Finding Family and Mission in Kenya

Steve Charles—The last full day before leaving Nairobi to return to the U.S., Wabash students in the History of Christianity in Africa course tasted a different sort of worship from the Catholic Masses they’d been attending. Father Godfrey took them to a Pentecostal prayer service in Nairobi.

One of the most interesting and rewarding characteristics of this group has been its diversity. We have students from Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and non-religious backgrounds (I believe I’m the lone Anglican/Episcopalian in the group). Some are practicing, some are questioning, some are doubting, others are coming at this through the lens of their major fields of study.

The late Bill Placher, photographed listening to a student presentation at the 2007 Celebration of Student Research and Creative Work

I’m reminded of the “safe space” Professor Bill Placher ’70 used to create for his students. As Bill put it the first time I interviewed him back in 1995: “One of the virtues of this field is that there are so many reasons to study religion. Some, like me, are interested in what drives peoples’ lives and enjoy reading many disciplines. Some are interested in non-Western cultures, and we’re one of the few places on this campus that respond to that interest. Some are in a complicated relationship that they can’t define with the religion they grew up in and want some space to think about it that’s less confrontational than when they talk to their parents or others.

“I think you have to give students a lot of space, both to try things out, and to remain anonymous. If a student wants to spend the semester talking to me thoughtfully and empathetically about this text we’re looking at and not give me a clue about what he believes, that’s fine with me. He has a right not to talk to me about that if he doesn’t want to.

“If he wants to tell me, that’s okay,” Bill said. “But part of what I provide is someone who is relatively indifferent to that question at a time in a student’s life when almost everyone important to him—the skeptical roommate as much as the believing parents (or vice versa!)—cares passionately about it. What he may need is someone who says, ‘Well, why don’t we just learn a little more about it.’”

I think the spirit of Bill Placher’s “safe space” has been very much alive (and made intentionally so by Professors Cook and Warner) in this class during the trip, with some eager to talk beliefs, others “just learning a little more about it.” It’s been a safe space to speak, or to be silent and observe.

DeVan Taylor’s approach has been the former, as you’ll read below. When students returned from the three-hour Pentacostal prayer meeting (which including dancing, singing, various “gifts of the Spirit,” and other manifestations of faith new to many of our guys), the responses were mixed. DeVan was unequivocal. The worship was much closer to what he was used to in his home church in Indianapolis. “In fact,” he said. “I felt even more at home in this service than I do there.”

It was a minority opinion, so I asked DeVan for a quick write on the experience, which he wove into this reflection on the trip, one day short of our departure:

“Closer to God Than I Have Ever Been”
DeVan Taylor—As clichéd as it may sound, “I can’t believe it’s already over.”

Twelve days ago I left Indianapolis not knowing what to expect. Now, after eleven days of endless discovery, beautiful landscape, and unforgettable moments I’m glad I didn’t expect anything. This trip, what it meant to me to come to Africa, and what it was meant to be academically, has manifested itself through worship, personal interactions, and discussion.

DeVan Taylor serves lunch at a rural school near Chulaimbo, Kenya.

I experienced hundreds of flamingos all taking flight simultaneously against a background of haze and hills. I embraced every smile, hug, and kind word from every single person we met. I indulged in some cool games, like Balance the Ball, and have come up with a pretty cool “handshake” with [classmate] Long [Pham] that puts all others to shame.

Today we went to our final service, and it wasn’t a Catholic Mass. It was more what you would expect of a black church in the U.S., minus the overly exuberant pastor who’s sweating buckets and sounds like he needs attention for what sounds like an allergic reaction in his throat. I felt more at home—more comfortable—than I had been in my own church. I felt spiritually uplifted, and felt closer to God than I have in my life.

There were Christians, Muslims, Jews, those of no faith, and others all praising and worshipping together (or suffering together for over 3 hours, depending on which of us you talk to!). Dr. Cook made something very clear to us before the service began—it doesn’t matter what denomination you are, we all worship in our own ways, and another’s is not wrong or right. It’s personal.

We were welcomed just as we had been every other day that we have been here and every place and people we have visited in Kenya. My self-consciousness melted away. I was in my element.

As I reflected on the past 11 days, I realized that I had found what I was supposed to find in Africa. I also discovered that some people think I’m Kenyan just because of my calf size, and despite my obvious American attributes! It was strangely reassuring for me—I thought of friends of mine who will tell me they are Irish, or Scottish, Italian, all based on where their families came from generations ago. There’s always some physical characteristic, some shared family or ethnic group trait, that confirms exactly where “they came from.”

I’ve never had that. In fact, finding out who I was, my heritage, was like something I had buried away as a kid and left behind so that I could just make myself into whatever I wanted.

Now—even though I’m really no closer than when I first arrived to knowing my exact heritage—I feel part of something. I feel like a Kenyan. It’s been like being adopted, finding your real mother, and hearing her tell you things about your family that very first night you meet. You won’t get the whole story, but it’s a start. And you leave with a feeling of pride, belonging, and peace.

I find faith, hope, and love in Africa. I found family. I discovered that as open-minded as I thought I had been in some ways as close-minded as those I criticized. I gained understanding, perspective, and determination while in Africa.

And I have a mission. We have a mission to each other, being members of the same species. We have a responsibility to each other.

The differences don’t matter. If there is overlying theme that defines this trip, I’d say that’s it. It’s been a journey filled with traveling mercies, the most interesting road trips I’ve ever had, and more rice than I’d care to remember. But Kenya for me has been a start, and a bittersweet end, to the beginning of a journey I never thought I’d take; finding the past I never knew wasn’t lost in time.

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One Response to Finding Family and Mission in Kenya

  1. Elizabeth A. Justice says:

    Dear DeVan Taylor & Steve Charles:
    Thanks so much for sharing this. DeVan–you have written so beautifully and clearly about your experiences. You make me feel as though I was there with you. Thank you.