Ben Richmond has been serving as interim dean of Friends Theological College in Western Kenya this past year on behalf of Friends United Meeting. His wife, Jody, is a therapist. Her training in trauma work is needed now, as you will read.
Thursday, 24 January, 2008
Friends Theological College
Since our last newsletter, a lot has happened, so we are writing again to update you and to ask you to redouble your prayers for Friends in Kenya.
FTC opened this week (as you will remember, we delayed opening for a week due in hope that the situation would normalize). Today, about half of our students are back on campus.
We last wrote that Kaimosi remained an island of peace. Shortly after sending out that newsletter, clashes began in our area. Houses have been burned just the other side of Cheptulu, our nearby market. Quite a few have been injured with arrow and panga (long, sword-like knives) wounds, and are being treated at the Kaimosi hospital just down our road. Some of the kiosks at the junction were burned the other night. (Those of you who know Alex, will be glad to know that his kiosk is okay.) Two people have been killed in the area: one, the uncle of a recent graduate. One of our groundsmen is “sleeping out” meaning that he and his wife are sleeping in the forest because homes near their home have been burned. Other staff members are caring for relatives who have had to leave their homes.
We should reassure you that the college and the mission compound in general have remained safe. Last night, according to reports, things were calm in our area. Perhaps, this is a good reaction to the Kofi Annan mediation efforts, and the response of the opposition leadership which called off plans for mass demonstrations today.
Tuesday was scheduled to be our first day of classes. Instead, the faculty decided to cancel classes and devote the day to sharing our stories and praying for one another and the general situation. Those students who had been able to travel to the college, together with faculty and staff, gathered in the Dining Hall, and for three hours recounted the impact of the clashes in personal stories. Some had experienced terrifying moments at roadblocks. Others told of neighbor’s houses burned, or people killed. Several pastors recounted how they had given refuge to members of targeted tribes. Others recounted how family members had had to flee from their homes in the face of threats. One mentioned that gunshots in his vicinity became so common that they almost began to seem normal. Others reported that calm prevailed in their areas, but all were affected by seeing “a Kenya they had never seen before in their lives.”
Jody led that session, with Pamela Igesa, the College chaplain. Ben preached from Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 about the healing power of the spirit and contrasted the heresy of a “gospel” that pretends God’s love is only for “our community” with Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom of God that embraces all communities. One member of our staff shared an incident of this lived out, when a vehicle carrying refugees from violence-torn areas came through his village in the first few days after troubles began. He was amazed and touched to witness a number of market vendors gave food to them freely, never asking for any money. We’ll remember the image of street vendors tossing avocados into a truck full of their hungry “enemies”!
Ben preached again the next morning, at our regular daily worship, carrying forward the story in the Gospel of Luke to the sermon on the plain in chapter 6. He drew on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1957 sermon on loving your enemies, in which he said, “So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’” Later in the day, we held a convocation at which Mary Lord, a Friend from Baltimore Yearly Meeting with vast experience in peacemaking work, spoke. She rooted the Friends’ peace testimony in our experience of the power and love of God, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. She then recounted stories to illustrate many ways in which Quakers have lived out the peace witness to demonstrate what a vast toolbox is available to peacemakers. In the question and answer period, one of the teachers asked Mary to talk about the biggest obstacles she has faced and overcome. Mary responded from her own experience the need to forgive violence she experienced as a child; and then told about how God had, unknown to her, used a conference she had organized in the 1980s about the effects of nuclear weapons, to impact Ronald Reagan and start the beginning of Reagan’s pulling back from nuclear brinksmanship. Today, Mary spoke to Jody’s class on Peace and Conflict Transformation about the cycle of violence. Students and faculty have been deeply engaged.
In Quaker Theology, we have modified the syllabus to begin from an experiential basis to ask what theological questions rise out of our experience. Ben and Jody have invited the students to think over the last weeks and ask what mental images come to mind, and then share why they are important. Some of the images: “people being slashed in nearby homestead; young kids, displaced from their homes in Eldoret walking by my place to find refuge; people burning down houses and looting; members of parliament on TV pouring out their anger, seeking power; a young child in the hospital with an arrow sticking in him; a member of the church, home from Mombasa, asking for prayer because he was being sacked from his work in a hotel, and facing an unknown future; women being fallen on by soldiers, and young men and even old men (“wazee”) and being raped.” One image was of “a man being slaughtered, the way one would slaughter a hen.”
Even if the Annan peace efforts succeed today, and peace returns to the land, and all the hundreds of thousands of displaced were able to go back to their homes (many of which are, of course, burned), there would still be a tremendous need for trauma healing. There is fear, distrust, and deep uncertainty because people who seemed to be friends so easily became enemies. What theological questions does all this raise?
This is a testing time for the church in Kenya. Will we be able to be bearers of Good News that is deep enough to bring healing and hope to those who have been traumatized, and reconciliation to those who have experienced the reality of enmity? Will you pray for a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
In the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, normal life also continues. We are making progress on the design of a new administration building, and wrapping up final details on the new Meetinghouse. To continue to pursue “normalcy” is a part of living the Kingdom of God in these times—proclaiming hope that God plans for a good future for Kenya.
Thank you for your prayers, and support.
Jody and Ben Richmond