Mr. Stith goes to Kenya
Life is hard in Kajimpau, Tharaka, Kenya. The climate is dry. Much of the population lives in mud huts with thatched roofs, a limited water supply and no electricity. Poisonous snakes and malaria-infected mosquitoes are an ever-present danger.
This is the location of the Community Presbyterian sister church, just one area of East Africa where the Christian church is growing. It is a part of the Chogoria Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, a "Hands Across the Ocean" partner with the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, which consists of Presbyterian churches in the Red River Valley.
A group of 20 Presbytery of the Northern Plains delegates returned in early July to the Red River Valley after experiencing the Chogoria partnership firsthand on a short-term mission trip.
Reverend Doctor Matt Stith from Community Presbyterian was the group's co-leader, working with Sharon Secor, an elder at First Presbyterian in Fargo and an experienced Kenya traveler. This was his first trip to Kenya, but Stith is now slated to lead the next one, which is likely to take place within a couple years, he said.
In a Sunday evening speech in the Community Presbyterian Fellowship Hall, Stith summarized the Kenya experience as one that will never leave the missionaries.
A former Kenya traveler in attendance, Jen B., agreed.
"You get this bug," she said to describe the aftermath of Kenya travel. She went on the Presbytery's last trip to Chogoria in 2004 when she was a senior in high school. She still dreams about returning there to teach English after she graduates from college with a major in English.
Christianity is the majority belief in Kenya, with 45 percent of the population professing Protestantism and 33 percent claiming Roman Catholicism. This hasn't lulled them into complaisance though. What believers lack in material possessions, they don't lack in focus, and church growth in the Chogoria Presbytery has been rapid for the past five years.
The pillars of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa are education, evangelism and health care.
The Presbyterian Church of East Africa has embarked on many projects designed to lift up all aspects of living for those in the Chogoria Presbytery, especially educationally. There are numerous schools to teach people a marketable skill, like carpentry or dressmaking.
Furthermore, each PCEA parish sponsors primary and secondary schools, raising the funds to build the schools, supporting the on-going mission of the schools and providing the school children with spiritual guidance.
The missionaries began their trek through Kenya at the Chogoria Complex in the green, lush highlands east of Mount Kenya, and the site of a computer center that's funded largely by the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, offering training in computer literacy.
An addition to the building that will take place soon will house advanced courses in secretarial and accounting training. Students attend this computer training on scholarships funded by offerings taken at Presbytery meetings.
Stith said that visiting the Presbytery Church of East Africa primary schools always left him coming away feeling "impressed, humbled and awed by what they are accomplishing [with so few resources]."
The cafeterias were tiny, yet the children ate. There was no expensive playground equipment, yet the children seemed to be having "just as much fun." The library was cramped and served multiple functions, but the students were learning. In fact, Kenyan students learn two languages in school, Swahili and English. At home they learn their tribal language.
Stith said the highlight of the trip was meeting the children.
"The students were always so thrilled to see us. They were always full of questions about America. In some cases, we were likely the first white people they had ever seen," he said. "Every single time, we were greeted by big assemblies and were treated to shows and recitals. In their education system, there is an emphasis on memory and recitation. The students were very well spoken and confident. Far and away the best part of these visits was when they turned us loose and let us interact with the students."
With 16 of his group younger than 25 years old, Stith said he was impressed by how well they all were able to find common ground with these much younger students from another world.
The primary mission area is Tharaka, an economically disadvantaged area that is under the care of the Presbytery. Kajiampau is in Tharaka.
"It was a very festive occasion to meet our brothers and sisters in Kajiampau," Stith said.
Some of the Kajiampau churchgoers walked more than three miles to get to the worship service, and once they got there they weren't worried about the preacher getting long winded.
"When we worshipped with them, they cut the worship service to two and a half hours, which is short by Kenyan standards," Stith said.
Jen B. said the service was about six hours when she was there.
Each PCEA parish sponsors dispensaries, which are managed by the PCEA Chogoria Hospital. Much work is done through the dispensaries to educate the people regarding good nutrition, family planning and HIV/AIDS. The Chogoria Hospital has an extensive Community Health program that supports the dispensaries.
Stith said a special moment during this phase of the experience was giving "cuddle ups" (light, colorful blankets) from CPC to children in the pediatric ward, who went from shivering in the 70 degree winter weather to cuddling up with a blanket donated by CPC.
"This local ministry of ours is now blooming," he said.
"It is clear to all of us who have been there that these churches have a lot they can teach us about keeping our faith clear and focused in our daily lives," Stith said. "People of our sister congregation are facing day-to-day survival issues. Life there is as it has been for generations with no opportunity for them to break out of this cycle. As a partnership, we're really trying to figure out what the next phase is."