For a while it seemed that I didn’t really have an open door for ministry with United Methodists in Nairobi, Kenya. I had been communicating with the district superintendent there for a few years. He had even invited me to come and speak at their Annual Conference in 2016. But the door didn’t seem to be open for me at the time. I committed to continue to pray for the church there and to pray that God would eventually give me a green light to go.
Last year in August my friend, doctoral mentor, and colleague, Rev. Dr. David Watson, had just returned from a meeting in Nairobi. He asked me if I would consider partnering with a church there that also had a school to educate children and youth. The pastor, Rev. Davies Musigo, he said, was the assistant to the district superintendent, Rev. Wilton Thomas Odongo. Wilton was the district superintendent I had already been talking with since 2015. I was all ears! I was, indeed, interested. A few days later during a worship service in Dayton, Ohio, where I was for my doctoral intensive week with United Theological Seminary, someone I had never met prophesied over me and said they saw me doing ministry in Africa. That was all the confirmation I needed.
I connected with Pastor Davies and Rev. Odongo. Quickly I began to pray for a team to form that would travel with me to Kenya. Within a few months a few people from my church began having meetings to plan a trip. God also put it on my heart to invite Rev. Matt Reynolds of Spirit and Truth to go with me. I am so glad he accepted my invitation! The Holy Spirit had already been stirring Matt’s heart to prepare him.
Thanks to the prayers and support of generous sponsors and the hard work that we put into planning and fundraising we had a wonderful, Spirit-filled trip. We united with our Christian family in Kenya that we had never met–face-to-face at least. It was definitely a blessed foretaste of the gathering we will experience when the Lord Jesus returns with the fullness of the kingdom of God. And it was a lifechanging experience for all of us, Americans and Kenyans. I had encouraged our team to pray and prepare not only to be a blessing but also to be blessed abundantly; God did not disappoint.
While there we had an opportunity to be with the children, youth, and teachers of New Hope Education Center and another United Methodist school in Nairobi as well. Matt and I spent one day teaching pastors and church leaders. Grace, Carly, and Rachel shared lessons with the children at school during the week and during Sunday school on Sunday morning. We spent a lot of time in fellowship and worship; we visited and prayed with church members and community members in their homes. On Saturday we participated in a service for the community where I had the opportunity to preach the gospel with non-church members, including some Muslims, present. Afterwards we shared a hot meal and gave away clothes and food. During Sunday morning worship, which lasted a few hours, I had the privilege of celebrating the sacraments of baptism and holy communion together with Rev. Odongo and Rev. Davies. Matt preached a strong message of hope in the midst of suffering and then we had a powerful time of prayer for people to be filled with more of the Holy Spirit. It was a full and blessed week in so many ways!
The entire week I felt led by the Spirit to focus on seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33; Luke 12:31). The level of poverty in the communities we were in was like nothing any of us had ever seen in America. We have more space in the bathrooms in our parsonage than Pastor Davies and his wife Esther have in their entire apartment. And they don’t even have a bathroom at all, or any running water for that matter. They have to share a small latrine with about ten other families in their building. Pastor Davies salary is about $60.00 a month. DS Odongo’s apartment where he lives with his wife and family is slightly better, but not by much; and he has no guaranteed salary at all for his work. Many, many others live with far less space and income. For members of our team the reality of the living conditions are well beyond what we could comprehend without seeing it firsthand. After the first couple of days, I asked members of our team to describe what they were thinking and feeling about what we had seen and experienced so far. “Shocked” and “overwhelmed” by the level of poverty and need seemed to capture much of the experience.
In the face of those conditions the temptation to put the gospel on the backburner can be great. The need to seek God’s gift of righteousness may seem to be a lesser priority in the face of such great material and physical need. But this is a dichotomy that the Church should not make (see Matt’s reflection on that HERE). In his ministry Jesus fed the hungry, both spiritually and physically. In the face of dire poverty and extreme tyranny in the ancient world, Jesus still called people to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. He warned the rich, the poor and everyone in between about the deceitfulness of riches and worldly cares that can choke the word of God out in one’s heart (Mark 4:18-19). He warned those who sought him out after he miraculously feed a multitude of thousands to “not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life…” (John 6:27). Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus also reminded the devil from Deuteronomy 8:3 that “man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (see also Matt 4:4; Luke 4:4). Hunger can be a great temptation to forget about our need for God’s truth and righteousness.
In Luke 12, after two brothers bring their skirmish over inheritance to Jesus, he warns them and everyone else within earshot and all his followers about seeking to lay treasure up on earth and not being rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus also warns not even to allow anxiety over basic needs to deter us from keeping first things first, namely the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Luke 12:22-34). Jesus taught this in the face of dire poverty in the ancient world. John Wesley also taught this in the face of serious poverty in 18th century England. Of course, Jesus did teach us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” but not before or at the expense of “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-13).
Yet in the face of great need, it is tempting to downplay the great commission. When we had the community service at Huruma Tent of Prayer, I asked Pastor Davies if we would have the meal and give away food and clothing first or have worship first. He said if we give away food and clothing first, many will not stay for worship to hear the gospel. Some things in Nairobi are very different; many things are the same. Everywhere in the world humans often don’t recognize our common need for God and God’s word.
Although it was tempting to do otherwise, I kept my focus on seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness all week. I shared with the pastors and church leaders of the Nairobi district that each committee of the local church should have this as its primary focus. The booklets that explain the purpose of the committees in the United Methodist Church each begin with the reminder that we are blessed to be a blessing echoing the promise that God made to Abraham that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). God also said this blessing would come as a result of the righteousness and justice of his people (Gen 18:19). Central to the fulfillment of this promise is the fulfilment of the promise of the new covenant, that God’s people would receive a new heart and a new spirit for obedience to God’s law (i.e. righteousness; see Dt 30:6; Jer 31:31ff; Ezk 36:25-27).
The ministry of each local church and the purpose of every committee should be focused on leading individuals and the church collectively to receive and live into the fullness of these promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of the early Methodist movement (as Matt Reynolds shared so effectively), as Methodists we should not be complacent with people becoming members of the local church without actually becoming committed disciples. Indeed we should encourage all those who come to our churches to seek entire sanctification (1 Thess 5:23), to be renewed in the image of God in true holiness and righteousness (Eph 4:17-24) by being conformed to the image of Jesus, God’s only Son (Rom 8:29). Professor Kevin Watson argues that encouraging people to seek entire sanctification, the fullness of salvation, was the main reason for Methodism, and its great calling (Read HERE). It is a calling that desperately needs to be reclaimed and rekindled today around the world.
In my talk to pastors and church leaders, I concluded with the story of a father who lost his son to a tragic car accident. In the aftermath he decided to donate his organs, including his heart. A young woman and mother, who was dying of heart failure, received the young man’s heart. The father arranged a meeting with the young woman after she received his son’s heart. He was so grateful to meet the young woman. With tears streaming he pointed to the young woman’s chest and asked, “May I?” She nodded yes, and the father placed his ear on her chest and was filled with overwhelming joy as he listened to the beat of his son’s heart giving life and vitality to the young mother!
God the Father desperately wants to hear his Son’s heart giving eternal life and vitality through his righteousness in the lives of individual believers and in Church, his body on earth, by the power of his Spirit. This is the mission of God in the world for and with the Church in all times and places.