It was one of the saddest things we had ever heard: “We discourage our children from playing outside,” the man said, “because they will get thirsty, and there is very little water to give them. We have to haul every drop from public bore holes that are miles away. Sometimes we adults will not drink anything ourselves, so we can give what we have to the children.”
On this hot Sabbath morning in eastern Kenya, we could see for ourselves how parched the landscape was. Three hours earlier, we had left the large port city of Mombasa, on our way to worship with a group of brand-new believers. For the last few miles, our host’s car inched along a nearly undetectable path, while long thorns from encroaching bushes scraped along the doors. We ended with a short walk through fields filled with withered stalks of maize; clearly, these plants would never yield a harvest.
Our destination was not a church, or even a humble mud-brick home, but rather a large spreading cashew tree. Crowded together on rough plank benches, the new Adventists sounded joyful as they lifted their voices in song. But as we began talking with them, we quickly saw an underlying layer of deep distress.
Their leader, a young man named Josphat Kitsao Chai, told us what had happened: “After we were baptized and formed our Sabbath school group – named Maarifa, which means knowledge – we were given permission to use a classroom in a primary school where we could have our services. But one Sabbath morning, just as we were about to start our service, the head teacher suddenly told us we had to move, without giving us a reason. We had no place to go. So since then, we have been meeting under this cashew tree.” His words were matter-of-fact, but hurt and sadness were visible on his face.
This region of Kenya has the highest population of Muslims in the country, and church resources are limited. Pastors are few and far between, and many of them do not even have a vehicle of their own. “And realistically,” says Catherine Nyameino, East Kenya Union Conference communication director, “what pastor is eager to bring his wife and family to live in a hardship area like this?”
The Adventist World Radio affiliate radio station in Mombasa – Sheki FM – is carrying the gospel to listeners who may never have the chance to meet a pastor. In case of the Maarifa group, the radio station staff had traveled to this village months earlier and conducted evangelistic meetings themselves. As a result, 48 people were baptized; some were members from Sunday-keeping churches, while 13 were animists.
During our visit, the sermon was delivered by Pastor Paul Mnene, the communication director and executive secretary of the Kenya Coast Field. As he introduced us, we could see that entities such as “union conference” or “General Conference” were completely unknown and meaningless to these new church members. Yet there we were, brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the same worldwide family of God, worshipping together on Sabbath morning.
Chai is a mason by trade, but he has decided to stay in this area for the time being in order to shepherd the young believers. “I was the first Adventist in this area,” he says, “and I love to tell people about Jesus. But I struggled a lot. With the help of Sheki FM, we built this group. I didn’t know Sheki FM before, but after I got to know it, it changed my life. There are programs that encourage me, and I love it.”
Chai has a vision for raising funds to build a church and finding sponsorship for someone who can take over leadership of the Maarifa group. Then his dream is to continue introducing more people to Christ: “There are so many people in this area who need to hear our message.”
by Shelley Nolan Freesland, Communication Director