August 25, 2019

Nakuru and Homecoming in Kitale

I wake to the sound of birds and a cool breeze mere minutes before my alarm is scheduled to sound. August is the middle of winter here in Kenya. Which means nighttime temperatures drop to around 55 and daytime temperatures top out in the mid 70’s. The rooms here aren’t heated, but they didn’t get cold enough for me to need the extra blanket they have stashed in the closet.

I am the first to arrive at the dining area at 7am. I wander the hallways, and stand outside in the garden courtyard. It is Sunday and the centre is bustling with activity. A conference is being set up, with exhibitor tables spread with Christian books, publications and music. Across the courtyard, tents are being erected. Inside the main part of the conference center I can hear the music and singing from a morning praise and worship service. As much as I am tempted to wander down to listen, I want to make sure I am visible to George and Naomi when they arrive, which they do in a few more minutes.

The standard full breakfast for overnight travelers is the same as it had been in February. “Mixed-tea” (which they call chai in the villages – although it is simply black tea boiled with milk and sugar, not the spiced chai most Americans are used to drinking in Indian restaurants). Mango juice. A fruit plate with watermelon and an orange slice. Followed by the main breakfast plate:  a hard boiled egg, sausage, taro root, sweet plantain, And two puffed dough triangles with just a touch of sweetness.

Our early breakfast is planned so we can get on the road and reach Nakuru in time to visit a church there led by a dear friend of Pastor George’s.

We make a quick stop at the small garden apartment that Naomi has taken in Nakuru while she’s working at the hospital there. The apartment building has a large power blue metal gate with a smaller pedestrian “pass through.” The building is a one story gray concrete block in a u-shape. The center “courtyard” area doubles as a parking pad for a single truck, the water storage tank and laundry lines. It’s also where people congregate when they want some time outside their apartment. A man sitting in a plastic chair greets us. Naomi shares that she likes having her own place here, rather than being a guest in a friend’s home for so many months. She also likes that, in this building, people look out for each other, helping if someone gets sick and making sure no one is bothering women who are living alone. Her faith is well justified. As we approach her apartment door, she reaches down to unlock the door, and realizes that – in her eagerness to get to the airport to meet me earlier the day before – she had actually never locked the door. Not a thing in the place had been disturbed.

As we journey on through town, I hear George talking on the phone but don’t put two and two together. Next thing I know,  his eldest daughter, Irene, is crossing the street toward us. What a wonderful surprise! After giving her a big bear hug, she jumps in the back seat with Naomi. The love between them is quite evident in the laughter that ensues. Irene is on her way from Kitale to Nairobi to help a classmate with a project while she’s out of school herself. She stopped off in Nakuru to join us for church and lunch before continuing to Nairobi, so she could see me this week.

We make our way through Nakuru and I begin to notice familiar landmarks. George asks if I know where I am and I tell  him I remember this was where the house was where they were living when I first came to Kenya. Sure enough, we all point out the blue gate moments later as we pass by and memories flood back. I know the school he was running back then was just down the road, a block or two, on an open corner lot. We approach that intersection only to discover the entire corner has been filled with a large furniture store. A few minutes more we turn off the tarmac and up a grassy area, parking in front of a corrugated tin fence. We have reached the church led by Pastor Kariuki and his wife, Pastor Anne.

Anne and Naomi are great friends, and Kariuki is the only person who stood by Pastor George during his hard times in Nakuru when Naomi was hospitalized during her pregnancy (which meant they lost their main income), a faction of his congregation organized an effort against him, and the headmaster at the secondary school he’d taken over (which I’d visited with two other American ministers on my second trip) embezzled tuition funds, and several big donors chose to invest their money in domestic charity efforts,which meant George could no longer afford to send his own children to school.

Their church service is nearly over, but the congregation has stayed to welcome us, their visitors, and hear a few words from me and from George. As we enter, they are in the middle of a praise and worship song to accompany our procession to seats on the left side of a raised stage. The building is filled with curved plastic chairs on both sides as well as the front of the stage. The concrete floor has some laminated tiles on top of it in the space leading up to the stairs. The music team – three young men – man the keyboard, the soundboard and the microphones. As Kariuki addresses his congregation in Kiswahili, the woman who had been leading the song moments before kindly switches to acting as a translator, so I can understand his words.

Kariuki shares that this church is an “elevation” church – where their aim is for people to leave with a higher mindset than when they arrived. George introduces me and says I am just going to say a few words before he speaks to them. He translates for me as I use my time to encourage them to see themselves as unlimited, to know that God is guiding them and that their good is here at hand – that nothing and no one can stand between them and their dream if they are willing to stay the course, and to stand firm in the conviction that those desires they have are part of the plan that God has for them.

“God has a plan” has always been a theme of my ministry work here in Kenya, as it is in my everyday life. And when George takes the stage, he doubles down on this theme, sharing a personal testimony of how Pastor Kariuki was the person here in Kenya who always encouraged him, even when he was at his lowest point. And how he always felt my hand patting him on the back, whenever his faith wavered, reminding him that “God has a plan.” And how now, that plan was being revealed.

When George’s church closed, some of his congregants joined Kariuki’s church. Yet Kariuki still encouraged George to start up a new church, offering to share with him the resources he had – plastic chairs, musical instruments and the like. Kariuki said he would even have members of his own congregation attend to “seed” the new church. He believed so strongly in George’s ability to lift others that he was willing to dilute his own ministry to help see George’s succeed. That kindness made George realize that it wasn’t his path to have an every Sunday ministry of his own. His path was to preach at churches where he could strengthen the bond between the church and the minister. And that’s what he’s been doing for the past five plus years.

It has been a long time since I’ve heard George preach. His calling is definitely a ministry of encouragement, of elevation, as Pastor Kariuki calls it. He talks of staying the course when others want to discourage. Of following your path, of following God’s plan. He uses the story of the man who was healed by Jesus and told to carry his mat. Of how he was met on his way by the Pharisees and told to put down his mat. Admonished that he shouldn’t be carrying his mat on the Sabbath.

George relates how others you meet will tell you to put away your dream, to not follow the course of action that you’re being guided to follow. And how we are to be like the man who met the Pharisees and said, in essence, “I will NOT put down my mat. For he who has HEALED ME has told me to CARRY MY MAT.”

On several occasions the crowd bursts into wild applause and shouts of joy. At one moment, many in the room spontaneously leap to their feet, so inspired and empowered do they feel.

We end with song again, and meet and greet congregants who come up to say hello. Children especially are drawn to me, as are their mothers. Pastor Kariuki makes me promise that on a future trip I will come back and speak at their church as a guest speaker. It’s a promise I am delighted to make. I think we will be able to do that on September 9th or 10th. This trip, to avoid any chance of transportation delays, we’re driving from Kitale to Nakuru the day before my flight is scheduled to take off. This makes it possible for me to speak either the evening of the 9th or the morning of the 10th before we drive the last 3 hours to Nairobi, since my flight leaves at 11:30pm.

From the church we drive a few minutes to the Midland Hotel, home of the famous Kenyan fire-roasted chicken. It’s become a ritual to have a meal here every trip. It’s now after 2pm and the juicy chicken, chips (fries) and spinach satisfy mightily. From here we head to the town center and drop Irene off at the “stage” stop. For a few minutes I had forgotten she wasn’t coming home with us to Kitale and I’m bummed. I tell her I wish she was going to be there..and we all know how that turns out when you’re a magnificent manifesting force, right?

We continue our journey on from Nakuru, through the Rift Valley, into Eldoret, where Naomi’s mom lives. We’ll see her at the end of the week, so we don’t stop. The twins and the rest of the children are waiting for us. They are beyond excited that I’m back so soon and keep calling to see if we have reached Moi’s Bridge – the last community before the turn off to their road.

The journey is accomplished “pole pole,” slowly. There have been improvements in the road, though. “Climbing lanes” have been added on the highway, so slower traffic doesn’t hold up drivers. And they have added what George refers to as “drawings” – painted roadway areas that indicate when traffic patterns will be changing. Some areas even have narrow strips of tarmac now for pedestrians and those on bikes to travel more safely.

When we reach home, much laughing, jumping and hugging occurs. We are weary travelers, and they have held dinner for us. It’s past 10pm and a chill is in the air; the hot beef broth and marrow bones are accompanied by one too many pieces of chapati. I’m not sure that’s a real thing, “one to many chapati,” but it was close.

I notice something is different about this house and the house George had leased in May after discovering the other house we were thinking about buying had a very leaky roof among other inspection issues. I confirm with George that this is another completely different house and he says we can talk about it in the morning when we’re both rested. I agree, as I can barely keep my eyes open. I am so tired I fall asleep without pulling down the mosquito netting above my bed. I spend the night smacking myself awake every time I hear a buzz near my ear.

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