I stood on the platform and took a deep breath. Sure, I’d spoken at churches before – to crowds larger than the 250 who faced me that day. But this congregation looked, felt, even smelled different from any I’d known before.
The church stood six hours north of Nairobi, Kenya. To reach it, we’d driven over rough roads where the average pothole could swallow five of Spokane’s during spring thaw. We’d passed dusty villages with open-air markets where sellers hawked corn, wheat and bundles of twigs that could be converted to charcoal.
And we’d seen countless mud homes near vast sugar-cane fields, where workers toiled amid deadly snakes to cut the canes and carry them by bicycle and handcart to market.
As we pulled into the church compound, I estimated the building to be bigger than a high-school gymnasium. The siding featured brown cinder-blocks and doors and windows with neither screen nor glass.
Inside, I walked across a dirt floor to reach the pulpit, fashioned from the same dirt and sporting baskets of artificial bouquets.
“You are welcome!” people greeted me and our mission team, shaking hands or hugging like long-lost relatives.
“This is your place; sit here.” They pointed to plastic lawn chairs, arranged in rows on the platform.
Soon, singing began. I’d never heard the songs before and couldn’t understand the words – either Swahili or the tribal Luo – but the drums, electric guitar and keyboard encouraged us to stand and move to lively rhythms.
Meanwhile, church members in bright clothes streamed through open doorways. Children arrived, many carrying benches from the nearby school. These scores of youngsters were orphans, wards of the church.
As I waited for my turn to speak, our team partner, April, had the microphone first. She told of similarities between this congregation and ours back in Otis Orchards. Heartfelt singing, the love of children, a desire to minister – she listed these and many others.
Sure, I thought, but what about differences? These people are all black; we’re white. They speak English as their third language; it’s our first. They live in primitive homes; we live comfortably.
So when April finished and I took the microphone, I began by listing these differences. I also told them that few Americans rely on walking as their main form of transportation, and the congregation laughed.
A quick glance out the window helped me understand. Only a couple of vehicles graced the parking lot – our rented one and the church van. Obviously, most of these people had come on foot.
Yet, even while speaking of our differences, I reconsidered. Looking at this congregation, I saw mothers with young children – some still nursing. Fathers with dusty sandals, who’d come from a hard week’s work. Single young people and the stooped elderly.
A handful of deaf members, watching their interpreter intently. Ushers, deacons, giggly preschoolers. Their faces reflected love, hope and joy.
In short, I saw my own congregation.
Yes, we had our differences. But I felt a growing kinship to these people, a bond I couldn’t describe.
I remembered the Apostle Paul, who’d traveled extensively, sharing the good news of Christ in the first century. Surely he’d encountered unfamiliar cultures yet chose to focus on the similarities.
He stated, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Finishing my presentation while fighting tears, I offered hearty agreement with Paul and with April, the previous speaker.
I then took another deep breath and returned to my plastic chair, humbled at the lesson I’d learned.