2017 Mission Trip Reflections
KENYA 2017 BY VICTORIA CHERPES
The Heart of Africa
“The rich have become poor and hungry: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Psalm 34:10
"God is good! All the time! And all the time…God is good and that is His nature! WOW!
These words encapsulate the profound vibrant living witness of African Orthodoxy on me and my Faith. For my part of the journey, there are so many reasons why I should not have been able to make this trip and indeed I think for all of us there was a parting of the waters enabling us to go. Last year during Bishop Neofitos’ visit to our parish I won the raffle basket filled with souvenirs from Kenya, which is also when I knew I would go on this mission.
The trip was filled with many blessings that began with a team of wonderful caring people from our parish who all felt the call to make the journey. We left here not all knowing each other very well, but over the course of nine days we forged into a mission family. I learned so much from all of them and I left thinking this is truly an amazing group of people bearing a deep witness of Faith and service.
Every day had its highlights but here are some impressions very close to my heart…there were so many wonderful moments; it’s not easy to decide which to share. First and foremost, throughout our trip each teaching task began and was completed with a blessing - inviting God’s grace into all of our interactions and labors.
The Orthodox Church of Kenya is fully Orthodox and fully Kenyan, bursting with joy and love for Christ. During the Divine Liturgy, the entire congregation, young and old, sing the Liturgical hymns with a delight that has all of the qualities of the joy of Pascha. They chant the byzantine tones magnificently with a chord that rises through the notes that is also very African, and yet it does not diminish the integrity of the byzantine tones in any way. It is a witness of how the Orthodox Faith brings the culture into the Church. Even how they decorate in the parishes has a colorful African flavor.
The night we arrived in Kenya it was 10PM local time and we set off on an over six hour journey from Nairobi to our destination in a mountain village. Enroute we were joined by Father Gregory who was late meeting us because he had been in a bad car accident earlier that evening. When we arrived at our hosts home, Father Gregory offered a beautiful yet quite simple prayer which was simply “Lord we have nothing to offer you other than our thanks”. It was simple prayers of blessing like these offered at every step of our journey that I found so touching. Father Gregory was a man of years and wisdom. He always had a good word and a blessing, a smiling presence.
Just a few hours later that morning we were celebrating the Divine Liturgy with His Grace Bishop Neofitos. Not having slept in well over thirty hours, I found myself nodding off in Church only to be awakened by giggling of the children around me. The kids were so wide eyed, curious and sweet! No matter where we went they met us with cheers and smiles and songs. We visited two Orthodox schools and were even invited by the principal of the public school in our village to come by for a visit. What impressed me the most is that even in the public school all the children learn about God and Faith. The happiness of the children is a fruit of the place God holds in their lives.
The hospitality in Kenya was overwhelming and an undeserved example of humility. Our hosts vacated half of their very small home for ten people that they didn't even know. Each day a delicious breakfast lunch and dinner was prepared for our team. They not only served but also cleaned up after us. Father Moses with his servant’s heart was even seen cleaning the mud off of our shoes - but no one asked him to do it.
I laughed to myself that I went into the mission field only to find myself spoiled! Mostly we were spoiled with blessings and rejoicing.
If you can imagine, on our last night there, we exchanged thank yous and sang songs with everyone and then one by one, each of our hosts who had served us continually in every way, preparing meals, cleaning our shoes and even washing some of our clothes, asked us for forgiveness if they had offended us in any way and that touched my heart.
Someone commented "that's their culture" but truly humility is our culture as Orthodox Christians. It was one of many moments on the trip where I wondered just who is the missionary in this picture. I am grateful for all of them! And I am grateful for all of you at Saint Katherine’s who through your love and prayers and generosity supported our team and the building of the Church.
Bishop Neofitos told us that the Church our parish has built there is the one that, when he was getting acquainted with his Diocese, really broke his heart. When he visited it for the first time he saw not only the bad shape of the original Church but he also felt deeply for the parishioners who for twenty years had only raised enough money to build a partial new structure. Discouraged by the hardship, some of the parish had actually left the Orthodox Church over the years to go elsewhere (there is no other Orthodox parish in the area). On our last night there, the Bishop decided to hold Vespers. It was impromptu. We thought it would be attended by only our team and the clergy. God must have had other plans though. Perhaps villagers heard the chanting as they were walking home, but as the Vespers unfolded, people streamed into the Church which filled with people. The Bishop turned at the end of the service and gave a heartfelt word to his flock. He told them that he knew the struggle to build the Church tested their hope which is why so many left but he asked them to return. He said it is a time of blessing and this Church is a beacon of hope. He spoke the gentle words of a shepherd, saying “come back, the Church is your mother, this is your home and where you belong”.
The Church was renamed Saint Katherine after our Saint Katherine in Falls Church, Virginia was built on your hope, your friendship and your generosity. It is seated in a rural mountain valley village but resides on the top of a hill welcoming everyone. It is a light and a beacon for the whole area, the love of Christ and a witness of hope.
God is good! All the time!