Discovering Hope and a Future

Discovering Hope and a Future

How a crisis helped unite a Kenyan community


very day, disasters bring destruction and suffering to people across the globe. Whether a crisis has just occurred or is still causing economic hardship years later, at no time is our world free from this reality.

In the past year alone, the world has witnessed disease and flooding in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), typhoons in eastern Africa, acute food shortages in Venezuela, prolonged civil war and a refugee crisis in Syria, and the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China that led to a global pandemic. These emergencies – natural and human-made disasters alike – have devastating effects on families and entire communities.

As Canadian Baptists, we seek to alleviate poverty and suffering during times of crisis. In the midst of great hardship, there is an opportunity for us to share the love of God in word and deed. But in order to determine an appropriate response, we need to better understand the experience of crisis.

I invite you to reflect on the following experience of a Kenyan community devastated by drought. And in the process, I encourage you to consider a crucial biblical promise that is at the foundation of effective relief and disaster response. Let’s begin our journey together.

When we first came to this village in 2011, the men were in conflict. They represented two distinct ethnic groups, both laying claim to this thin jut of land near the banks of the Tana River. In the past, such conflicts have escalated and caused dire consequences: the burning of homes, destruction of fields, violence and bloodshed. But here at the relief site, men from both groups are sharing twigs together and talking about their village, “Bula Pamoja” (Swahili for “Village Together”).

Working with local partners, CBM helped support the unification of their village. This process began when we moved from providing the initial support of supplementary rations to a more involved process. This required us to slow down and listen to the community members, to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and understand their need for resiliency.

Over time, the people of this village began realizing that their way of life was becoming less viable. They wanted a better future for their children. In partnership with CBM, they agreed to begin their first project: to build a school with safe latrines.

“This required us to slow down and listen to the community members, to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and understand their need for resiliency.”

(Photo above): Farmers from Bula Pamoja prepare seedling bags for a community nursery. The samplings will be replanted on their farms, enabling them to transition from food relief, towards a stable food secure future.

The people provided the labour, as well as local sand and gravel. CBM contributed the remaining material, food, water and skilled carpenters to work with the village. But the project was theirs and they owned it. This became the first of many.

Mosaic is a community forum of local and global voices united by a shared mission. Mosaic will serve as a catalyst to stimulate and encourage passionate discipleship among Canadian Baptists and their partners.

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Fall 2020

Table of Contents

Moving Towards a Crisis

It is the spring of 2016. People in northeastern Kenya are anxiously awaiting the annual long rains that were once typical in this region. But the rains have not been reliable. Although rain is falling in Kenya’s fertile south, farmers and herders in the north are concerned about their livelihoods.

The continued drought and insecurity of this region have led to a situation of cyclical crisis. In Garissa County, many villages have become completely dependent on the supply of supplementary rations from humanitarian agencies.

CBM and local partners have been serving the needs of displaced communities in the area. These villages have been directly affected by the devastating famine and insecurity of this region.

Our truck rattles over the corrugated dusty road as we make our way to one of our several relief sites. When we arrive, we find weary men sitting together in the noonday shade of an acacia tree. The men do not rush to greet us; they are tired. Squatting together, they continue to chew mswaki, a pale-yellow twig used locally as a toothbrush.

At the Centre of it All

On this day, our team has gathered local Christian volunteers from a food security project in Garissa to meet as peer mentors with the Muslim village leaders. They requested assistance to improve the irrigation of their expanded fields, which they established through CBM’s conservation agriculture project. The fact that such a diverse group is meeting together in the centre of this village is itself a miracle. The animosity and distrust between religious groups in northeastern Kenya is deeply woven throughout the fabric of history.

The colonial past combined with the modern presence of humanitarian agencies has often exasperated the tension between the peoples of the Christian South and Muslim North of Kenya. In the mid 1980s, after struggling for several years to bring these two groups together, Canadian missionaries made the conscious decision to focus their efforts on repairing the relationship with the Muslim side of this equation. For nearly three decades, Canadian Baptists supported ministries that witnessed to the love of Jesus among Somali Muslim people. Christian charity sought to sow goodwill through supporting efforts such as tuberculosis hospitals, small business loans, school-feeding programs, and improved camel husbandry.

During that same period, the local Kenyan church was also growing and establishing itself in this mainly Muslim area of Kenya. These ethnic and religious “outsiders” were making the choice to follow God’s calling into what was largely considered a hostile area – culturally, religiously and ethnically distinct from the rest of Kenya.

While responding to the 2011 famine, CBM made the dramatic shift to focus on building bridges between these two religious groups. We decided to leverage our history of serving the local Muslim population in order to facilitate the long-term witness of the local church. This involved building stronger relationships with the embedded congregations and Christian leaders now established in the area. Through this partnership, CBM provided the support needed to effectively serve their Muslim neighbours.

The Words of the Prophet

Faith, a member of the Christian delegation, has joined us today in Bula Pamoja.

“Where are the rest of your farmers?” she asks.

A lay leader in a local church, Faith is wearing a brightly-coloured Kanga fabric – which is printed with her church logo and the bold words of Jeremiah 29:11. The verse covers her dress like a banner. And with the same fabric, she covers her head to respect our Muslim hosts. As she joins the circle, everyone can clearly read the words of the prophet across her dress.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

“What do you mean?” asks one of the men. “The rest of the farmers?” he continued to probe.

“The women.” She pauses. “The women, who are also taking the conservation farming training and working in the fields. They need to be here as well, don’t they?” Faith smiles as she pulls out a notepad from her purse. “I have all of their names with me, if that helps.”

As we wait for the women farmers to arrive, I am struck by the significance of Faith’s confidence: she boldly chose to display Jeremiah 29:11 on her clothing, and she spoke up for female farmers in front of a group of Muslim men.

At the time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what that verse really meant. Of course, I knew the words – it is perhaps one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture after John 3:16. But I, like many Canadian Baptists, have held a broken and counterfeit understanding of one of the most profound promises of the Bible.

Previously, I thought of this verse as an optimistic Christian cheer. “Look up, God has a plan and your life is going to be great!” But that interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 could not be further from the truth. The significance of this passage is something far more important than what many of us have made out of it.

To truly understand the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, we need to go back to the story that preceded it in Jeremiah 28. God’s people are living in crisis. Displaced from their homes and placed under the oppression of Babylon, where the people of Judah are living in exile. Babylon, the centre of pagan worship, is the antithesis of Jerusalem. The exilic community is desperate for God’s rescue and return. And the false prophet Hananiah is essentially telling the people what they wanted to hear: Don’t worry, God will break the yoke of Babylon, deliver us and return us home in two years. Hananiah is looking for a short cut, a quick resolution to the crisis, and a return to the old way of life.

At first, Jeremiah cautions Hananiah. But after some time of seeking God’s direction, Jeremiah calls out Hananiah’s lie. The people will not be rescued from captivity in two years, their belongings will not be returned, and God is actually calling them to settle in Babylon for the long term. In fact, Jeremiah tells them that God’s deliverance back to their homeland will not take place for another 70 years. This meant that the generation receiving his letter would live and die in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s message would not have felt like good news. Listen to the words of instruction that the prophet gives to this community bearing the hardship of loss and displacement.

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Can you imagine what a shocking message that must have been to the exiles living in the crisis and chaos of Babylon? God was now calling them to root their lives in this broken place and to invest themselves into this new community, seeking the peace and prosperity for the entire city. It is in this context that we find the promise of Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is a promise for people living in the middle of crisis – planted in the very place from which they want to escape. Without this truth, it is difficult to appreciate what Canadian Baptists and local partners are trying to do in places like Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda or DRC.

In essence, we are not parachuting into areas of crisis with instant solutions or quick fixes. Yes, CBM’s relief and disaster responses will naturally include life-saving measures like supplementary rations and medical assistance. These efforts are necessary and good. But we need to provide such assistance within the framework of long-term partnerships of mutual respect and shared learning. This approach to disaster response requires a sustained presence and solidarity that seeks peace and prosperity for the entire community.

God’s Unexpected Grace

And then comes the rain: its sudden appearance is fierce, violent and relentless.  Everyone flees for shelter under the school’s tin roof, including the women farmers who have finally arrived. When the rain falls in Africa, it is difficult to hold a conversation, so we sing. It is the women in our group who begin, but soon everyone is singing – songs about God’s provision and unexpected grace.

Canadian Baptist missionaries no longer live or serve in this area north of the Tana River, but those men and women singing in the schoolhouse remain. In the aftermath of a crisis, God has brought them there together for a season of which God alone knows the duration.  By God’s grace, they continue to build relationships and collaborate on local initiatives. Now, the community is better equipped to withstand the environmental and social factors that once seemed certain to destroy life in this place.

[right] In the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Canadian churches partnered with local congregations to provide food, shelter and counseling.

Aaron Kenny and his wife, Erica, previously served as CBM’s Africa Team Leaders. They lived in Kenya for 13 years before moving back to Canada last year. They now serve as pastors at Bridgewater Baptist Church in Nova Scotia. 

2020-11-30T09:21:57-05:00Tags: , , |