A Sunday of Forgiveness in Nairobi

by Emmanuel Kashoke

Holding the future in their hands and hearts, these youngsters who attend St. George Orthodox School in Kibera, just outside of Nairobi, will see the example of people like Fr. Makarios whose challenge to forgive will overcome tribal tensions through the love and witness of Christ.

It was a busy but lovely Sunday – the last Sunday before the Great Fast, the desert we have to cross on the way to Pascha. Instead of the usual Liturgy at my church, St. John’s, I joined Orthodox Christians from twelve parishes in Nairobi and the surrounding area for a special service at St. Nicholas Church. The church was filled to capacity.

Besides being Forgiveness Sunday, the day provided an occasion for a reunion of the Fathers’ Union, an association of older men in the parishes of Kenya’s Orthodox Church.

Even apart from the context of the recent civil unrest in Kenya that has cost so many lives and the destruction of hundreds of homes, it was a remarkable service. One could even say it was a day when a miracle happened.

Its defining event came during a homily given during the Liturgy by Fr. Makarios Mwaura, pastor of St. Paul’s Church, a parish on the edge of the city. He began by asking all the faithful to join in repeating the Lord’s Prayer. They started to do so, as any group of Christians would, then he raised his hand and stopped us just as we were about to say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“Don’t go any further,” Fr. Makarios said. “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you forgive those who have wronged you. I don’t see forgiveness in your eyes. You just speak these words with your lips. They don’t come from your hearts.” The Liturgy proceeded only after he was satisfied that the entire congregation was ready both to forgive and to accept forgiveness. Would that all Kenyans might have been present at that moment!

Other priests also spoke during the service. Fr. Simeon, from my present parish, told the story of his journey to the church that very morning. For him Nairobi is a two-hour drive from where he lives. He had missed the bus and so had to pay someone to drive him. The man he found had a small truck normally used to transport flowers. Seeing that Fr. Simeon had no other option, the driver demanded almost twice the normal fare. Then at a small town along the way, the driver stopped to have, he said, a cup of tea. Fr. Simeon found it strange that the man didn’t invite him to come with him for tea, the usual custom in Africa. When more than 45 minutes had passed, Fr. Simeon decided to go inside and remind the driver how urgent it was that he get to church in time. He was in for a surprise. He discovered he was inside a house of prostitution! When at last they were on the road again, the driver never apologized for the delay or the lie he had told.

“Can you imagine how angry I felt?” Fr. Simeon asked us. “Just imagine – my time wasted, finding myself in a brothel, and here I was on the way to celebrate the Divine Liturgy!”

Fr. Simeon realized afterward that he might have guessed what was happening. The town where the driver had stopped is Naivasha, famous in Kenya both for growing flowers and as a center of tourism. Crowds of tourists come because Lake Naivasha is nearby, home of thousands of beautiful flamingos. What tourists may not realize is that it’s also a town notorious for its many brothels.

Getting back into the truck, Fr. Simeon opened his Bible in the hope that it would help him overcome his anger. After all, it was Forgiveness Sunday.

“I am telling you from my heart,” Fr. Simeon told us, “I truly forgave the driver. Somehow God gave me the grace to do it.” The congregation cheered.

As Fr. Simeon finished his story, he made a comment about the Lord’s Prayer. “Some Sundays you may leave your house without being aware of any sins only to remember when you arrive that not only have you committed sins, but serious sins. You might even commit a sin during the service. If you join in saying the Our Father and say the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but in fact you have not forgiven those who you feel have wronged you, then you are committing a sin and you have done it while participating in the Holy Liturgy! Please be careful, my brothers and sisters, when you enter the house of God that, instead of being cleansed, you don’t leave carrying an even heavier burden of sins.”

What happened during the Liturgy had its effect on all of us who were fortunate enough to be present.

At the gathering that followed the Liturgy, there was a special welcome to new members of the Fathers’ Union and the cutting of a cake big enough for all.

You who do not come from Kenya must try and understand that even at social gatherings, but especially in the recent weeks, we see a great deal of fear and

hatred in people’s eyes, even in the eyes of people who are Christian. The wounds of the recent conflict are far from healed. Each person is intensely aware of what group he or she belongs to. The Luo people do not love the Kikuyu people and vice versa, even though both are members of the Orthodox Church in Kenya. Archimandrite Neophytus Kongai, who led the Liturgy, is a Kalenjin, which is a rival to the majority Kikuyu, but on this day they were embracing each other. Fr. Makarios is a Kikuyu, but he was embracing the Luos and Kalenjins.

The Fathers’ Union itself is made up of Orthodox Christians from various ethnic groups – people who, were it not for such church events, tend to take distance from each other these days. This Sunday they were eating cake and drinking together. I could hear them joking and see them embracing. “Well, Father said we must forgive those who trespass against us – otherwise we won’t be forgiven.” They were laughing, but you could see they meant what they were saying.

In Africa, ethnicity is not just “other people.” Everyone, including those who serve in the house of God and worship there, are all people very aware of their own and everyone else’s ethnic identity. Kenya is no exception. Fr. Theodoros Yego, librarian at the seminary, is a Kalenjin. He serves at a parish on the outskirts of Nairobi – the only Kikuyu zone of Kiambu. For fear of his life, he has asked the bishop to transfer him to another parish.

When we talked about this, he told me that the faithful in his parish love him, but the other priests who serve in the same area and who are all Kikuyu have filed a letter to the bishop asking for a priest who is one of “their own” – that is, a Kikuyu.

“In other words,” I said, “they want the church organized along strictly tribal lines?”

“I think so,” he replied with distress. “We deeply need your prayers.”

At four in the afternoon, we were at the Cathedral for what we call “the Vespers of Love” – the Forgiveness Vespers. It was a beautiful service. At the end, as usual, we embraced each other, many people doing so with obvious sincerity. Over and over again we heard the quiet words, “Forgive me, brother. Forgive me, sister.”

And yet I realized afterwards that for some people these were empty words.

Afterward, standing at the gate outside the church, I met a lady from my own parish.

“I was so embarrassed, teacher,” she said, calling me teacher because I am a catechist. “All these people were embracing each other and saying, ‘Forgive me.’ I don’t think I like it.”

“Why?” I asked her.

“There were people there who have wronged me. I don’t think I forgave them, and they didn’t forgive me either, I am sure.”

Because of my being a catechist, I tried my best to explain what forgiveness means to an Orthodox Christian, and why we must forgive each other before we embark on the Lenten journey. It’s clear that, as a catechist, I still have a lot to teach to my parishioners! But at least Forgiveness Sunday helps us to come closer to forgiveness, and for many it was something that actually happened.

Emmanuel Kashoke, formerly a student at the Kenya’s Orthodox Seminary, is now a catechist at St. John’s Orthodox Church in Nairobi. His email is kashoketraz@yahoo.com.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49