Servants of God AND Humanity: A call to Christian action

I have a post in the works about the last week of discerment, time table mix ups and skyping with awesome 8th graders. But on Sunday night when I usually write my posts, I was asked last minute to preach in Chapel for Tuesday (today) representing the International Student Community. So I set to writing this instead and delivered it today to quite positive reviews. A Muslim student from Tanzania said it moved her to want to come to chapel more often and the president of the Student Association asked for a copy. I’m just glad it came out as coherent. 

James 2:14-18

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing and you say, “Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”- but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing, what good does that do you?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

I’ve chosen to preach on James today because I believe it to be a book of action. The traditional summary of the book is “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). And in the last month, I have found St. Paul’s to be a place that is designed to balance faith and works. The mission statement of the University, “To serve God and humanity,” is very clear about this design. Especially with the bass note emphasis of “AND HUMANITY” in the school anthem, how could anyone ignore that part?

As faith without works is dead, service to God without the intention of affecting, or at the very least interacting with humanity, is an empty goal. As God came to earth in the human form of Christ to prove His love toward us, so too He designed mankind to be the instruments of His continued works of righteousness, mercy and justice on earth. WE, each one of us, is intended to be an agent of God to act within and for humanity.

I apologize if I’m getting too Christological. I have the infection of postgraduate theology and sometimes it’s hard to avoid using the big vocab words. In short, because God became human, His work continues to be done by humans.

 As Gary Haugen, the Founder of the International Justice Mission, said (paraphrased), WE are God’s plan A for the work of justice and mercy in this world.

I’d like to explore for a moment those two specific categories; Justice and Mercy. And to illustrate the two concepts, I’d like to share a story inspired by writings of the Mennonite scholar and preacher, John Paul Lederach.

Mother Mercy was standing by a river when she heard an unusual splash. She looked up to see a baby, floating in a basket. She waded out to the middle of the river and pulled the baby back in. As she climbed up onto the riverbank, she heard a cry. Another baby was floating round the rocks down the river. She waded out again and retrieved him. Halfway back to the bank, she saw another basket coming along. She called out to the fishermen for help. They called for people from the town. In a human chain, they caught the babies as they emerged from around the bend. The community formed a human chain to rescue the children from the rapids.

Brother Justice came upon the strange scene. Immediately he began running up the hill that lead to the other side of the river’s bend, away from the rescue mission.

Mother Mercy cried out, “Brother Justice!  Where are you going! We need your help!”

 “I am helping!” Brother Justice cried back,

“I’m going to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Mercy is the action that answers the call of the needy. Mercy delivers food to the hungry, shelter and clothing to the cold and compassion to the suffering.

Justice dares to ask why these people are suffer in the first place, and seeks to stop the cause at the source.

As Christians, we practice often acts of Mercy. Food drives, hospital visits, volunteering at orphanages.  Kenyans, with the practice of Harambee, are far better at it than any community I have yet had the privledge to be in. I have watched already, in just a month, how seriously Kenyans take the communal bearing of burdens. It’s inspiring, and I intend to share it with many when I return home.

But as educated people of the church, here at St. Paul’s, we have been delivered the blessing to be able to understand the complex answers that come when we dare to ask, why are the babies in the river? And we’ve been given the resources to act.

When a bus rolls off the road, the BAC (Bachelor of Arts in Communication) students can craft an exposé on the bribery that allows old and overloaded vehicles to remain on the streets.

As scammers attempt to break into customer information in the bank, the BBIT (Bachelors of Business in Information Technology) students reconfigure the security system that keeps them out.

When rising costs threaten lay-offs at the company, the ingenuity of our BBA (Bachelors of Business Administration) students creates a new profit driving concept to keep them employed.

As children die unnecessarily of water borne illness, the community development students help install rain collection and purification systems and teach parents about sanitation.

When society struggles “to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God”, the students of Divinity prepare ourselves to offer encouragement along the journey, keeping the end in sight when others might have lost hope.

We have the staff and faculty to thank for fighting hard to create a safe and challenging environment in which we build these skills. They especially play a delicate balancing act of Mercy and Justice. Though they plead with and warn university students about the dangers of wandering into morally ambiguous territory outside the gates of this institution, they allow us to make our own mistakes and apply mercy or justice as appropriate after we have chosen to act, to be frank, quite stupidly.

Whatever vocation you find yourself in, when we choose to use our gifts with humanity in mind, instead of focusing solely on personal benefit, we are in fact acting on behalf of God. When we choose to ACT in ways that are Merciful and Just, we do so with the power of the Holy Spirit behind us. And as we challenge injustice, oppression, corruption and discrimination, we cause people to wonder, who are these Christians? What gives them such courage to challenge the status quo? Such compassion to give of themselves?

 Our faith compels us, our deeds further confirm us. And by being servants of God AND humanity, we grow deeper in that faith, and are given the opportunity to spread the joy of salvation provided by the sacrificial ACTION of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to all we may encounter.

May the security of His grace and unending love give you courage and go with you always.

Praise be to God. Amen.

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The M Word

Mzungu= white.

After Jambo (Hello) and Hakuna Matata (YOLO), it was the first real Kiswahili phrase I learned before coming to Kenya.

It’s not a derogatory term, for the most part. Just a physical characteristic. It brings images of fat tourists, dignified diplomats or do-good aid workers. Annoying in their ways, perhaps, but endearing or at the very least amusing.

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A US Navy officer interviews a Kenyan man. (Source| Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard it used in context, I was at a shop across the street from school. A small child, maybe four, wearing an orange GAP hoodie came running up behind me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” he shouted, finger outstretched and eyes wide. His older sister grabbed his shoulder, embarrassment across her face. I smiled, waved and said hello. He blinked his doe eyes in astonishment as he lowered his finger and bit his lower lip.

My friend Kate giggled and looked at me sideways as she asked me if I understood him. I said of course. After I had provided dinner entertainment the night before by way of butchering every Kiswahili phrase Kate patiently taught me, I think she was surprised I knew that one. I was more surprised that it had taken five days to hear it. Kate told me, “I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.” I took that as a grand statement of friendship.

As Kate and I rode in a matatu toward her home town for the weekend, a tour bus passed us, the faces of its passengers hidden behind clicking camera lenses. Kate gently tapped me, pointed, and whispered, “Mzungu bus.” We giggled.

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(Source| Wikimedia Commons)

Then it became a game. Like Where’s Waldo. I coined it Spot the Mzungu (STM). 

It’s part fun, part reflex. To see a pale face is such a shock, I found myself pointing them out, in some sort of unreciprocated commiseration. I see you. Obviously. I think my friends at first did it to make me feel less isolated. But now it’s become a fun joke we share.

Village Market, a mall 20 minutes down Limuru road is filled with mzungus. It is one of the best shopping malls in Kenya and is surrounded by foreign consulates. Kate took me there to get my Kenyan phone and I’d run into a friend from the states as we were exiting. All the mzungus be at ViMa. We decided STM would be off limits there, as we’d be muttering the m word so often we wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation.

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Posh Village Market at night (http://villagemarket-kenya.com/)

Today we went into Nairobi for the afternoon. The city is chaotic, the roads and sidewalks constantly full. We’d run into a bunch of people Grace knew. One young man sat down with us for a while. I’ve gotten very used to sitting in silence as my friends jabber in Shang (Swahili slang) and Kikuyu, waiting until everyone is laughing before I ask for a translation. The young man who’d sat down muttered mzungu enough times, I finally interrupted him and said, “My name is Blair, as it sounds like you’ve forgotten,” as I outstretched my hand. Kate, Grace and Fatma burst into laughter as the young man shook my hand apologetically.

We walked back through the streets of Nairobi to the central depot of busses and matatus. I should say dodged and weaved our way back, as navigating the city is quite similar to one giant game of frogger. Crossing one street I went in front of a truck as Grace and Kate curled around behind it. As I jumped up onto the curb alone, with a sigh of relief at making it to the final lily pad, a man stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “MZUNGU!” as if a giant polar bear had just unexpectedly emerged from the flow of traffic rather than a frazzled young woman. I’d been caught as the prize in someone else’s game of STM.

But that is one of the reasons I chose to study in Kenya over Stockholm or Scotland. I wanted that experience of being the minority. The first day I was on campus, I sat alone next to a lecture hall soaking up wifi. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was doing. He grilled me as to my student status, my course of study, my country of origin, my language limitations and my date of departure. I answered his questions with a smile, and he finally walked away, satisfied that I did in fact belong. So that’s what it feels like to be profiled.

Except he didn’t ask to see my identification. Place his hand on his pistol. Demand to search my bag or frisk me. It was a mild encounter, but still a moment of realization.

Kenya imports from America hip hop culture along with second hand clothes. The undergrads throw around the n word in greeting, in passing, in casual conversation. Yo what’s up my n****r?!? 

In one particularly rowdy post dinner hang out, I finally admitted how uncomfortable it was making me. They didn’t seem to understand. My friend Charles, a native Kenyan, recently returned from spending most of his life in Evanston, explained that using the N\n word could land you in jail in the States.

Yes, if the wrong person heard it. Yes, even if it was just between blacks. No, we’re not joking.

I tried to paint a picture. Imagine if every time someone called me mzungu, it meant that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t just a description, black or white. It implied that I was dirty, diseased, lower, unwanted. To call me mzungu meant that there was something deeply and irreversibly wrong about me.

“That’s what the n word is like in America. And I would never call any of you that. Not even as a joke. Not even if you told me it was ok. Never.”

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

The only time I’d felt truly out of place was when we went up to Limuru Town. St. Paul’s is situated about 5km south of Limuru proper, in a neighborhood known as Kibuku. We decided to go up the hill and have a look around. As I stepped out into the main market, I could feel something different. We were far from Nairobi now, the cosmopolitan city. Away from Village Market with its Italian Bistros and international shopping. Beyond the guarded gates of the University. It felt as if everyone we passed was calling out, “MZUNGU!” But the fun pointing and giggling was absent. Only eyes tracking me. Children and beggars holding their hands out with expectancy. Shop keepers startled as I walked by.

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The shops in Limuru Town (Source|fsdkenya.org)

But I didn’t feel unsafe. Just slightly unwanted. Since Limuru was not in need of help, I might be there to harm, or at the very least disrupt, the flow of this rural town. They were fearful eyes that tracked me. A town with a famed country club. A stop on the Ugandan Railway. Colonialism had made impressions on this town in a way that my teenaged colleagues could not grasp. They had not lived in that time of oppression.

The way I could not grasp the use of the n word as anything less than hateful. Because we still live in a time of oppression.

I am thankful that I was made aware in my life of my white privilege. And now I have been made aware of the breadth of its influence. No matter how far I go, I cannot escape it.

But I can hope, by the power of God, to transform it. Beginning with the relationships I form here.

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

Peace and Blessings, 

Blair