Mennonites assist peace-building for Kenya's tribes and churches

By agency reporter
5 Mar 2008

Forty pastors from five different tribes and denominations met for a peace-building seminar at the Eastleigh Fellowship Centre, located in a semi-slum area of Nairobi, recently. The centre facilitates church and community programmes.

Jewel Showalter writes: Pastor Caleb Owuonda commented: “We are committed to networking together to find solutions to sticky community problems – like the rebuilding of trust between landlords and tenants in a climate which has driven many in mixed neighbourhoods from their homes.”

Just a month after machete-wielding thugs demanding money interrupted the morning service at Mathare North Mennonite Church, about 100 people packed the simple tin-roofed structure on the edge of a Nairobi slum belting out “God is so good!” in five different tribal languages.

“In this church we don’t preach tribes. We preach Jesus Christ,” Pastor Caleb said as he welcomed people from a wide variety of ethnic groups along with American visitors from Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) in the USA, which facilitated the seminar, and others.

Teachers at Menno Kids Academy, an elementary school for 182 orphans and at-risk children, which operates out of the church building, led groups of children in songs that alluded to the traumatic events of the past weeks. “How many times should we forgive?” the choir sang. “Seventy times seven!”

For several weeks it wasn’t safe for the church to assemble. One church member had been hacked almost to death by thugs and another's business was burned to the ground.

After the worship service, the people lined up to receive sacks of dry beans and cornmeal, purchased with gifts from North American Mennonites, to take home and share with their neighbours.

Later, Pastor Caleb talked about the turmoil of the past weeks. When a marauding gang threatened his home, asking if he was from a certain ethnic group, the guard replied, “I don’t know what tribe he’s from. All tribes eat at his table.”

“We are all traumatized,” Pastor Caleb said. “But God is giving us grace. The member who nearly died told me, ‘I’ve seen God. I don’t hate those who attacked me. I can love and forgive them.'”

As an eerie calm began to return to Kenya, about 20 Kenya Mennonite Church (KMC) leaders from the seven dioceses and representatives from the Maasai community of Olepolos met with EMM leaders in Migori on 15 February 2008.

They reported on how their churches have been responding to the post-election crisis, which has displaced about 600,000 persons and left over 1,000 dead.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before in our beloved country,” said Philip Okeyo, general secretary of the Kenyan Mennonite Church (KMC) and bishop of the Nairobi diocese. “We are all grieving and in shock.”

Okeyo thanked EMM representatives for coming. “While others are running away, you have come to share in our sufferings,” he said.

The larger Maasai community reacted violently to the news that the president was reinstalled after a disputed election. Members of minority tribes fled to the Mennonite church in Olepolos for protection.

“When we tried to supply the refugees with food, the community reacted against us,” said David Shunkur, an Olepolos church leader. He said that the church assisted all peoples regardless of their tribal backgrounds, moving refugees to the police station for protection and trying to calm the community.

“We’re very grateful that no one has been killed in this community and that all the refugees here have been able to return to their homes. But east of us in Narok, many have had to flee and their homes have been burned,” added Shunkur.

Similar reports poured in from other KMC dioceses. In the first wave of displaced persons, the Mennonite churches reached out to other tribes who were being driven from their communities.

Then as displaced persons were forced to return to their historic tribal homelands, churches found themselves overwhelmed by truckloads of people from their own tribes who had been driven out of other parts of Kenya.

Trucks and buses dumped thousands of displaced persons in parks or open markets, forcing the community to feed and shelter them from the rains which were just beginning.

Thus far, about $20,000 of the $107,000 Kenya relief contributions facilitated by the mission agency has been dispersed. At the Migori meeting leaders reported that relief funds have gone for emergency food and blankets for displaced persons.

Some Mennonites are also adding their own funds to assist those from their communities who have had their homes and businesses burned.

Migori Mennonite Church, the mother church of the 7,300-member KMC, was planted by EMM missionaries and Tanzanian Mennonites in 1962.

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Jewel Showalter is a reporter for Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM)

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