By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Jacob Ott
On Field Media
In the semi-arid scrub brush of northern Kenya, a TIMO team dwelled among the Samburu tribe, building relationships, learning the language, and spreading the gospel with their neighbors. The nine of them were separated into three communities: the team leaders, Joy and Martin, and the three single ladies, Courtney, Miriam, and PinHsuan, living near the primary school, clinic, and general store in the central town of Lchakwai; the young family, Jacob, Amy, and baby James, living five kilometers away in a place called Raragon; and the two single men, Joshua and Frazer, living five kilometers in the opposite direction in the Moru community.
After completing their two-year ministry training program, the team traveled four hundred thirty miles southeast to visit with me at AIM’s Mayfield Guesthouse in Nairobi. There, in a small library room and with their tapestry of accents—British, American, Canadian, German, Chinese, and Taiwanese—they eagerly shared their stories.
Tell me about the Samburu people.
Jacob: The Samburu as a people group have been reached, but we’re in the isolated end, down from the plateau, where there aren’t any churches.
Joy: They are quite resistant to the gospel. They hold their culture very, very strongly. Anything that goes against what their culture says, they don’t want to change. To break with those traditions is to break with being Samburu. It’s not easy.
Jacob: They don’t want to change anything. As soon as you take one thing away, it threatens to unravel the next part.
How then did you begin your ministries?
Joy: Catholics did come and have a service under a tree for quite some time, so this woman [from Lchakwai] named Ng’oto Kalei knew some things about Jesus, and she and some other women knew some songs. The [TIMO] team started in March 2014, and in late June, Ng’oto Kalei came to my house early on Sunday morning and said, “I’m here for church.” That very first time, she and I read from the Samburu Scriptures and sang songs together and prayed.
Courtney: She really had a desire to bring the ladies to church, and she would go and make sure all the girls from her compound were there. When her warrior son got married, she made sure that his new wife was at church too.
Jacob: [The ladies] pushed us even though we didn’t feel ready. Language-wise, we’d only been there for three or four months.
Joy: We wanted to do church in Samburu, but we didn’t have anyone who could translate for us. We were stretched, really stretched.
How did you manage with the language barrier?
Frazer: We had so many resources in the Samburu language. That was something we were really blessed with. We had the Treasure, which is a set of recorded sermons and songs spoken in Samburu. We had the One Story set, which are recordings of many Bible stories that explain creation and sin and the importance of Jesus. We also had Matthew’s gospel, Luke’s gospel, and some of Paul’s and John’s letters.
Joshua: And the Jesus film. Which was shown so many times.
Frazer (laughing): I’ve watched the Jesus film more than any other film in my life!
Courtney: In Samburu!
Frazer: Right! I’ve never watched it in English. I know it in Samburu very well.
PinHsuan: We’d watch it [at night] on laptops or hang a cloth on the side of a house or animal fence and use a small projector. We needed to show it multiple times, because the people would say, “You need to come to my compound (home unit). Otherwise, it’s not for us.”
Frazer: Whichever home we’d take it to, [this group of ten boys we mentored] would come. We watched it a lot, but the boys watched it just as many times as we did. And they would recite reams and reams of the scenes. That’s so exciting, because that’s basically the gospel of Luke. They’re remembering the words from the Bible!
How else have you seen God working in your area?
Frazer: The life of women in our area is hard. They have so much to do. And so, we’d invite people from Moru [to come with us to church, five kilometers away], but really, we didn’t expect anyone to come. To take three or four hours out of your day to come to a church service is a lot to ask. But Ng’oto Saturday would always come. She’d had some contact with church before she’d come to this area, and she had faith. She really did a lot for the other women in the church, because she would speak to them and say, “This is so important. You need to listen to this.” She really valued the word of God. As we left, we were able to give her one of the Treasures.
Courtney: It seems like she takes it everywhere and plays it to everyone!
Joshua: I walk past her house, and I can hear it playing. (laughter)
Courtney: Ng’oto Kalei, [the woman who insisted on starting the church services], has a similar earnestness for the word of God and just really loves the Lord. They both seem to have an understanding that people are willing to listen but that the words of God don’t seem to impact their life. One time, she said to me, “The people, they know the word of God in their mouths. They know the word of God in their minds and thoughts. But they don’t know the word of God in their heart.”
It sounds like the women and children enjoy coming to church and hearing God’s word. But what about the Samburu men?
Frazer: One of the reasons the men are a bit more resistant is because men and women don’t do things together. It’s not very cultural for them. That’s one of the reasons why [Joshua and I] set up [the ministry that] we did. At first we were thinking we’d go from home to home. Maybe we’d share stories with families rather than with just individuals. But we found that the men weren’t at home very much, and if they were, they wouldn’t be talking with their families. They’d be talking with other men. So we thought, “Ok, let’s start something just for the men.” On Friday nights, [a group of up to ten] men would come to our house. We’d cook dinner for them, and we’d listen to the One Story recordings and talk about them.
Joshua: There are maybe three or four who have a passion or desire in them. These are the men who come consistently, and they’re really asking some good questions like, “Why did Jesus die on a cross?” They are really interacting with the stories, and it’s great to see that.
Frazer: I do feel that the men have heard a clear explanation of the gospel. Certainly the regulars [have]. They’ve heard the gospel and gotten an idea of who God is… In some ways, the challenge for us has always been how does the gospel impact the lives of the people. Does it change anything in their culture? Does it change anything in the way they treat their wives and families? We haven’t seen any of that yet. That takes a long time. It’s early days, though, and I feel that if God was really to start a work in these people, then the fruit will come.
Courtney: Sometimes, you need to redefine what “fruit” is. We as missionaries go in saying that salvation is our ultimate goal—which it absolutely is—but through the slow and steady walk of being alongside people, you see that it’s not always going to come in great big waves. Sometimes the fruit is seeing that those boys now have the word of God in their hearts, and they’ve memorized the Jesus film. Maybe these boys they’ve invested in… will be the ones to change the things in their culture. Redefining what “fruit” is and celebrating the small successes and the small moments where a seed has been planted is really important.
Your team leaders, Martin and Joy, plan to return to the same location, continuing the work of the church and the discipleship you all started. Now that you’ve finished your two years with TIMO, what’s next?
Jacob: Everyone’s going different directions, but we are all committed to long-term missions. That’s the goal of TIMO: to train and equip people to have a heart for long-term ministry. In our two years with the Samburu, we’ve learned so much about missions [and about] hard cross-cultural living. It’s given all of us a greater love for the unreached and a greater urgency [to spread the gospel].
Martin: The challenge for us will be how to keep things going, so it doesn’t evaporate after some time. Often, you start a ministry and things are going well, but as soon as you stop blowing on the fire, it will just go back to the way it was, as if nothing every happened. So, to get to the point where something new takes hold and grows strong, we haven’t seen that happening in our location…. A church is this area is very fragile: it can grow or it can collapse.
Jacob: We are leaving Martin and Joy with a lot of work to do! It’s a good thing we have a God who is able. We have a great hope that, even though in our small community we didn’t see [much] fruit, God is able to do this.
Frazer: And there definitely are people in that area who are hungry for God.