over the past two months we have had some great interactions. I joined the young adult singles group one Sunday and listened with great interest as David and others openly shared their struggles as older single folks in a society where it’s expected that one get married and have children at a relatively young age. I was moved by his prayer in church one Sunday that earnestly and passionately brought the needs of the congregation before the Lord, but not until after five or ten minutes of equally passionate praise and thanksgiving. He taught us how to use the public transportation in Nairobi, taught us how to be cautious, and took us for a tour of downtown Nairobi. All this time, I had only received bits and pieces of his background. Finally, last week, we had lunch together and he told me his story. Here’s the short version:
He was born sometime between 1980 and 1984, but he thinks he’s probably 30. He didn’t realize it when he was young, but his family was very poor and lived in a rural setting that is poor in general. He is the youngest of eight and his father has neglected the family and failed to provide for them. He is the only one among his siblings to go beyond about sixth grade. As he grew older, he worked hard to be able to help provide for the family. He literally put a tin roof over his mom’s head. After some time though, he grew tired of being counted on and decided to move to Nairobi to try to go to school. When he arrived in Nairobi, he had absolutely nothing. No money, hardly any possessions, no place to stay. He went to a high official in the AIC church and asked for help. The official committed to paying for his school fees so that he could pursue a degree in Nairobi, but he only ended up funding a couple of semesters for him. In the meantime, the pastor at AIC Milimani made an agreement with David: David could live at the church as long as he helped out with various things around the church. I knew that David was around the church a lot and eagerly helped with many things, but this was news to me. I wondered where he lived since I knew there was no housing at the church. For some time now, David has been looking for some steady work – or any work – while looking for an opportunity to return to school. He wants to complete a degree in journalism, but he has a passion for politics as well. His goal is to be the President of Kenya, and I don’t think he’s joking about that. He told me of a recent job opportunity, but given the corruption and nepotism often present in Kenyan politics, he would have had to cozy up to a certain politician with whom he disagrees in order to get the job. He refused. David is clearly a man of integrity and has warned me many times of corruption. He wants to get involved in politics in part to clean things up. I asked him how much it would cost per semester for him to return to school and finish his degree. Just $700 per semester. That’s it. Yet that must feel like tens of thousands of dollars to him.
Compared to what I am used to, David is quite poor and has next to nothing in terms of worldly wealth or goods. Yet he radiates with joy. Despite insurmountable odds and no hope of human help on the horizon, it is clear that he deeply loves and relies on the Lord, trusting in God’s provision and timing for his life. His prayers are filled with faith and trust. His hope is not ultimately in this life.
These past two weeks I have preached at AIC Milimani on the subject of prayer, particularly what types of prayers the Lord delights in answering. He told me he felt as though I was talking directly to him, but it occurred to me that he already lives and knows what I have been sharing from Scripture better than I do myself. He records the sermons for the church as well. In this next week we are moving on from Nairobi and AIC Milimani, so a few days ago I paid him a visit to obtain a copy my sermons. Unexpectedly, he invited me to his home.
Behind the main church building is a small, dilapidated wooden shack. It is divided in half, and one of the rooms is his. His home is just big enough to fit a couch alongside one wall and a love seat alongside the other. He has a dresser and a small table with a small TV. These items fill the space, with just enough room to walk around. The walls are thin plywood, warped and old. His wooden door is poor plywood as well, and I’m not sure it even latches. You would never guess he had so little because he always dresses so well. Every time I see him he is dressed as if headed to church Sunday morning. I’ve found this is typical of Kenyans. They dress very well even if they live in poor circumstances. After he gave me a copy of the sermons, we talked for a while, some about US politics. Then before I left we prayed together. When we finished, he enthusiastically said, “Wow, I’m just so grateful for prayer. I always say it is the one thing that will always have value and is never wasted. Money can be lost or stolen and things can as well, but prayer is never wasted.” As we were leaving his place together, he added, “I don’t think there’s anything that can take away my joy in the Lord. Sometimes I tell Satan, ‘Bring it on. There’s nothing you can do to me that will take away my joy.’” The wisdom of taunting Satan aside, I think I believe him.
David has been a great encouragement to me and I’ve been convicted about my own attitude toward possessions and what I think I need. As an American, I am rich compared to David. But that’s only material wealth. He is incredibly rich in Christ and in riches that will abide. I may have the PhD in Old Testament and I may have been the preacher the past two weeks in church, but in terms of our relationship with the Lord and living in dependence upon Him, I think I probably have more to learn from him than he from me.