Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
During Holy Week and Bright Week, 2015, St. Vladimir's seminarians Edward Hunter, Lijin Raju, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to travel to Kenya as part of a mission trip sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), and led by Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi. As the result of a generous grant, the three of us were able to travel to Kenya without any expenses of our own. The trip was one that we will never forget, as it has left an imprint on all three of our hearts.
Our first week in Kenya was spent in Nairobi at the Orthodox seminary, which is run by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios of Kenya. We were able to spend the entire week at the seminary, participating in Holy Week services, which the priests served using a mix of English, Greek, and Swahili. One of the days, Archimandrite Philip Mugadizi (a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary), told us about the work Archbishop Makarios has done as well as what he hopes to accomplish in the future.
The entire time we were there, the staff and students were exceptionally hospitable and His Eminence always went out of his way to ensure that we were taken care of. The highlight of our Holy Week in Kenya was when we processed from St. George's Cathedral with Christ's tomb on Great and Holy Friday through the impoverished neighborhood of Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. We processed in the middle of the town, amidst all the chaos, singing the hymn over and over. During his homily, His Eminence said "Jesus has been crucified, But He will resurrect on the third day. Even if you are in the poorest place, Jesus will resurrect here also." What a powerful message for some of the poorest people on earth! It helped to remind us that what we do for "the least of these," we do for Christ Himself.
After Paschal Liturgy, we flew to Turkana, a two-hour flight northwest from Nairobi. The week we spent there was extremely different than Holy Week in Nairobi. Nairobi is a relatively metropolitan area where there are tall buildings, fast food chains, and people dressed in Western clothing. However, the Turkana are a people who wear their traditional tribal clothing and adhere to their customs more closely. We began our week there by traveling to St. John the Baptist Church and celebrating Agape Vespers. The people there, many of whom had traveled well over a day to be there with us, were ecstatic and smiling wide as we came to the parish.
The three of us had prepared lessons for catechists who had come from their villages to learn, so Monday through Wednesday of Bright Week was spent at St. John the Baptist's church working our way through the Nicene Creed and teaching catechesis to the catechists present. The three priests present, Fr. Vladimir, Fr. Moses, and Fr. Zechariah, were our translators as we presented the material. The evenings were spent often playing games with the children and catechists who were at the parish.
On Thursday, we traveled far into the desert and met under a tree with three villages that came together to hear us preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. About half the villagers who came to hear us were Christian, while the other half were not. Even more predominantly, the men were not Christian, and in cultures such as these, the men decide everything. The priests went to these villages before our arrival to ask our permission to preach to them the Word of God, and they agreed because each time a group from OCMC had come before, rain also came. As can be assumed, in an environment as dry as Turkana, rain is truly a gift from God Himself.
While we preached to the villages gathered under a large tree I had only previously seen in The Lion King, it began to rain. Our God is a God of action! Thus, more than any of our words or theological elucidations, it was the rain that convinced the people there to listen to what we had to say. While we will never know how many of them will end up being baptized because of that day, it is safe to say that we learned what it meant to "sow the seeds of the Word of God," regardless of the turnout, because our Lord works with what He has. As a result of the rain, the tribal leaders asked Fr. Martin to continually bring people back to tell them about his God because every time they came, so did the rain. What a miraculous experience!
At the end of our trip, the three of us told Fr. Martin Ritsi that "...this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience." Fr. Martin then replied, "Why does it have to be 'once-in-a-lifetime'?" It made the three of us stop to reflect. We came to Kenya thinking it would be a rewarding, one-time experience, but all three of us left wanting to do more in Kenya and all around the world to encourage the growth of our Holy Church. While only time will tell what is in store for each one of us, it is apparent that our two weeks in Kenya has shaped us in a way that we had never before imagined.
Our lives are meant to be an embodiment of Matthew 28:16-20. What form that will take is different for each person, but the reality of being ambassadors for Christ is one that we cannot deny as Orthodox Christians. Ed, Lijin, and I hope to return to Kenya one day, to receive a blessing from Archbishop Makarios, to see the smiles of our brother seminarians, to embrace the loving people of Turkana, and to preach the Word of our Lord and Savior to those who have yet to hear it.
Shawn Thomas, author of this article, is a second-year seminarian in the Master of Divinity program. He is from Chicago, IL, and his home parish is St. Peter's Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Edward Hunter is a second year Master of Arts student. He hails from Williamsport, PA, and his home parish is The Elevation of the Holy Cross (Orthodox Church in America). Lijin Raju is in her second year of pursuing her Master of Theology degree. Her home city is Dallas, TX, where she attends St. Mary's Orthodox Church (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church). Read her reflection, "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall..."