by Mike Delorenzo
“I was a very bad man,” Timothy recalls, as we rocket along in a rattling old mini van, a matatu, heading straight for Kibera. “I was a fighter,” he continues, “The man you see before you would be dead if not for Jesus.” He bows his head and invites me to feel a divot on top of his skull. I place my finger into his once shattered cranium, like a doubting Thomas, confirming his story. “I was the biggest sinner in Kibera,” he adds. His tale unfolds into a drama of guns and despair and an old woman with a New Testament who found him on the street. Our matatu shudders to a stop and we alight into the blazing sun of a Kenyan afternoon. And a smell.
Kibera is perhaps one of the largest shanty towns in the world. A place bustling with life. And a place where it is painfully obvious that life is cheap. Today, the streets and footpaths of Kibera bear the marks of a war zone. This is where the violence and destruction first began after Kenya’s disputed election results were announced on December 30th. Row upon row of shops and businesses are razed to the ground. Half a brick wall remains where a butchery once stood–the slogan of a new year painted across its pitiful facade: “Peace Wanted.” At some places there is nothing left to post a slogan on–just a patch of blackened soil, and shattered glass trodden down into the earth.
Pastor Timothy has brought me to this place, his mission field, for a look into his life’s calling. And to see what difference it is making in a country still smoldering with the ethnic division sparked by recent events. He is a man of exuberant energy and uncommon sense, engaging the massive complexity of Kibera’s geography and culture with innovative ways to spread the Word. In his care are four churches, a Bible school and two orphanages, a network of volunteers, and literally thousands of new Christians actively being discipled. The very streets are a ministry for Timothy.
He walks with purpose through the meandering alleyways and I can hardly keep up. At every turn, someone seems to recognize the pastor, calling out to him. One student jogs across the road to intercept, his face all a smile. “Oh, you are alive!” Timothy exclaims. “I didn’t know where you had gone.” The greeting, anywhere else, would seem odd. They embrace and speak in serious tones about the trouble that has befallen this place. Against a backdrop of looted storefronts, they talk about the week’s classes at the Bible school, hoping some of the other missing students will also return.
We stop at a small shop. An elderly woman, one of Timothy’s many “captains,” holds out a wad of completed course booklets. These strategically placed lay-people from the church help distribute and collect Bible study materials for the 7000 slum residents enrolled in his makeshift discipleship classes. Timothy tucks the papers into his shoulder bag. Back at the office, his daughter will mark them and record the new names in a book–a sort of humble version of the Lamb’s Book of Life, I think. A frayed tablet of thin pages and meticulous entries. People who accepted Christ during a Thursday evangelism outing, and who are now working through a 17 lesson course on the Christian faith. If they finish, Timothy will award them with a certificate and a new Bible.
Unfortunately, there are more pressing needs in the slum these days. The riots have had a compounding effect. Shops and stores have been destroyed or deserted, and food is in short supply. I ask Timothy how Christians in his church are responding to the needs around them. He sighs. The situation is one of hungry people pleading for food from other hungry people. What’s a Christian to do? Timothy laments his inability to meet the physical needs. But even so, his church has found creative ways to get food to the worst cases. But options are running out.
“A man does things when he is hungry,” Timothy explains, without going any further. I gather that some of the destruction I see around us is the rest of the explanation. But we both know there is more to this present chaos than a food shortage. “One place is burned. Another place is not burned.” He looks around at random, and the selectivity of the destruction comes into view. We talk about the tribes living side-by-side in Kibera. We talk about the Church, seemingly so prominent here. “Why do we say that we are Christians?” Timothy pauses and holds up the discipleship materials. “People have not been taught to grow as Christians.” In this land of 42 tribes, even the church can be divided.
“When I see the church, I see an invisible Church, of those who call Jesus Lord.” Timothy’s words are filled with meaning and passion. This is his heart, and in the present climate of Kenya’s ethnic divide, this is perhaps his most important message. “We are one tribe in Jesus.” He holds up one finger. “One.” It is a hard lesson. Timothy explains that a new Christian is like Lazarus, newly raised from the dead. He is alive, but wrapped up in all these burial clothes. Tied down. And it takes time to unravel.
Walking from his church compound we meet up with a younger pastor named Mwangi. He was once a student of Timothy’s and now serves with him in ministry. They agree that the time has come for the Church to break free from tribal divisions and lead the way. As the two pastors are standing beside one another, Timothy gives me a picture of what he means. “I am a Luhya. Mwangi, he is a Kikuyu. But we are one.” He moves one step closer to a friend who should be an enemy and puts a hand upon his shoulder. “We are working together.”
“I am the most happiest man in Kibera,” Timothy declares, which puts a smile to my face. Kibera’s “biggest sinner”, now the happiest man. Once a man bent on self-destruction. Now a man spent for the Lord. Timothy is a living, breathing display of a God whose love is relentless. The humble pastor cannot walk these streets without testifying to this. And when he walks with his enemy, shoulder to shoulder in the ministry of reconciliation, people cannot help but notice.