“The American is Nothing
“Our daddy has come!”
It was after the newly formed church in Kenya made the decision to become the Log Church of Kenya that Pastor Joel began to refer to me as “daddy,” and to Vivian as “mummy.” It was also after he had written to me that they as the leadership of their church had chosen me to be their mentor.
I frankly wished that he would not have started calling me “daddy.” It seemed overly intimate to me. In my past experience overseas, when people placed themselves in this way under an individual, it was usually because they wanted that person to take care of their needs.
This manner of acting always seemed to me to be a bit repulsing. It seemed a flattering or fawning type of attitude. The adjective for this is “obsequious.” It is way of acting that is almost subservient, or one of servility. “Sucking up,” to put it in modern terms. It is like a waiter in a fancy restaurant hovering around the table of a wealthy celebrity, hoping to be given a large tip.
I did not like it.
But I never said anything to Joel about this. The reason that I did not was because I knew nothing of the ways of the people of Kenya. I am ignorant of the customs and of the way that people in this part of the world interact, show respect, and generally behave toward one another. Before I even set out on this trip, I decided that I would mostly just observe and learn.
Early western explorers referred to Africa as the “Dark Continent,” because so little was known about it in those days. It is said that the American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley who went to look for Dr. Livingston was the first to use this term.
That was in the middle of the 19th century. We are now in the beginnings of the 21st century, and because the continent now is much better known to the outside word, Africa is no longer referred to in this way.
Nevertheless, to me personally, Africa is still a largely unknown continent. I cannot assume that because I had one experience in some country on some other continent, it would be the same here.
Not a Patrón
In some other places where I have worked, if someone addressed me as “daddy,” or some similar term, I took it in the sense where they were hoping that I would become their patrón. Among other things, this often meant that they would willingly do things for me or follow my suggestions, but in turn they expected that I would take care of some of their financial needs.
I learned in my very first experience living overseas at an early age (18) to be very careful in this. People living in poorer nations very often assume that if you are an American, you have then at your disposal a fountain of money that cannot run dry.
But another thing that I have learned from a very early age, and which has been proven true many times in many places in the world, one cannot assume that the cultural expectations in one part of the word apply automatically to another part of the world.
Because of this, when Joel and the others called me “Daddy,” I did not object, even though I did not prefer it.
When Joel first wrote to me, he addressed me as “Servant of God” or as “Fellow Prisoner for the Lord.” I preferred these titles.
But I said nothing of this to Joel or the others. What I did do however, was to very early instill a phrase which has almost become a mantra with me, “The American is nothing, but the Lord is everything.”
I had told Joel of some of my past work. I wrote to him in an early email, “I have been a servant of God and of the church my entire adult life. I have never worked in a job that has made me a man of substantial financial means. When it comes to finances, I have no great wealth to contribute.”
“However, throughout my life, I have seen God do amazing things. In truth, I have seen many things happen in God’s work that has been beyond my ability to understand.”
I have mentioned previously that when Vivian and I retired a few years ago and had left our overseas work behind, I returned home tired and even somewhat disheartened from my last overseas assignment. Once settled back into our farm in Wisconsin, I told Vivian, “I am tired of being a somebody. I just want to get a few cows and be a nobody.”
I think that must have been what Moses felt when he was tending his flocks in Midian. He had put behind him in Egypt all the roles of responsibility that he was expected to fill, and just enjoy some solitary peace. It is also why I understand a bit of the way that Moses had at first refused when God told him about the next job that he had for him.
“Please Lord, send someone else.”
Those were Moses’ words. They were also my own.
That is also why once I began with talking about beginning this orphanage, I did not want to be the one to whom Pastor Joel and the rest of the people would look to for help. It is why I did not prefer that they call me “Daddy.” And it is also why from the very beginning I am trying to instill in their thinking that the American is nothing, but the Lord is everything. When they have a need, they are not first to tell me, but bring it only to God.
“I am tired of being a somebody. I just want to be a nobody.”
But I have decided not to object when they call me Daddy. I have decided to instead take in merely as a term of endearment. I hope that is how it is meant by them, and not as a patrón.
Our Daddy Has Come
“Our Daddy Has Come”
“Our daddy has come,” the woman called out in a voice loud enough to be heard above the clapping, the cheering and the ululations.
We four men stepped into the entrance at the front of the church building. Joel, who is short in stature, patted the low lintel of the doorway with his hand as he looked back at me, telling me to be careful not to bump my head. I, by no one’s measurement am a tall man, but the doorway was very low.
All four of us extremely tired travelers entered the building. I felt as if I would fall asleep standing up. I was afraid that Joel would ask me to preach a sermon there on the spot, but thankfully, the hour was late and he was as tired as I; perhaps even more so
They did not ask me to preach on that first night. We stayed only for about ten minutes or so. I stood up and greeted everyone from the Log Church of Wisconsin and from my wife, whom I called “Mummy.”
My First Day in Kisii
Journal Entry – November 19, 2017 (morning)
Our brief visit to the church occurred last night. It is now Sunday morning, and I am awaking in Kisii town. After we left the church last night, the same group of men who had brought me from Nairobi accompanied me to the hotel that they had arranged for me.
One of these men of course is pastor Joel. Another is also a pastor of the church. His name is Vincent, but it took me some time before I actually figured out what his name was, since the “n” sound is spoken very differently here. He pronounces his name something like “Vinecent.” The third man was the driver Amos. He owned the car and was a taxi driver. It would be Amos who was to pick me up every day and bring me to the church.
The hotel where I am staying is in Kisii town proper. We had actually passed through this town on the way to the church, but the church is a half an hour or more beyond it on a dirt road that leads up into the hills.
No one in the church has a car or even a motorbike, so every day Amos is to pick me up, bring me to the church, and then back in the evening. There are no buses that run to the remote area of the church.
Kisii is not a small town. I saw online before I left that it has a population of 400,000. The hotel is a nice one. It is quite newly built and has tile everywhere. The floor is tile and the walls are tile and the ceiling is tile. It seems there is a maid constantly cleaning it. My bed is also very comfortable. It is huge—king size.
In fact, it is so large that it barely fits into the room. I actually have no idea how they got the mattress through the door.
I also have my own bathroom, but to get to it I have to squeeze between the back wall and the foot of my bed. I feel like Oliver Wendell Douglas of Green Acres in his own bedroom in Hooterville. His own bed also took up so much room that the door would only open part way. He had to suck in his gut to enter. I took a photo of my bed, but to do so I had to stand out in the hallway so that I could get back far enough to snap the picture.
The bed also has a canopy with a mosquito net mounted over the top that comes down over the sides when it is closed. Malaria is prevalent in this area and I am told it is actually one of the reasons some children at the church are without parents. Some of the parents had died from the mosquito-borne disease.
But I had come to Kisii when the weather was dry and mosquitoes not so prevalent. I will put the net down over my bed each night. I did hear a mosquito at times last night, but I actually was not bothered.
My Bed Fort
When I go into the huge bed the net pulled down, I feel like a little boy in a blanket fort. It’s kind of fun, but actually also a bit of a strange feeling. With the net pulled down around me, there is something about being in that enclosed space that makes me feel safe. The rest of the world is outside my fort, and it seems chaotic, but my canopied bed is my own tiny world that I can control. The thought even came to me that it’s a little like crawling back into the womb.
That thought may have come to me because in some ways here in Kisii, I feel a bit like a young child. I am unsure of myself in this place and do not actually know what God expects of me.
But I am here. I have arrived. I am in Kisii, Kenya. I still am not certain of all of the reasons that God wanted me to come. I only know I needed to come. There was no other way that I could continue with my life.
You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.
You are my hiding place and my shield; I wait for Your word. (Psalms 119:114; 32:7)
As tired as I was, I did not sleep all that soundly on my first night in Kisii. I am sure that I am still adjusting to the eight hour time change, but it also was because I was thinking about the week ahead.
But well rested or not, today is Sunday, November 19. Amos will soon be here to pick me up to bring me to the church. I will be preaching.
Journal Entry – November 19, 2017 (evening)
Written Upon My Return from the First Day at Church
Back in April, when I went to see Levi in Ethiopia and when I was first looking at the possibility of going to Kenya, the pastor wrote to ask me if I wanted to stay in a hotel or in his home. I replied that whatever was most comfortable for them. It did not matter to me. But that was because I had planned on staying only one night.
This time I am here for about ten days. I am very glad that I have gotten this hotel. Despite the difficulty and the expense of getting to the church from here, I cannot even see how it would be possible to stay in the house of the pastor. I will explain why later on. But another reason that I am glad for the hotel is that I know the days that I have here will be very full.
The church has planned a week-long conference…no, it is more than a week. It is about a ten day conference. Each day I am to speak and to have Bible studies. I believe I have already prepared all that I will do. I prepared beforehand because I had a suspicion that this would happen. Now I am glad I did. I should not need much preparation time while I am here.
But the fact is, the days will be very full and I will simply need some time to be alone. I will be glad to be back in the hotel each evening.
The sermon that I gave today was actually an introduction to the conference. I spoke on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and what we can expect to learn as we take a portion of it each day.
There are a lot of people who will be staying all week up in the area near the church for the conference. I have no idea where they all will stay or how they will eat. But Joel and the church have been planning this conference for some time.
This afternoon Joel took me out to the back of our house and showed me two goats tied to trees.
“The Lord provided these goats to us for the conference,” he told me.
I expect that one day soon, there will be some goat meat on our plates.
The church service was the first for me in any African country. It was interesting and fun for me to see the manner in which these new friends of mine worshiped the Lord.
Some of the many children of the church, including the twenty-some orphans that are under the care of the church, were first given the opportunity to share some things that they had learned, or to sing a song.
Four of five of them had memory verses that they wanted to recite. The children, whose ages ranged from about four to ten or eleven, all lined up in the front. In turn, each recited their verse.
Each one began in the same manner. They began by saying, “Praise the Lord!”
To which the congregation replied, “Amen!”
The child repeated. “Praise the Lord again!”
I used exclamation points in these quotes, but I actually pondered whether or not I should use them. These phrases were not shouted or even said in a loud voice, but as I came to see later, this was simply the normal way that the children or even anyone began what they were to say in front of the congregation.
“Better than my method,” I thought to myself. When I am about to speak, I think that I usually say something like, “Um…”
But the best was the singing. The children also have their own choir. After the verse recitals, they were given the opportunity to present a song. One of the older girls came to the front to begin. Her introduction was in the same fashion:
“Praise the Lord.”
“Praise the Lord again.”
Then the choir began to sing. The girl who said “Praise the Lord” was the only one in the front. The rest the children in the choir were still far to the rear in the church building. They also were singing, but as they sang, they proceeded up the aisle, dancing as they came.
This was not an ecstatic dance or anything like that. The children came two by two, and with their arms, legs and entire bodies, they were keeping rhythm with the music. They more than sang the song, they also felt the song. Their worship was with their entire body.
I had only been with this people for a half an hour, and already I had learned so much from them. So far, I had learned the most from the children.
There were numerous solo pieces of music, numerous choirs, including the youth choir, woman’s choir, and adult choir. Many of the songs were western songs, ones that I recognized. Some others I think must have been African in origin.
Most were in English, some in Swahili, at least I assumed it was Swahili. I actually do not know. The real tongue of the Kisii tribe is Ekegusii. I was surprised and pleasantly so that so much of the service was in English.
One younger lady sang the Christian country gospel song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” She sang very nice and in perfect English with even a little country “twang” in her voice. I thought that she must have learned the song listening to a Loretta Lynn album.
There were three sermons in all. Yet another pastor of the church, Pastor Douglas, had preached even before I arrived. I learned that the service had actually begun about 9:30, but I did not arrive until 10:30 or 11:00.
Preaching in Three Languages
Pastor “Vinecent” also then gave a sermon, followed by more singing and dancing. Then it was my turn.
I have mentioned that there were many people there. The building was packed, plus there were many people standing outside to hear what they could. The older people present mostly did not understand English, but could speak only Ekegusii. Still others who had come from neighboring tribes could speak neither, but did understand Swahili, the actual national language of Kenya.
Because of the three languages present, as I spoke I had two men translating for me—one on my right hand and one on my left. One was translating what I was saying into Ekegusii, and the other into Swahili.
I have served as translator before for English speakers who were giving a sermon to a Spanish-speaking church. I know that it can be a difficult task. I once translated for the president of the mission organization I was working for at the time when he came down to Venezuela.
He liked to use a lot of descriptive adverbs and adjectives in his sentences. It wasn’t, “David put a stone into his sling and slung it at Goliath to strike him dead.”
It wasn’t that. It was, “The youthful shepherd boy David put a small, smooth stone into his often-used sling, twirled it about his head as he had done thousands of times before, letting go of one of the strands at the precise instant to send his projectile flying straight and true into the forehead of the giant warrior and hero of his own people—Goliath.”
More colorful and more interesting perhaps, but also more difficult for the translator to remember all of those phrases. It was because of my own past experiences at translating, when I was speaking at the church today, I at first broke up my sentences into smaller phrases so the two men would not feel as I had sometimes felt as I was translating.
However, when I stopped speaking to allow them to catch up, they also stopped. When I resumed, they also resumed. These men obviously knew English better than I knew Spanish. They were translating on the run without the need for pauses.
So there I was speaking without pause, flanked by two men who were translating into two separate languages as I spoke—three languages going simultaneously. The two translators tended to shout a lot when they spoke. Shouting is not my normal style of preaching. I am a bit more low-key. However, with those two men on either side of me shouting, I found that I also did more shouting than I am accustomed to do.
It was not difficult to preach in those conditions, since I only concentrated on what I was saying. But I have no idea how it was for the listener. I wondered or how each was able to focus on his or her preferred language.
It actually was a great day. Despite the misgivings I had in waking up this morning, I thoroughly enjoyed the worship service and the entire day. Strangely, I feel at home in this place, and despite the very obvious differences between me and everyone else here, I already feel a strong kinship with them.
But now it is late and tomorrow is another day that will be full of unknowns. Time to crawl into my huge bed, pull the mosquito netting down around me to set up my fort, and get some sleep.
Feeling Kinship in a Foreign Land
Last night (or I should say early this morning at about 3:00 AM), I was awakened by a small ding from my phone, telling me that I had a text message. Because I thought the message could only be one coming from home, instead of turning over and going back to sleep, I picked up my phone to read it.
“¡Saludos amigo Donald!” the text read. “¡Soy Augusto!”
Augusto is a friend of mine from Venezuela. Unknown to me, he had been following the blogs of my trip and suddenly decided to send me a message. I don’t know if time difference between us occurred to him. It was only about 8:00 in the evening where he was.
I was still getting used to the time change in Kenya, and frankly, I had just fallen asleep when I was awakened by the phone. Nevertheless, I did not want to dismiss the contact from my old friend. I actually had not heard from him for a few years.
I texted back. “¡Saludos a ti amigo vecino mio! Estoy en Kenia!”
Augusto said yes, he knew, and began to ask me how my family was, plus a few questions about my trip.
Understand that it is 3:00 in the morning in Kenya, my sleep is still being compromised by the jet lag, and I am texting in Spanish. Frustrating to me is that the auto-correct on my phone keeps trying to turn my Spanish into English. But although I was sleepy in my eyes and in my mind, I chatted for a few minutes with my friend. It was good to reconnect.
As I write this, it is now about 8:00 AM here in Kenya. I am sitting in the restaurant at the hotel having breakfast with my morning coffee. I did fall back to sleep after my chat with Augusto, so I feel somewhat rested. I am anticipating the day and wondering what it will be like.
I am a little apprehensive about what the day will bring and what will be expected of me, but after my very positive experience yesterday in church, most of my concerns are very much abated. I am actually struck by how much of a kinship I already feel with these people.
After my short conversation with Augusto and thinking about my years living in Venezuela, I remember the time when I began to feel more like a Venezuelan than an American. It was the same when I lived in India many years ago. It was less so in the other places we have lived, but to a varying degree, in each place I began to experience a definite kinship with the nationals while living among them.
But that kinship did not happen immediately. It took time, and it took a sharing of common experiences. I have gone through this process enough to know what to expect, at least to some degree. Through the years, it has been six foreign countries where I have lived. In each of these places, I have set up my household and settled in to live for extended periods of years. In doing this, I have learned to always expect that it will take time and a sharing of experiences with the people before I feel completely “at home” with them.
What I have experienced so far even in these first days here in Kenya has been an acceleration of that process. With this people so different in race and culture than myself, I am a bit amazed at how much at home I already feel here. Not completely comfortable mind you, but much more than I would expect only a few days into my time here in this country.
The Children of the Church
I would like to write a little about the children, because it is largely because of them that I have come to Kenya. There are so many of them in the church. I am astounded how well they sit all throughout the three or four hour services. It is true with all the activity that goes on in the worship, the time in the services goes very quickly. It holds your attention.
Still…these are kids! The seating in the church are benches. These are simple wooden benches. No back rests—just a hard board. Way in the back of the church, there are several of those ubiquitous plastic lawn chairs found all over the world. We as pastors also have the same plastic chairs in front, so it is fine for my old back.
But those kids! When they are not singing and dancing down the aisle, they are sitting like little cherubs on their bench. With their wide and bright eyes, they are as cute as baby owls sitting on a stump.
From my vantage point where I am sitting in the church, I can observe very well the children who are sitting in the front benches. I do not deny that their quiet attention, and their wide and attentive eyes observing everything, often completely captivates me.
Most of the children are orphans. Pastor Joel has a special heart for the orphans, as do all the people of the church. These are children who had been abandoned to live on the street. The parents may have died from HIV/AIDS, highland malaria, or some of the children had simply been abandoned by their parents, and who now cannot be found.
The church has taken them in. There is no outside help for this work. Despite the fact that it is a poor area and I think that all who attend the church must be quite poor themselves, they have opened their hearts to take these children in. They have given themselves to feed the orphans, to clothe them, to give them whatever schooling they are able, and to provide for them a place to sleep.
The places where they sleep are unbelievably small. There are eleven girls and ten boys (or maybe it was the other way around). The girls have a room in the house of the pastor, where the pastor’s wife is the matron of the girls—she is the one that takes care of their needs.
All these girls sleep on a single set of bunk beds in a room that is perhaps measures ten feet by twelve feet. Well…not all the girls sleep on the beds. Since there is not room for everyone, they also spread a cloth on the dirt floor and some of the girls sleep there.
The boys have a similar situation in a separate building. They have two cots in an area that may be a little larger, but since they do not have a bunk bed, that extra space is filled with the second cot. Some of these boys also sleep in the dirt floor. There is a young man who is the patron of these boys.
When writing about the needs of people, I always try to guard against appealing to the emotions of those who read what I write. Appealing to emotion is the easy way to ask for funding. It apparently works. That is why we see all the photos of wide-eyed small children with the caption, “Please help me.”
I am not doing that nor am I even asking for donations. My intentions are different. I know that there are many who are reading these words who will be asking me what I have found on my trip to Kenya, and this is what I have found.
I had to come to verify for myself that this pastor, who contacted me more than one year ago to thank me for the sermons that I posted on my blog page and with whom my relationship has grown over the months, actually existed. I had to verify for myself if what he was telling me was true. I needed to see if this was a real situation.
I have found that every word that he wrote to me was not only true, but he has even downplayed the actual condition of the lives of the orphans. When he wrote to me that the children had to go to bed with nothing to eat for the entire day, he was not telling me anything but fact. What he did not mention was that I am sure that he and his own family went to bed that night in the same situation.
These at least are my first impressions. Certainly during the entire time here, I will be listening and observing. There are many questions that I have, and everything about Africa is new to me. I am here to learn.
But one thing that I am sensing is that God is telling me that I am to enter into this work of beginning an orphanage for those children who attentively sat and listened in church, and who also participated in the worship service. If so, this will be an entirely different kind of work for me. I have never before had children as the focus of my ministry.
In my experience overseas, I have worked mostly with pastors and church leaders, and I have seen many kinds. Many pastors with whom I worked seemed to me to be among the most humble men of the earth—called to serve and expending all of their strength in serving their people.
But others were of the most prideful that I have ever seen. They only became pastors because of the recognition and standing it gave them in the community—something like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
At one time in the life of Jesus, the disciples came to him and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Before answering, Jesus beckoned a little child to come to him, and then he said this to his disciples: “Whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me” (Matthew 18:1-5).
Perhaps as my final chapter on this earth, God is leading me into the most important work of my entire life. He is calling me to serve these children who were rejected by society, many of them rejected even by their own mothers. Yet each one precious in His sight.
“Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42 ESV).
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