OCMC’s first mission team of 2013 traveled to northern Kenya to share the Orthodox faith with Turkana people of four villages where the Gospel had never before been preached.
When people ask what my experience in Africa was like, I find it hard to know exactly where to begin. It would be easier if I had managed to maintain a consistent journal throughout the course of the mission, however, as the other team members would agree, things don’t go the way you would expect in Kenya. In fact, it seems that most of us underestimated the value of fluidity in our plans. For instance, not once did my preaching partner and I give the same sermon twice. In seminary, one of our beloved professors often uses the phrase "unique and unrepeatable”, and in hindsight, that is what every moment of my experience was like: unique and unrepeatable.
When our team gathered for the first time, it was not the sort of meeting that anyone expected as we prepared to leave. As we sat on the floor by our international departure gate at Boston's Logan Airport, I got the first taste of the reality I was about to enter. We had been told that the elections in Kenya would be taking place as we arrived in Nairobi and that tensions might be high, but it did not sink in until Fr. Martin (OCMC Executive Director and our team’s leader) addressed us and told us that if we felt any discomfort about the trip, now was the time to back out. We all agreed to push forward.
The Kenyan elections ended up being a blessing for our team. We had intended to visit a total of five Turkana communities, however, due to the elections we were unable to get drivers to take us on the first day, since all were at the polls, and here we had to adjust our plans. Not for the last time. While it is unfortunate that we went to one less village, we were able to use that day for the preparation of our lessons that were to be given in the bush. A coincidence caused the trip to take place at the beginning of seminary’s midterms, which meant many of us would return to long papers and exams, so we had had little time to properly prepare the lessons before getting on the plane. The extra day of preparation at the Catholic center in Nairobi where we stayed was, I believe, very crucial to the success of our mission. Only after we arrived at the center did we begin to solidify as a team. We worked together, ate together, and prayed together, all of which did much to set the stage for the time we would spend in the bush. Additionally, the time allowed us some rest and acclimation after our thirty-something hours of travel from Boston to the town of Lodwar in northern Kenya.
It was in Lodwar where we were introduced to Fr. Vladimir and later Fr. Zachariah, the two clergy who were instrumental in the success of the mission. Fr. Martin had communicated to Fr. Vladimir that if several villages could be found where the Gospel had never been heard, then the OCMC could send an evangelism team that might assist the Church in establishing the relationships necessary for the faith to be received. That is just what Fr. Vladimir did. Riding an off-road motorcycle, he traveled deep into the interior of the Turkana region, near the border of South Sudan. There he located five villages, making contact with their respective leaders, asking them if they would allow white missionaries from the far side of the globe to visit and share with them their Good News.
As we set out for the bush, we made a quick stop at the church of St. John the Baptist on the edge of town which had been constructed by OCMC teams years earlier. Here we said prayers and were each commissioned as missionaries through the laying on of hands by Fr. Vladimir and Fr. Zachariah. This signaled a change in attitude about the trip. I more fully recognized what it was that we were setting out to do. This was clearly not the typical "go to Africa and paint a church" mission trip. We were taking the Gospel where it had never been.
The first community we arrived at was not so far removed that the Gospel was completely unheard of. There were, in fact, a good number of people who were already Christian. We still gave our lessons and they were well-received. This village was a good first step in our tour, because they were receptive to our message due to their Christian members already living amongst them. Such receptivity was not the case in all the villages, as we would soon find.
When we arrived at the second community, a seemingly long drive from the first, things felt immediately different. Unlike the previous village, there was no group there to greet us upon our arrival, only a few women. As time went on, others trickled in, congregating under a group of trees. We soon found that the elders were engaged in a heated debate regarding whether or not they wanted anything to do with us, because rumors about the nature of our visit had been spread, and some wanted us to go on our way. After informing us of the situation, Fr. Martin asked that we all stop what we were doing and pray that their hearts would be softened and that they would receive us and our message. While I sat on the hot desert floor and began to pray, I felt the tension from the debate through the raising of voices and pointing of fingers. This was more than an argument; it was spiritual warfare. After some time passed, God moved them and they decided to hear us out.
This was the most influential part of the mission. As we gave our lessons, the people began to thirst for more and more, when only an hour before they had wanted nothing to do with us. Soon our time had run out, as many of the men had to return to their flocks to tend them for the evening. As the sun was setting, one young man sat with us. We found that he was the son of the head elder and had actually heard a little about Jesus Christ before and had been searching to hear more. We opened the Bible and with a translator took turns telling him stories from the Gospel while he listened attentively. The next day when we said our morning prayers with the elders, it was incredible to see the transformation that had taken place since we had arrived. Now, instead of wanting us to leave, they were asking that we return to continue to talk to them about the Gospel.
If establishing this dialogue in this one village had been the only accomplishment of the mission, even that would have been a huge success. However we went on to two more communities and saw unique successes among them as well. Overall, the entire mission was a success. Having established the Gospel message and positive relationships with the people of four different communities, the local clergy and missionaries will be able to nurture the Faith in that region. As we departed from each village, the elders and the people would gather and say a prayer for us, which very much resembled our own petitions. As the last goodbyes were said, the elder would tell us that they would be praying for us. I want you to know that they are praying for all of us now. In return, I ask that we too will remember them in our prayers.