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A letter from Marta Bennett in Kenya

Winter 2013

Dear friends around the world,

October is "spring" in Kenya - with bougainvillea giving a riot of color, and Jaranda trees such as this one on campus carpeting the roads and gardens in purple.

Oliver Kisaka, the Deputy General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), gave the devotions at a board meeting this past week, reflecting on how the early missionaries to East Africa arrived, determined to share the Gospel and to bring people to Christ.  But when they got here, it was clear that it was not that straightforward.  They could share all they wanted, but no one would understand a word they said.  Therefore, though their mission was to share the Gospel, in order to do so, they had to spend a good amount of time learning the local language.  They also began working with the local people to teach them English, to enable them to understand the European traders and colonial governors, and vice versa. 

Later, the missionaries took years to translate the Scriptures into vernacular languages, and at the same time, started schools, so that the people receiving the new Bibles would be able to read these new Scriptures in their own language.  Then, as they lived among the people, they began to respond to many of the other needs arising, including health issues. For example, the first Presbyterian missionaries in Kenya settled in Kibwezi – half-way between the Coast and Nairobi – but all soon succumbed to malaria. The next wave of missionaries settled further in and higher up, where mosquitoes were more rare and less potent, with a commitment to establish clinics and hospitals. 

Long-time friend and prayer partner David Owens (of University Presbyterian Church, Seattle, and World Vision), visiting in Nairobi, on our front steps with Justin and Steven.

This does not even begin to address the mundane tasks required of the early missionaries in daily living (and us today as well), such as processing clean drinking water, cooking, washing clothes, caring for children.  Did they get frustrated?  Discouraged? Probably.  Did waves of converts come flocking?  Not in droves.  Did the early missionaries fail in their original mission?  Were they off course?  The Board that was meeting that day was the Finance and Administration Committee of NCCK.  Oliver noted that what we were doing as the committee was a bit like the work of the early missionaries.  A lot of seemingly “non-evangelistic” and “non-discipleship“ work must take place so that the core business can proceed, including the hours spent reviewing and critiquing the financial and administration reports. 

The ministries of NCCK stretch across all regions of Kenya to empower the churches and to strategically respond through the churches to the needs of the communities. They intentionally work to promote Gospel agendas, such as evangelism, addressing root causes of poverty, resettling refugees, responding to crises, healing and reconciliation. To do so, systems and resources must be handled with clear transparency, accountability, and efficiency – the mandate of good stewardship of the mission with which we have been entrusted, and this takes daily time.

Tea-time at ILU, every day at 11:00 a.m. - a wonderful time of fellowship and refreshment

Being based here in Nairobi at International Leadership University (ILU), I love telling the stories of our students, where they’ve come from, how they are transformed as they progress through their courses of study, and what they are doing now to bring strategic transformation around them, i.e. the Gospel at work in people’s lives and communities.  But much of the time, ministry is about life in the trenches: sorting out bills, writing and implementing policies, marking exams, resolving disputes, meetings that seem to go on for forever.  It is not uncommon for university management meetings and committees to go for seven or more hours without a break.

Family line-up: Imani, Marta, Justin and Steven

And the traffic… the challenges of getting anywhere in Nairobi.  A few evenings it has taken me one hour and forty minutes to drive the one plus mile home from work.   Yes, sometimes I walk, if I don't need to go anywhere else during the day, if it's not totally muddy, or if I don't need to carry my laptop - it's too dangerous to walk with one.  And to go to the bank during the day or to pay an electricity bill - I always brace myself for the traffic and long queues.  I leave in the morning, telling the receptionist where I'm going, and he says, "OK, see you this afternoon."  By God’s grace, somehow along the way, our lives touch others, words matter, and God works in people’s lives.

As we approach Christmas next month, I think about how Jesus, the Savior of the world, was born into the context of a day-to-day world.   Issues of paying taxes, a census, crowded villages, jealous rulers, cows and mangers, local inn-keepers, and shepherds out tending their sheep provided the setting for his birth.  He entered our world, in the midst of the everyday.  His three years of public ministry are filled with every day concerns: arguments between disciples, health issues, grain fields, and vineyards, marketplaces, fishing, walking dusty roads, and being regularly interrupted.  It was in the throes of day-to-day life, the Good News took root, flourished, and spread. 

In the same way, it is in the faithful, day-to-day, month-by-month, year-by-year support by each of you that makes the difference.  When some days are tough, and I get discouraged, the timely prayers and monthly reports of your on-going generous giving boost me through.  Thank you for your partnership that makes it possible, one day at a time.

NCCK Deputy General Secretary Oliver Kisaka, and General Secretary Canon Peter Karanja, file photo from the Standard newspaper (www.standardmedia.co.ke/?articleID=200015656&story), though this photo could have been taken at our meeting last Friday - they were sitting in the same position, as 15 of us sat around the table in NCCK conference room.

Ministry and family update:

  • At ILU, the faculty and staff team in my division has been working extremely hard, with very long hours, to complete and submit all new documents to the Commission for University Education (CUE).  With changing laws, we have had to regroup and pursue a different course of action en route to acquiring a University Charter with the government.  Now we wait for their verdict, to grant us legal status as we write-up and resubmit each program proposal, one-by-one.   Please do pray with us that we will find favor, and that all will be well as we press on.
  • Masters students are working hard on their theses, and undergrads on their Senior Projects.  I am impressed once again with the substantive topics they are tackling, seeking to address serious concerns in Church and society, such as “The impact of peer educators in eradicating FGM (female genital mutilation) in the Maasai community.” 
  • The kids are doing well and studying hard, as this is a year that is heavy with exams for both, at their different stages.
  • Imani, age 14, is preparing for a significant youth camp through church, December 9th-14th, which is a Christian version of the traditional African rite of passage. It is a culmination of a year’s worth of preparation, where they have studied Scripture, grown in faith, and explored what it means to move from childhood to adulthood.  Parents have also walked alongside their young people, meeting each month with the pastors and other parents to discuss various matters of parenting teens, and we will join our teens at the last two days of camp. I believe that the final day will include the traditional slaughtering and roasting of a goat – a good stretch for these city kids who will be the ones doing the necessary work and preparing the feast.  Justin also went through the first seven months of the program when he was 14, but unfortunately missed the final camp since we had traveled to the US for Interpretation Assignment.  When we returned to Kenya, he felt he was too old to join the ones who followed him to complete the year, but has still benefitted from the process, and I am impressed with his personal discipline in reading Scripture, organizing his studies, and choices he is making.
  • We will be spending a quiet Christmas here in Nairobi, though we look forward to hosting our annual Christmas Eve gathering for “Nairobi-ites in exile” – any and all who are not able to travel home out of the city for the holidays.  We will enjoy an evening of singing, story-telling, eating, culminating with the birthday cake for Jesus, and remembering our loved ones far and wide.

Joy to you throughout the entire season,

Marta Bennett (Nairobi, Kenya)

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 109
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