It’s complicated. Step back and contemplate the religious scene in America, and it is not uncomplicated. But here in Kenya, it is different. Part of what I was hoping as a result of an extended time in this country was that I would experience culture in a way that was not possible in previous guided trips. Unlike the US, we see the message of Christianity all around us here. Words and phrases are printed on the outside of shops and vehicles. Yesterday we traveled to Nairobi and back to Nanyuki and most of the buses, matatus, and trucks covered with references to God, Jesus and salvation. To be fair, we also passed churches that were painted with advertisements for gum and baby diapers! (Maybe a new funding tactic for Messiah – or maybe not!)
From several websites that I checked about 80% of Kenyans are Christian (a third of these are Catholic), 10% are Muslim, and the other 10% comprise other religions or no religion at all. But just as in the US, it is not as simple as the numbers indicate. We walked through town today (yes, mzungu walking) and it appeared more people were not walking to church than were. With church windows wide open and amplification at full volume, the sounds of praise and worship sometimes felt like a competition to see whose message is the most overpowering. We walked past a large church of no particular denominational affiliation and it was silent even though throughout the week we heard singing and preaching filling the marketplace from that building. With the marketplace silent, that church is silent. In this town, we’ve seen churches that are part of denominations that we would recognize, a mosque, a Sikh temple, and buildings and tents clearly Christian but without any affiliation. We’ve listened to comments by whites and Kenyans, and it’s complicated.
This morning, we attended the African Inland Church (a denomination indigenous to Kenya originating in the mid-twentieth century). At the end of the service, I was introduced to the pastor (also Pastor Steve) as a pastor and immediately he invited me to preach next Sunday. I’m not opposed to doing so (their early service is in English), but it doesn’t feel right. I’m a mzungu – and what right do I have to preach to Kenyans? Especially when we learn more about the divide between whites and blacks. They appear to live in two different worlds with a great lack of understanding about each other.
Last night as our tuk-tuk driver took us home, we discussed his experience earlier in the day when he was stopped by the police. In his three years as a tuk-tuk driver, it was the first time he was stopped. He was told that he did not have a valid license and it was taken from him. The police demanded that he pay to get it back – an amount that he did not have because he had used all he had to take his young daughter to the hospital the night before. He told me that the police noticed that he was transporting mzungus and therefore he must have a lot of money. We described this to our host this morning and she responded with disgust at how the authorities act.
Why are mzungus not in churches? What if you were identified as wealthy simply by the color of your skin? What if you were immediately charged more for everything because of the color of your skin? What if your response to mercy as a part of the church was used in other ways and taken advantage of as a result of the assumption that you are just plain wealthy? How long would you remain within that church? And to be fair, the mzungus have immediate assumptions about the Kenyans that they cannot be trusted and are quick to take advantage. I’ve not experienced open hostility, but I cannot shake the fact that I am mzungu. I want to say to Kenyans that I’m not like other mzungus, and I want to say to mzungus that I’m not like other Christians.
You see, it’s complicated. The religious scene is complicated. The acts of terrorism by Islamic militants from Somalia have increased the tension between Christians and Muslims. I’m told that Muslim men no longer wear traditional clothing on Fridays (the Muslim day of prayer) and the women who continue to wear hijab risk harassment. And often what one finds in Christian worship (particularly in the tents or unaffiliated churches) where the pastor is self-identified as “prophet” is a prosperity gospel where a commitment to the way of Christ includes a promise of healing and riches – and yet the only one who appears to reap the reward is the “prophet”. It’s complicated, you see. On the surface, the message of Christianity is seen and heard everywhere, but it is far more complicated that it seems. Even our own United Methodist denomination has withdrawn financial support from east Africa because it cannot be determined where the money ends up.
This week I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s autobiography. Peterson is the author of The Message version of the Bible. He states that the church ought to be “the place where dignity is conferred”. What if the church was the place where you could count on each person being treated with dignity – mzungu and Kenyan? In my time as a pastor, I have longed for the church to be the place where love is unconditional – the place where there is no judgment, just love. We do not bring change into anyone’s life, but we can love – and love in such a way that each person is opened to the God who brings the kind of change that is necessary for the Kingdom of God to be found on earth as it is in heaven.
Maybe I need to preach next Sunday after all.