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He never expected to find such generosity amid such poverty, but a Kenyan pastor and his congregants welcomed him with open hearts.
The e-mail came to my in-box sounding like something written by the Apostle Paul 2,000 years ago: “Dear Hamlin, Praise the Lord, brother, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, brethren. Mine is to thank the Almighty who made us to meet. Live long and God bless you.”
Except this message came from the very modern-day Pastor Cornelious who runs a church in Naivasha, Kenya. And, like the best messages from friends–brethren, as he would term us–it had photos attached. More about the photos in a minute. First, let me tell you how I met Pastor Cornelious.
Last January my wife, Carol, and I went to Kenya with our friends Richard and Gretchen. They wanted us to see the well they were digging in a dry part of the country, where Richard had served in the Peace Corps years ago.
They had raised money through their church, and although our participation was modest, they insisted we join them, along with two other friends, on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
We’d never been to Africa and we both were a little hesitant. Quite frankly, we were worried about seeing a lot of poverty.
Kenya is not the poorest country in the world by any means, but with a booming population and limited resources, its per capita income puts it near the bottom tenth. How relaxing would a vacation be among people who had so little?
The first part of the trip was a dazzling safari. Our small group had six days and nights sleeping under the stars.
The wildlife was spectacular. We saw buffaloes, zebras, rhinos, hippos swimming in muddy lakes, gazelles racing, antelopes, wildebeests, howling hyenas, baboons, monkeys, the shy dik-dik, graceful giraffes and herds of elephants.
The snows of Mount Kilimanjaro lurked in the sky like a cloud against the brilliant blue and we counted all the different kinds of birds–89 that I recorded in my journal. This from a city boy who wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a sparrow and a wren.
On Saturday night we were coming back into civilization, staying at a lodge overlooking Lake Naivasha before continuing on to the village whose well Richard and Gretchen were helping to fund.
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The lodge had been built when Kenya was a British colony, and it reeked of England: old photos on the walls of ladies having high tea on the lawn, bouquets of roses in all the rooms. We asked if there was a church in the town where we could worship in the morning.
“Of course,” we were told.
Sunday at nine, we got into our jeep and drove through the village on dirt roads, children waving and asking for sweets. The church was a modest whitewashed concrete-block building with a dirt floor. The name, though, showed great aspirations: Living Water Gospel Church World Wide.
There were six plastic chairs inside, set up in front for the six of us Americans. The rest of the congregation sat on rough wooden benches, studying falling-apart-at-the-seams English Bibles.
I gazed up at the tin roof. A lot of holes, which made me wonder what happened during the rainy season.
There was no fancy acoustic system, no stained-glass windows, no recessed lighting, but the hand-painted message at the front was confident: “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow within him” (John 7:38).
And taped on a sidewall was a black-and-white sign that would have been recognized by any worshipper. A cell phone with a line going through it.
The worship began with music. The singing, led by the teens, was accompanied by one drummer and one kid clanking a tire rim. We joined in, clapping and swaying, doing our best to approximate the Swahili.
At one point Carol nudged me. “We should sing for them.” So we stood and sang “Amazing Grace.” The genial Pastor Cornelious then sang it back to everybody in Swahili.
Yes, of course, this congregation had less–a lot less–than we did back in the States, but its spirit was infectious. Pastor Cornelious gave a lively sermon in Swahili, translated by his copastor into English. Worldwide indeed.
He must have been told that Americans were impatient, as he kept consulting his watch. Evidently he had promised the people at the lodge that he would have these busy tourists in and out in an hour.
I craned my head around to look back at the congregation, trying to figure out how everyone managed to keep their clothes clean in a place with few paved roads and no Laundromats. It seemed a minor miracle. Of course, they had Lake Naivasha.
Richard was asked to address the congregation. He thanked them for their welcome and explained that we were here not only to admire the beauties of their country but also because we had raised money to build a well in another part of Kenya “that is not blessed as you are with this beautiful lake next to your town and such living waters.”
An offering was taken up. A woman brought around a large purse to collect it. I took out a twenty. “Let’s do more,” Carol whispered. I found some more bills and dropped them in. We all did. The place could use the money.
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Pastor Cornelious, consulting his watch again, led us in prayer. We sang another song and then went outside to chat in the warm sun–like an American coffee hour without the doughnuts or coffee.
“Thank you, thank you,” we said many times. We took photos on our cell phones, exchanged e-mail addresses, then jumped into our dusty jeep.
Just as we were driving off, Pastor Cornelious raced out of the church with an envelope. “We wanted you to have this as a gift,” he said in his careful English. He thrust it into Richard’s hand. “It is for the well you’re digging in that part of Kenya that isn’t blessed like ours with such living waters.”
“Thank you,” we said. A little later, when we stopped for lunch, Richard opened the envelope and stared for a moment at its thick wad of bills. All those tens and twenties we’d given them, they’d given right back to us, along with their own hard-earned shillings.
“They gave us the entire offering,” Richard said. “Everything we gave them and their own money too.”
The widow’s mite didn’t seem like just a parable anymore. I had been so hesitant about meeting poverty face-to-face, but what we saw was the rich, raw, passionate expression of faith. Pure generosity the way the early Christians practiced it. I felt like I was hearing one of Paul’s exhortations to give, and seeing it acted upon, instantly.
Pastor Cornelious and I started e-mailing once I was back home, his messages filled with exuberant greetings of brotherly love. Our little travel group decided we wanted to do something for the generous Living Water Gospel Church in Naivasha.
We thought of all those Bibles that were falling apart. Maybe we could give them some new ones. “Dear brother in Christ,” I wrote Pastor Cornelious, adopting his tone, “we have a vision of giving your church a library. Are there any books you would particularly like?”
He gave me a short list and I asked him how many Kenyan shillings it would take for them to build a bookcase. He named a price.
I wired him the money through Western Union. And I started mailing books. The greatest expense has been postage. (Amazon doesn’t deliver to Naivasha.)
For a long time I wasn’t sure that my packages were arriving, so I was particularly delighted to receive Pastor Cornelious’s most recent e-mail, with the aforementioned photos of the bookcase and the books.
I’m not sure Pastor Cornelious ever guessed he would have this “World Wide” connection someday. I couldn’t have ever guessed I would get e-mails from a Kenyan who sounds like the Apostle Paul. But with a little faith and a lot of hope and prayers, amazing things happen.