“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”
“Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who
makes known to us the fragrance that consists of knowledge of Him
in every place. For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those
who are being saved and among those who are perishing–to the latter an
odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life.”
-2 Corinthians 2:14-16
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
- Apostle’s Creed
Today I was surrounded by the most abject poverty I’ve ever experienced. Our cohort visited one of the neighborhoods in Mathare Slum, second largest slum in Nairobi and home to 800,000 people in its 1.5 square miles. We were invited and guided by Missions of Hope International, a local, grassroots agency started nearly two decades ago by a Kenyan couple who felt God placed it on their hearts to minister in Mathare Slum.
They began by renting a two room place in the slum and have grown to occupy a large highrise building on the edge of the slum. They operate 13 schools serving over 6,000 children. They provide meals, medical care, and education to children who likely wouldn’t receive it anywhere else. They also work with the parents of the children, teaching them trades so they can find regular employment, and acting as a microfinance lender for those who are business minded.
Methare Slum is located in a valley in the heart of Nairobi. It has a small river that cuts through the valley on its floor. Everything (trash, refuse, food scraps) in the valley slopes toward the river. The river is in bad shape. Most of the housing consists of shanties with corrugated metal rooves. The floors are dirt, and there are usually no more than two rooms. On average, the residents must pay about $9 per room, per month.
As we walked through the slum with our guides from MHI, stepping over the trash and human waste that make up the streets, we garned the attention of dozens of children. When we approached they would begin chanting “Howe Aryu? Howe Aryu?” – How are you? How are you? – or “take pikture?” And boy did they love having their pictures taken. After each snap, I’d turn around the camera so the little ones could see their faces, now stored on my memory card. Almost without fail, this was met with a rousing “YAY!!! Dr. Chuck Conniry noted that it seemed the children most wanted to know that we were taking something, their picture, home with us.
During the walk, I was surprised by my lack of emotive response. The smell of the slums is beyond my ability to describe. The children, most younger than my own, followed us up and down the streets and alleyways, most with big grins on their faces. I, however, was finding it hard to smile. Unsure of how to react, what to do, I hid behind my camera. The camera can act as a buffer, flattening life into digestible chunks, and it acted as a buffer between me and the experience. I’m sure I’ll regret that. However, with all that has happened in my year thus far, I’m emotionally empty already. There is nothing left to break.
Walking around, three things kept coming into my mind: two passages from the Bible, and part of the Apostle’s Creed. God is present in Mathare. And Mathare is as close to hell as one can get. In fact, it has a lot in common with the Sheol/Ghenna of Jesus’ time, which we now translate as “hell”. Many biblical archeologists insist that Ghenna (hell) was a real place. A place low in the Kidron Valley where trash was burned and sewage runoff from the city of Jerusalem collected. Mathare Slum is just like that, except that it is packed with dwellings.
Yet I could not escape the feeling that this place is a place of hope. As the children ran around us, as we talked with residents, there was a feeling of being “pressed but not crushed, persecuted but not abandoned, cut down but not destroyed.” That kind of hope only comes when Christ is present. His presence turns the pervasive stench into a sweet fragrance of hope. A fragrance “from life to life.”
And Jesus is already here. Between the time he was removed on the cross and his bodily resurrection, Christ descended into the depths of hell, into the slums, into Methare. He is here, and he is waiting for us to join him. It will take more than a check or a mission trip. We must develop long-term, deeply relational, two-way partnerships. We must abandon the idea that those of us in the West are the “givers” and those in the South are “receivers.” A true partnership recognizes that both parties have valuable contributions to make, and both parties are in need.
Experiences like this, connections like these, are the reason that the Global Missional Leadership program at George Fox needs to become better known. Each one of my mates has been changed by today’s experience. And as a result, their ministries back home will change. You can’t get this from books on poverty or from lectures by relief experts in a cozy stateside classroom. Ministry leaders and pastors MUST engage through this program. I have much more to write and process, especially regarding the take aways, but for now I will stop. Do look at the pictures I took above.