Clouds covered the tell 1 we had climbed earlier. Sunrays began to break through the mist. Just a half hour later the sun would transform a pleasant morning into a hot and sweaty day. Now, however, the air still felt fresh, and silence prevailed. In fact, staff and volunteers of the fourth expedition to Lachish from Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, U.S.A., listened intently to a worship talk before vigorous excavating, heavy lifting, careful sifting, and meticulous documenting would transform the morning’s silence into another busy day on the tell.
Opening Prison Doors in Kenya
By Ben Boggess
The day of his appeal had come. Amani, a condemned man, called his attorney and asked him to go with him before the judge. His attorney refused, telling Amani that his case “was hopeless.”
As Amani hung up the phone his thoughts drifted back a few months to a small, dirt-floor courtyard where he, along with 60 other condemned men, listened while I shared with them thegospel message. Amani then gave hislife to God. The officers allowed only12 of them to be baptized; Amani wasone of them.
Trusting in God, Amani now stoodbefore the judge alone. After reviewingthe inmate’s folder page by page, thejudge looked at him and said, “You arefree to leave.” Shocked, Amani walkedout of the courtroom, expecting to bearrested as soon as he stepped outside; but there was no one there to arresthim. Amani was free to begin a new life!
Since then, two more of the deathrowinmates who accepted Christ astheir Savior have been released, andword has spread that “the God of theAdventists” is able to set you free. Thereal story, though, is not how God has the power to release inmates from earthly prisons, but how He has opened doors to the Kenya prison system so the message of His love could enter and set prisoners free from the bondage of sin.
In 2004, inmates in Kenyan prisons had three denominational options for chaplain support. Ten years later they now have a fourth option: Seventh-day Adventist.
In 2011 Isaiah Osugo, the commissioner general of Kenya prisons, directed that an Adventist chaplain be assigned to each of the country’s 107 prison facilities. This unprecedented step was in response to the more than 14,000 inmates who have been baptized into the Adventist Church. The ministry was started 10 years ago by Benson Ochieng Obolla and the King’s Messengers. My wife, Marvel, and I, then at the Baltimore First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland,United States, have been privileged to participate.
From Music to Ministry
In 2004 the King’s Messengers of Kenya, an Adventist volunteer musical evangelism group of about 15 collegeage young people, were invited to sing at the Prisons Staff Training College in Ruiru, Kenya. While there, the King’s Messengers learned about 250 Adventist inmates awaiting trial at the Nairobi Remand Prison.
Kenyan prisons were built during the early 1900s, before Kenyan independence, so they lack modern amenities. Most of the toilets are open latrines. Soap and water for bathing and other needs are limited. The prisons are overcrowded, which means sleeping accommodations are inadequate.
The inability to segregate sick inmates combined with little access to medical care results in increased health problems. Before 2002, prison visitation was not allowed in Kenya—not even for family members. Restrictions have been eased, however, and the performance of the King’s Messengers at the Prisons Staff Training College made a positive impression. Through connections made with 4,000 prison officers assembled for training, Benson Ochieng Obolla, music director for the King’s Messengers, made arrangements to visit and bring food and soap to the 250 Adventists in the prison in Nairobi.
To the surprise of Obolla and the King’s Messengers, when they arrived at the Nairobi prison, 3,000 inmates had assembled to hear them sing. Seeing thepoor conditions and lack of basic necessities the prisoners had to contend with created within the King’s Messengers a desire to minister to all the inmates.
The desire to help inmates in Kenya was carried with Leon and May Earl in 2008 to the Baltimore First Seventh-day Adventist Church, where I then served as pastor. A native of Kenya and cousin to Obolla, May was personally familiar with prison conditions; one of her brothers had died in a Kenyan prison. When she discovered my interest in evangelism, we immediately began planning an evangelistic campaign in Kenya.
In 2009, we partnered with the King’s Messengers and made our first trip to Kitale, where we held an evangelistic series inside the prison compound.
To our surprise, not just a few but all 1,500 inmates came out to listen. They stood in the hot sun all day and missed lunch in order to hear the message. After an appeal, 218 of the inmates chose to give their lives to Christ. These inmates were given a copy of the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist Church and were connected with local church members for Bible studies.
While the prison Bible studies were being held, we conducted a two-week evangelistic series in the city, where another 60 decisions were made for Christ. After two weeks we returned to the prison and invited those who had studied and wanted to be baptized to come forward. We hauled in water from a nearby pond for the small, portable swimming pool that served as a baptistry, as there was no water in the prison. The water in the baptistry was only knee-deep, so I knelt down and had the inmates sit so I could immerse them.
In 2011 we again worked with the King’s Messengers, but this time at the Kisumu and Kodiaga prisons. We repeated our pattern of speaking to the prisoners and holding a two-week village campaign. I spoke to the maximum- security group while Leon spoke to the medium-security group.
My wife, Marvel, and May spoke to the women. While at Kodiaga I wasalso permitted to talk with the 60 prisoners on death row, and 30 of them accepted Christ as their Savior. I baptized one man who was confined to a stretcher. He was physically unable to come outside to listen to the messages, but he had heard them through the sound system inside the prison. He asked to be carried out for baptism. At first it was thought to be too much trouble. But when I overheard the situation being discussed, I asked the officers to please bring him out. They did, and I baptized him—stretcher and all. That man has since been released.
Upon his release the King’s Messengers provided him with a wheelchair.
Because of the great health needs, we also hosted a medical clinic run by a doctor and nurses from the University of Eastern Africa Baraton, the Adventist school near Eldoret. The clinic treated more than 700 inmates and uniformed staff. Because of the King’s Messengers’ work, about 400 inmates were baptized. The prison commander then gave permission for an Adventist church to be built inside the prison, a place in which the inmates could worship.
Making Prison a Better Place
The Kenya prison system’s objective now is to reform inmates so they leave better citizens than when they entered. Prison officers have said that “inmates who surrender their lives to Christ have become more law-abiding and easier to handle.” One young man had been an inmate at Naivasha prison for 21 years. When he first came, they put him in isolation because he was so difficult to deal with. He caused fights with the other inmates and was disrespectful to the guards. But after he found Christ as his Savior, his life changed so dramatically that he was later released. The change in prisoner behavior has shown prison officers that when inmates have a relationship with God, it makes the prison a better place for everyone. Officers view the King’s Messengers as working together with them to achieve a common goal.
But not everyone has been happy. As the work progressed, established chaplains became upset that so many inmates were becoming Adventists. They began to oppose the King’s Messengers coming to the prisons. They tried to discourage the group by having the electricity turned off during their visits so that the sound system wouldn’t work, filing protests against them with the officers in charge, and other such annoyances.
Obolla, however, refused to be ntimidated by the opposition of the established chaplains, and God worked to remove the obstacles that stood in the way, and continued to open prison doors. The King’s Messengers have now ministered to 75 of the 107 prisons in Kenya, which house as many as 5,000 to as few as 150 inmates. We continue to encourage Obolla and the King’s Messengers as best we can, providing baptisteries and funding from churchmember donations when possible.
Chaplains in Kenya, including the newly appointed Adventist chaplains, are government employees. Osugo required that the chaplains be selected from within the current prison staff. Seventy-three Adventist chaplains, both men and women, have so far been appointed. However, they had been trained and were working as prison officers, not chaplains. So, working together with Obolla, we held a twoweek prison chaplain training session at the Naivasha maximum-security prison compound in April 2014. This was funded by the Baltimore First Adventist Church of Maryland and the Carrollton Adventist Church of Ohio.
More than 100 people, including the 73 newly minted prison chaplains, assembled for classes. Topics included Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, church history, conflict and stress management, Bible study, family life, and simple health remedies and principles. In addition to our United States team, Adventist pastors Kennedy Ombati, head Adventist chaplain at Kenya prison headquarters; Inspector Alexander Tarus, chapain in charge of religion at the Kenya Prisons Staff Training College; and Sergeant Robert Kitenge, the regional chaplain in charge of Nairobi County and the surrounding area, gave presentations on the role of the prison chaplain.
During the training event we also spoke to the 4,000 inmates of the Naivasha prison. Just as had happened in Kitale in 2009, the prisoners came out en masse and stood in the hot sun from morning until late afternoon to hear the message. Some 200 inmates were baptized that Sabbath, and the numbers keep growing. Those baptized in Naivasha now total about 400.
The First Prison Church
The Kodiaga Maximum Security Prison Seventh-day Adventist Church, approved by the Kenya prison system in 2011, was opened and dedicated July 18, 2014. This is the first church building constructed inside a Kenyan prison. During construction Obolla was asked if he could build a roof over the latrine. Obolla took one look at the old open latrine and told the commander, “No!”
Instead, he offered to build a new facility—a closed system with flushable toilets and showers. The church and toilets were completed at the same time, and the facility was turned over to the inmates and commander. Church leaders from the East-Central Africa Division, the West Kenya Union, and the Western Kenya Conference were present. Inmates cheered and wept because of the care and compassion shown to them. Because of the work of the King’s Messengers, the Adventist Church there is being called “the church that cares.” The work continues to grow and flourish. The Naivasha prison commander has given land for the construction of a new Adventist church building inside his prison. Chaplains are now requesting Obolla’s support for baptisms every Sabbath in multiple prisons. The newly minted but inexperienced prison chaplains desired more training and looked for ways to pursue college education while continuing their work as chaplains. Plans for this training are now under way.
The stories are endless and the needs are great. Costs for the chaplain ministry and conducting baptisms range about US$1,000 a month. The Naivasha church construction project alone is estimated at US$15,000. But although costs are high, both inmates and officers are being blessed. God has opened prison doors in Kenya, not only to let in Seventh-day Adventists but also to bring out from the darkness of sin those who commit their lives to Him. Many have said, “Had I not been in prison, I would never have found out about the love of God and the soon coming of Jesus.”