April 30, 2015

Kenya Mennonite Church launches history book

Written by  Jewel Showalter
Bishop Julius Karanja of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (right) dedicates Forward in Faith with prayer, with Kenya Mennonite Church Moderator Philip Okeyo at his side. Bishop Julius Karanja of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (right) dedicates Forward in Faith with prayer, with Kenya Mennonite Church Moderator Philip Okeyo at his side. Photo by Richard Showalter.

KISUMU, Kenya — Excited participants streamed into the Ahero Pastoral Care Center on April 17‒18 to launch the freshly-minted history of the Kenya Mennonite Church (KMC): Forward in Faith: A Seventy-Year Journey, 1942-2012. Guests included representatives from all seven dioceses of KMC, three new associated regions, the National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK), and international guests from Uganda, Tanzania, and the U.S.

Flanked by retired bishops, KMC Moderator Philip Okeyo thanked the elders for “starting the journey” more than 70 years ago. “This history is important for our identity as a church,” Okeyo said in his opening address. “We're writing this history so that future generations maintain and sustain our beliefs and practices."

Referencing Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Okeyo noted KMC’s beginnings in African-to-African mission efforts from Tanzania into Kenya. “God calls us to look back, to remember the 'ancient paths' and the 'rock from which we were hewn.' When we seek righteousness, we're called to look to the originals. We trace our roots all the way back to the Anabaptist movement in Europe,” he said.

Okeyo also reiterated the practices of Anabaptists/Mennonites. In addition to adhering to the historic creeds of the church, Mennonites practice believers' baptism, renounce violence, seek peace and justice, and practice a simple lifestyle, the priesthood of all believers, and non-conformity to the world. Mennonites emphasize service, practicing foot washing and the care of creation. They believe in the holy marriage of a man and a woman for life.

“Buy this book and read it prayerfully,” Okeyo said. “Use it as a mirror to see where we've been in the past so we can correct ourselves. Be guided by the spirit of humility. Leadership is about service, not status.”

Author Francis S. Ojwang, a KMC pastor, explained the arduous task of writing the 287-page history. The idea, birthed during a conversation between KMC Bishop Dominic Opondo and David W. Shenk at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Zimbabwe in 2003, took eight years of research and writing. Ojwang worked closely with Shenk and Laura S. Kurtz, a former Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) worker in East Africa, in planning and writing the book.

In his sermon “Forward in Faith,” drawn from the title of the history, Richard A. Showalter, an EMM representative, spoke from Matthew 14. “Faith is a matter of action,” he said. “It's about getting out of the boat — walking on the water — doing things that are hard and impossible without God. May KMC be willing to obey the call of Christ and 'walk on water' in the challenges that lie ahead.”

Honored guest Bishop Julius Karanja, a trustee of NCCK, noted that KMC's initiative in telling their story is a pioneering step on behalf of the entire Kenyan Christian community. Other communions, much older, have not done anything like it, he said. “Those who succeed are dreamers, doers. They live in the slums, but don't see the slums. They convert the negatives to positives.”

As he unveiled the stacks of history books stacked ceremoniously on a table in front of the sanctuary, Karanja said, “Now that God has used you to tell the story of faith as a witness of the good news, we officially launch the KMC history!”

Then the confetti flew. Balloons popped. Choirs trilled and drums rolled as Ojwang autographed books pressed into the hands of eager guests. As momentum built, Shenk joined the autographing party.

After the festivities Ojwang noted several key themes woven through the history of KMC: the emphases on blood sacrifice and practices of reconciliation within the indigenous cultures prepared the way for the gospel; the supernatural role of the Holy Spirit was key as the gospel spread among different tribal groups; women played a key role in caring for the needs of the early missionaries and church planters; and forgiveness and reconciliation kept the church intact despite severe conflicts.

Ojwang also noted these dimensions of KMC history: the humble sacrifice of church leaders who serve without salaries; the ministries to children and the choirs for young people that have contributed to the growth of the church; the compassion ministries (HIV/AIDS and other work) that have characterized the church; the importance of training at the Mennonite Theological College in Nyabange, Tanzania, that has created common understandings, helping to bind various tribal groups together; and the partnerships with EMM and Mennonite Central Committee that have helped the church to mature.

KMC, a member of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), is a fellowship of 5,491 baptized members in 116 congregations, with more than twice that many people worshipping in the congregations. KMC has also assisted with cross-cultural church planting in three new regions outside their current dioceses, initiated a new national Mennonite church in neighboring Uganda, and maintained fraternal ties with other Anabaptist groups within Kenya.

The upcoming MWC Assembly in Pennsylvania will feature a seminar on Forward in Faith, led by Okeyo with assistance from Ojwang and Shenk. Copies of the book will also be available for purchase.