Adapted from an article originally published on www.omilacombe.ca
Bro. Harley Mapes, the treasurer of OMI Lacombe Canada, reminisces of the unforgettable experience he has had when he visited the Oblate mission in Kenya early this year, with his Provincial Fr. Ken FORSTER.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world to be an Oblate and in this place!” runs through my mind. I am kneeling on sacks of maize in the back of a half-ton, bouncing and jolting across the Kenyan savanna, scanning the plains dotted with acacia trees that stretch on to the distant, purple hills, winding our way to one of the Maasai missions. We stepped out of cold, damp Ottawa into the warm embrace of the Kenyan Oblates.
Kionyo parish is the heartland of Oblate presence in Kenya; there, more than 20 years ago, the first Canadian Oblates began. The progenitors of the mission – Ken FORSTER, Bill STANG and Harold KAUFMAN – are remembered with near reverence. Walking the Kionyo market with Ken is as close as I will ever get to being a rock star paparazzi. Working his way forward, to vigorously shake Ken’s hand, one man declaimed, “I know you! I wasn’t here when you were, but everyone knows you. Today, people don’t talk about the Mount Kenya Water Project, they just call it ‘Father Ken water’. All the people remember how you helped the community.”
In reminiscent scenes, albeit with different Oblates in different locales, Fr. Gideon RIMBERIA along with Bro. Joseph MAGAMBO and Fr. Praveen MAHESHAN are showing the same close connection with the people.
In a country often riven by tribal animosities simmering just below the surface, Fr. Gideon is a Bantu speaker from the Méru tribe working amongst Maasai, who speak a Nilotic language. Language and culture, however, are barriers crossed over by the intentions of the heart.
We spent hours in Jamii Boara with the prayer house council members as they shared their struggle at being forced off the land where their church was located, and subsequent pride at how the faith community came together and quickly erected a corrugated iron structure sitting on a well-finished concrete slab.
Lenchani is about the most abandoned spot one could imagine for an educational facility. It’s a Catholic-sponsored school and thus, while the Kenyan government provides some funds for basic items, they still turn to the parish for assistance.
Coming from a western, secularized country, where professing one’s beliefs and attending church services are seen by many as a quaint, mildly embarrassing practice, Kenya is a startling change. Faith – and expressing that faith – is a normal part of life.
The dichotomy between faith and good works doesn’t exist in Kenya. Repeatedly, I was surprised at people, evidently living in impoverished conditions, who asked for help not with things I would have found obvious such as housing, schools, and water, but rather “Can you, somehow, help us finish our church? So many people are coming but it discourages them when they have to sit outside in the hot sun or the rain because we can’t all fit inside.”
Given the manner in which faith permeates people’s lives, it’s not surprising that there are many young men seeking to serve as priests and brothers. While our main financial concern in Canada is finding the money to pay for the care of elderly priests and brothers, Kenya’s financial issues stem from having more young men wanting to be priests and brothers than we can afford.
Now, slogging through slush of Ottawa, dodging snow ploughs and returning again and again to the car wash to rinse away the thick coat of road salt, Kenya seems like a dream. The beauty of the country; the faith of the people; the generosity of young men wanting to give their lives in service of God and the poor, are inspiring. A natural response is to want to help. In the face of such need, the Oblates of OMI Lacombe Canada continue to seek ways to enable people to improve their lives and express the faith of a young, enthusiastic church.