A Missionary’s Journey into Orthodoxy in Turkana
Within the Turkana, there live not only a heartbeat of survival and a foot-stomp of joy, but a soul that takes joy in the risen Lord. Orthodox Christianity is alive and well in the cracked, mystic terrain of northern Kenya. The Turkana, in Turkana, speaking Turkana, proclaim the Trinity with the faith of a child and with the wisdom of an elder. Through the tireless love and effort of local parish priests, the committed involvement of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), and the willingness of many to receive the Gospel, the one, true faith has united over ten communities of believers.
I was accompanied by a team of seven incredible individuals to Kenya. It took no time at all to give ourselves the team name “Turkana Saba” (Saba is “seven” in Swahili). Strangers for but moments, we were a pan-Orthodox melting pot from Washington to California to Virginia to New York to Russia, and a few spots in between. The support and prayers of family and friends brought us together at the OCMC headquarters in St. Augustine, Florida. The passionate, dedicated OCMC staff readied us with lesson plan guidance and enlightened us on the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Eager and nervous (because, after all, when do you really say, "Okay, now I'm ready to go to Kenya"?), we flew to Amsterdam, from there boarded a Kenya Airways aircraft to Nairobi, and then hopped on a puddle-jumper to Lodwar. Over thirty hours of travel left us worn out but ready. Our team stayed in the modest quarters of a Catholic guest house, which proved just fine for our needs of praying, journaling, eating, sleeping, lesson-planning and socializing. We became experts at spraying bug spray, repairing holes in our mosquito nets, rationing toilet paper, eating cabbage and potatoes, checking for frogs in our bathroom, hand-washing laundry, taking cold showers, using water bottles to rinse after brushing our teeth, walking with flashlights at night, dodging bats, spiders and small scorpions, and riding in the bed of the pick-up truck that served as our transportation, as our drivers zoomed past pot holes on the dirt roads of the town.
The focal point of our mission work was teaching at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church, just outside of Lodwar. The building itself and the water well beside it were projects of OCMC and continue to be a well-spring of life for the Turkana people. We had two teaching sessions while there, one for adults and one geared toward children. Some of the nomadic, native Turkana walked two days just for our teaching seminars, with the intent of returning to their tribes and sharing what they had learned. It makes one stop and pause – would I go to such great lengths for Truth? We had three concurrent teaching sessions, each with a priest/translator. My teaching experience in a Title I school with a large population of ESL students, predominately refugees from Africa, served me well in this capacity. I acted as teaching coordinator for the group, determining what got taught and where. (The location choices included the church building, a grass hut and a metal shed that we affectionately referred to as the "Tin Can.") Our teaching topics included various parables, death and its origin, salvation, saints, marriage, seven sacraments, the Creed, transformed life in Christ, and Orthodox parenting. We were quite surprised both at the prior knowledge of several of the people and at the lack of knowledge of others. If there had been any schooling at all, the people were most familiar with a lecture style, but we pushed many out of their comfort zone by asking questions, making crafts and requesting them to participate in dramatizations. Watching the priests teach their own people was amazing, as their teaching exemplified the pure art of story-telling and total engagement with the content through voice inflection and gesticulation.
Highlighted below are some of my notable moments with the Turkana:
- One is always being greeted with a unique handshake and a bow/kiss to either shoulder.
- Kids are always smiling and shouting "How are YOU?!"
- Holding an icon of the crucifixion in one of my lessons, I ask, "Is this the end of the story?" and a small group of men nodding, thinking that Christ's death was the end.
- Anytime the people heard something they liked, or that resonated in their spirit, they'd stand, clap and jump up and down in joyful tempo – in the middle of a lesson, as a stretch break after a lesson, during Liturgy – constant expressions of joy.
- In lieu of formal school supplies, I brought cardstock in sheet protectors to make dry erase boards. When I asked one group to draw what comes to mind when they think of a saint, an old woman started laughing because she'd never held a marker or pen before.
- I sang the Resurrection troparion in Turkana while holding the Resurrection icon in a lesson and felt inside the joy of Pascha in a way I'd never experienced before.
- Communion was – hands down – the most emotional, transformative experience. As soon as the Gifts come from behind the iconostasis, the beating of a drum, trills, laughing, smiling, jumping, fill the space of the church building. They know it is the Body and Blood. They know it is life-giving. They reminded me of what I often forget, and their reaction to receiving these precious Gifts made nothing but total sense. Tears streamed down my face; it was unforgettable!
- Holding small children, I felt their tiny wrists and every bone of their backbone with my hands.
- While sitting with a group of Turkana women on their mat one sunny afternoon, a woman took off one of her many colorful necklaces adorning her lovely, long neck and placed it on my head as a crown. I was told this particular necklace symbolizes beauty.
- Listening to the different tribes and watching them perform for us in welcoming and closing ceremonies, I hear amazing voices, young and old. The heart of every old spiritual song most definitely originated there. We performed for them, too: "The Call," "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In," "In the Jungle," Orthodox hymns, and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
- I had many moments with my team – playing cards, laughing, crying, de-briefing, singing Disney songs, performing puppet shows, learning, teaching, sharing experiences together.
- One incident stands out: being hugged and picked up off the ground by one of the Turkana women, Anna, at the close of the adult sessions and her pointing to the sky and saying something with firm conviction. Later I learned she was saying, "I'll see you in heaven!"