Adventists Helpful in Kenya Healing, Regional Church Leader Says
More than 600,000 Kenyans are church members.
Elizabeth Lechleitner, editorial assistant, Adventist News Network
Geoffrey Mbwana, leader of the Adventist Church in East-Central Africa, headquartered in Nairobi, recently spoke with Adventist News Network about a church campaign in Kenya to recruit every Adventist pastor and church leader to preach forgiveness and respect for life—both from the pulpit and at the negotiating table. Only when Adventists hold Christian values above tribal loyalties, he says, can the church avoid a situation similar to the 1994 tribal violence and mass killings in nearby Rwanda.
Despite security challenges, Mbwana says Adventists are assisting those affected. Church members are organizing Sabbath services at refugee camps and distributing food, clothing, and other basic supplies to the displaced. Excerpts:
BRINGING PEACE: Geoffrey Mbwana, regional church president in East-Central Africa, says members can play a role in bringing peace to Kenya.Adventist News Network: Kenya’s current minister of education, Sam Ongeri, is a Seventh-day Adventist, and you’ve noted earlier that several of the country’s judges and other prominent figures are also church members. Have Adventists been able to use their public positions to sway opinions toward reconciliation?
Geoffrey Mbwana: Yes, Professor Ongeri was among four leaders who were recently appointed by President Kibaki to represent his party at the negotiating table with Kofi Annan. I can remember very well the initial meeting, which was televised. Annan was about to start, and Professor Ongeri politely requested that the negotiations begin with prayer. He was then asked to offer a prayer, which we thought was a very positive contribution.
Is there a flip side to political involvement—a danger that political allegiances might eclipse Christian loyalties?
We have people on both sides [of the political divide]. You know, they are nationals, and they participate in the political life of the country. We have members of parliament who are Adventists. Professor Ongeri was appointed by President Kibaki. So our members are active in the political life of the country. What happens to the general population affects our people. We hope they continue to understand that life is more important than politics and the sides that we take. We are asking our people to show the difference that becoming a Christian—and an Adventist for that matter—makes.
What about the broader Adventist community? Do you see the Adventist population in Kenya polarizing over this conflict? Could this turn into another Rwanda, with Adventists pitted against other Adventists?
Right now we do not see that happening. And yet if issues at stake are not addressed and remedied, it has the potential to grow into a situation of that unfortunate magnitude. But right now, what we are doing is to visit with congregations. We have had a number of meetings with pastors in different places, including the areas of the worse violence. We have been preaching brotherhood and reconciliation, love and respect for life and one another, forgiveness and peace.
What toll has the violence taken on the Adventist population in Kenya?
Right now we do not know of any Adventists who have lost their lives. It’s a little bit difficult to get information, so we cannot rule that out completely. However, in terms of church infrastructure, a night watchman’s house at [the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton] was almost burned, some faculty homes outside the university were destroyed, and one of our schools was almost burned down. The violence has affected our church members the greatest. We have many who are refugees now displaced in camps. In Eldoret, in the western part of Kenya, we have almost 300 Adventist church members worshipping together every Sabbath at one refugee camp. And we have many, many Adventists in other refugee camps, which we are visiting from time to time.
How do you convince Adventists of opposing ethnicities to forgive amid such deeply rooted ethnic rivalries?
Basically we have to appeal to their spiritual orientation, because we are all of the same blood through Christ. We have these ethnic differences, but they’re not the issue really—the main thing is that we are all from the same family. Jesus has so much respect for life that He gave His own blood that we may live. Now, instead of shedding somebody else’s blood, we should be there to support. This is the spirit of Jesus Christ. We are just attempting to lead them beyond their ethnic sentiments, not just to embrace the powerful Christian values of humanity, but to really live at that level.
Ideologically, that sounds good. But how do you translate that into practical advice and concrete results?
One of the things that we have advised is for people at different camps and of different ethnic groups to reach out to the other side in acts of kindness, because we have people on both sides of this ethnic divide who are affected negatively and they need help at this moment, and therefore we have encouraged our churches to reach out without segregation, minister to all groups of people, and show them love and kindness. This message is very well received. In addition to that, some churches have given voluntary services, like counseling services for children and the displaced. Some volunteers from our churches have gone to [babysit] orphan children at camps, and again, all of our churches up until now are active in collecting food and clothing and delivering supplies, some through [the Adventist Development and Relief Agency] and some directly to refugee camps. It’s not just one or two people’s work. This is an effort by every pastor and church leader to preach reconciliation and address any issues that may arise locally.
What sort of reactions have these efforts received?
To places that we have been to, people have responded very positively—I’m talking about Adventists, of course. Each time we have spoken to them, they tell us, “This is the message we needed.” In some of these remote and still very dangerous places, they’ve told us, “We didn’t know that you would come so far, risk your lives for us.” They were so happy and very much encouraged to see leaders and hear their message.
Do you think this message is influencing spheres beyond the Adventist community?
We think it will. We have expressed a desire to meet leaders on each side of the political divide, although we’ve not yet been able to do so. We think that the role that we are playing, although not as major as we would want—largely because there are some places where we cannot readily go because of the security situation—but we think that it’s having some positive impact and may contribute to healing the wounds and working toward reconciliation. Just yesterday I was invited to speak at an inter-religious meeting, which would have been publicly broadcast, but for some reason they postponed it. But that was one public event we would very willingly have participated in. Within the church itself, we are beginning to see people come together and say, “Yes, we need to love one another; we need to forget these differences.”
Church members around the world are concerned about the situation in Kenya. Is there anything else you’d like them to know?
I need to say I’m so grateful to church members here in Nairobi, throughout the country, and internationally who have given of their time and energy to people who need our services right now. Our young people volunteered with ADRA to distribute food and clothing, and certainly that’s the Christian spirit we need more of. We have received a lot of support from Adventists around the world in terms of counsel, prayer, and even as we were evacuating our workers from the university and our hospital, we received tremendous support from [the world church headquarters]. The leaders have been with us on a daily basis.