The Nyanza Province in Western Kenya is one of the poorest in all of Africa and thus, one of the poorest in the world. Kisumu is the regional capitol, a bustling city on the edge of Lake Victoria. It struggles to become the economic and social engine of the region. However, its rural surroundings with its subsistence farmers hang like a weight around Kisumu’s neck. This is the epicenter – ground zero – in the global effort to eradicate poverty and to stem the tide of disease and death exacerbated by HIV and AIDS.
The front in this war against death is made up of soldiers of mercy and compassion. They dot the countryside wearing their red crosses, driving their CDC, UN and USAID vehicles. They ride bicycles and walk dusty roads to find homesteads of orphans and widows. They pack into the crowded Mutatus that speed across the countryside. Their weapons are the tools of information – pamphlets, Bibles, videos and word of mouth. In their arsenal are the cocktails of antiretroviral medications, de-worming tablets and chlorine dispensers purifying water for a day – maybe two.
I watched women in three separate centers of compassion mobilized to serve the weak and vulnerable of the region – Children. They are part of a network of NGOs and Churches responding to the invasion of hopelessness that fills the life of an orphan. These warriors of mercy say NO – they shout NO to the darkness that envelopes the desperate but resilient lives of their community.
Two men – young men in years yet made wise by what they have witnessed on these fields of conflict work daily hanging on to their vision – something can and must be done. They are two in a single denomination that have become a part of a tapestry of compassion found in this region. This is a tapestry of Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, NGOs and Government agencies.
I watched Rev. Samuel Oketch and Dan Friday receive a report from Maurice Myiayi – a farmer and husband of the pastor of the local Nazarene Church in this community. Maurice works with over 1,400 orphans and trains them in the art and science of raising maize, watermelons, beans, mangos and much more. His smile seems to stretch across the valley when he reports on the profit made from his watermelon sales. Over $1,000 US or KSH 80,000 were generated from one year of work. He will be able to find more children, feed more children, and clothe more children with these resources.
What has impressed me most about their work and this specific ministry of one denomination serving in Africa is both the isolation of the work and the commitment to service. While connected to a specific denominational structure – Nazarene Compassionate Ministries of the Church of the Nazarene, these agents of rescue and service move forward in almost complete anonymity from the mainstream work of the denomination. They show up every day realizing that what they do is often misunderstood or even worse – ignored. While I was with them, I imagined what was going on from day to day in the life of the average American or European congregation. To be sure there are struggles and challenges in the Churches of the Northern Hemisphere, but they pale in comparison to the monumental task of responding to the crisis that is orphans and vulnerable children in Africa. Located in remote villages with impossible names to spell and located along roads or cow paths sit these centers of mercy and compassion that inherently beg for attention – but often go unnoticed.
They are tethered to a Field Office in Nairobi located some 260 miles away who in turn is tethered to a regional office in Johannesburg that is 4,000 miles away who in turn is tethered to a denominational office in Kansas City that is 10,000 miles away. In the mission headquarters of the Church in Kenya, work three individuals – one from compassionate ministries and two others from the Kenya Church leadership who work behind the scenes to scrounge every additional Shilling they can find. In conversations you can feel how tortured they become when their resources fail to match the need.
This work is supported through tithes and offerings and designated gifts from the Church of the Nazarene. However, this work is also funded in part by USAID and an Orphans and Vulnerable Children grant to World Concern. World Concern and other development agencies need centers like Compassionate Ministries to deliver critical services in the most remote parts of the country. They simply could not fulfill their mission without Sam and Dan and the community health workers supported by local churches.
Yet, in a country of 11 million youth with 60% unemployment in the age cohort between 18 and 35, Sam and Dan face a daily tsunami of suffering and need. The waves of pain arriving at their front door seldom stop. When Sam was asked, is there any evidence that his efforts are making any difference, he responded, “By and large it is my firm conviction that NCM_OVC program have fulfilled her God given mandate that ‘What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world. (James 1:27).’”
This is the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries – Kenya Orphans and Vulnerable Children program. It is time we remember those who remember the orphans and vulnerable children – it is time that we fret less about the politics of compassion found in our national capitols and denominational organizations and remember that today men and women of the Nyanza province are waking up to the suffering of many and responding with the work of a few. These few, however, find meaning in the God given mandate to care for the orphans. Regardless of our denominational affiliation, our country of origin or the color of our skin – God’s call to care for the orphans transcends the petty diversions that move us off mission. Today I want to remember – today I want to stand with Sam and Dan and become a warrior for mercy. Remember them so they can remember the orphan.
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