Written by Andi Clinard
“We knew each other by name.”
Pastor Steve Munyambu pauses thoughtfully as he reflects on the people responsible for torching his home in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, just minutes after the disputed election results were announced.
“These were young people I had worked with in rehab programs. These were young people I had worked with in tutorial classes. These were young people I had mentored for a long time.”
He says each sentence slowly and deliberately.
“I didn’t see it coming, so I was hurt.”
He and his neighbors labored to squelch the flames wrought by a petrol bomb the youths launched into his home. There was the first bomb, then a second. And, as the neighborhood’s resources of water and people dwindled, a third and a fourth.
“After the fourth one, we had to say, ‘Lord, you’ve seen our struggle. There is nothing more we can do.’ “
The chaos lasted through the night, and the pastor’s emotions flickered like the flames.
“I felt bitter. I felt upset. I felt angry,” he says. He clasps his fingers together and rests his wrists on the desk in front of him. “At some point in time, before I came to my senses, I felt revengeful.”
But, just as many Kenyans will be forced to do as the violence smolders out in some places and continues in others, Pastor Steve was made to grapple with what forgiveness looks like in action. And, because of his faith, he truly has triumphed—or began to triumph—over those emotions that first seized him.
“The very people who burned my house, have we met?” He pauses.
“Not once. Not twice. Not thrice.” Many more times.
As he was volunteering with the Red Cross at a food distribution camp just outside Kibera, Steve came face to face with the men who burned his home.
“God has his own way of programming,” he says. “Instead of them going to the different line, God brought them to my line. Again and again, we saw each other—face to face.
“To see them do that act (of torching my house)”—he pauses, taking in a breath—“God, it was traumatizing. And more so when you meet them again, it’s hard.”
He shakes his head. “It has been hard.”
Their interaction didn’t stop at a wordless exchange of relief materials. Instead, he has talked with them about what happened, and he’s trusting God in the process of forgiveness.
“We shed tears,” Steve says of his times with the men. “More tears of, ‘Lord, forgive them.’ More tears that I didn’t see it coming. More tears that, ‘You mean, you would do this to me after the years that we’ve been able to stay together?’ Maybe more tears that you may be working with people who could still stab you in the back.
“Maybe more tears for the simple reason that you felt vulnerable for the first time.”
Pastor Steve is quick to point out that where he is now is not where he was four weeks ago, when Kibera and the country were first thrown into turmoil. He and his family have made choices that have pushed them toward forgiveness. The decision, when surrounded by a comforting and encouraging church family, to press on, to rise above, to be resilient. And the decision to move back into the old neighborhood, not far from his razed home, to continue his years-old informal ministry there.
“How can we forgive these people if we don’t see them face to face?” he asks. “For me, it’s easy to say I’ve forgiven you, because I don’t see you. But immediately, when I see you, something grips within my spirit—bitterness, rage and revenge come back.
“If we are going to heal fast, let us be able to meet the arsonist, so that as we meet with each other, day by day, God will be working in and through us to help not only heal us, but to forgive and restore these men to the original fellowship.”
What Hurts the Most
What perhaps tears at Pastor Steve the most, as he aches for his country, is what was lost in the Christian community and witness.
“I’m saddened by the simple principle that Kenya is being touted as 80% Christian,” he says. “When this happens, is the mayhem being caused by the 20% minority? No.”
Steve recalls confronting a group of men on its way to loot a burned-out church and urging the men to consider the magnitude of what they wanted to do. Among them was a young man Steve had stood next to on the day the man was baptized in the very church he was intent on looting.
“I believe that somewhere along the line, Christians did not live up to their calling,” Steve says. “Because if they did, with an 80% statistical figure, (the chaos and killings in Kenya) would not have happened.”
Those are hard words for the Kenyan church to hear, but ones men like Steve—who has clung to Christ and tried to honor him, even in this chaos—are in a place to say. And this is the pastor’s message for the church, and for the country.
“Don’t let your Christian God down,” he says. “If God is for you, live for him. Otherwise, cross over the line, so that we can know how many are called of God.
“I see this as a purging time for the church, so that the true believers are going to stand firm. And those who have just been Christian by name would be exposed, and the Church will be able now to move faster and farther.”
Hope for the Future
Pastor Steve has not given up on Kenya.
He relies on the Kenyan’s resilient spirit to help them bounce back. He knows they will want to move on.
“People will come back and want to piece their lives back together,” he says. “There will be a time for picking up the pieces. Some of the pieces will never be able to be matched together again.
“But at the end of the day, people will want to forge the way forward.”
And he trusts the gospel and their God will guide them.
“Sometimes, in the church history, God allowed persecution to be an instrument to spread the gospel, not only in terms of area, but in the intensity of the message.
“People became stronger in their faith. They depended on God more than in times before their persecution.”
And that is where Steve, along with many other Christian leaders in the country, is putting his hope for Kenya’s future—in God’s hands.