Spirit Alive: Lessons from Kenya-- When the Spirit Crosses the Threshold of Our World


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

August 7, 2018

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

Connect Relationally...Celebrate Life...and Respond to Daily Difficulties with a Sense of Calm and Grace

In July, I spent three weeks in Kenya as a part of a Volunteers in Mission team. It was a remarkable, grace-filled time.

Kenya is a truly beautiful country, filled with amazing, spirit-filled, relational people. It is also a place of great material poverty and has a number of significant infrastructure needs. 42% of its population of 44 million live below the poverty level, and access to basic services, such as health care, education, clean water, and sanitation is often a luxury for many people.

The United States is also a beautiful country in which individuals have access to a variety of significant personal freedoms, and we are a nation of great material wealth.

In the recently released World Happiness Index rating, the United States rated #18 in 2018, down four slots. And as US News and World Report notes: "The US, it appears, is getting richer, but not happier." It also appears that countries such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia have something to teach us about overall happiness. Check here to learn more about the World Happiness Report.

Kenya ranks much lower than the United States in terms of the World Happiness Index, ranking at #124 out of 158 nations. In fact, African countries generally rank near the bottom of the scale, which might also indicate something about the cultural bias involved in what determines true happiness, but that's another story in itself. However, if you are interested in thinking about this matter further, there is an fascinating analysis of this that you can pursue further by clicking here to see what someone else has to say about the nature of happiness as a whole. It is an interesting read.

But back to my main point...after spending three short weeks Kenya, I am convinced that we have a lot to learn about spiritual well-being, community life, connectionalism, and yes, even "happiness" from our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

Here are three lessons I learned about connectionalism while I was in Kenya:

1. It is Critical to Connect Personally and Develop Relationships with Others

Time and time again, I was deeply moved by how the Kenyan people...both young and old...went out of their way to connect with our group in personal ways.

School children had no fear as they raced to greet us when we came to their schools. And at each church we visited, those present would tell us "From this day forward, our church is now your church," and that "we hope you will come back to be with us again; please greet your congregation for us when you return home."

Here's what I'm talking about...take, for example, the simple, but kind, gesture of the Kenyan workers on the site where we were working to construct a house for an AIDS orphan. The day I came with our part of team to the site, we put our backpacks on the ground near the back of the newly framed building and went to the front of the

site to get our instructions from the construction site leader. When we returned, our backpacks were all hanging on a wall, where nails had been freshly put up so that our personal belongings would be off the ground. It wasn't a big deal, just a simple gesture that made us feel welcomed and included.

But then there was Moreti, an 8 or 9 year old Kenyan boy, who greeted me when I first went to work at the AIDS orphan's house, and who tried a number of approaches in order to connect with me, including singing to me, showing me games, and asking if I would hold him when I came back for the house dedication a few days later. We didn't share a common language and we came from different cultures, but Moreti was determined to develop a personal relationship with many of us during our few days there... and he eventually asked me if I would take him to America for a visit someday. I will never forget him waving to us when we rode off in our team van on the last day at that site.

And there was Sarah as well, at the Kingdom Builder's orphanage in Nyandarua, who connected the very first day by teaching me how to use sign language for the expression "Have a good night." She too wanted to communicate across our language and cultural differences in order to make a connection.

In fact, nearly every Kenyan I met tried in some way to connect with us, whether it was through a wave on the street, an expression of "thumbs up," or simply a smile. These things aren't necessarily indicators that score points on the World Happiness inventory rating, but they do reveal something about the openness, kindness, and hospitality of a people.

Those involved in community organizing in our country these days are focusing more-and-more attention on what are called "one-on-ones," intentional, personal conversations that are designed to deepen communication and develop relationships. It is clear that we need much more of this energy among us these days in America.

2. Celebrating Life Builds an Amazing Sense of Community Among People

The Kenyans also taught me a great deal about how to celebrate life.

On our second Sunday there, we participated in the dedication of a new church building, and people came from all over Kenya to be a part of it. The Presiding Bishop was there. Clergy from neighboring congregations were present. And some 500 people showed up to sing, pray, and dance for over five hours of worship, before heading to a special dinner hosted by the church to commemorate the occasion. It was quite a day!

But then on another occasion we went to Freda's house, a woman who owns a small shop near our hotel, in order for her to show us the progress she had made on building it. It was located in a hilly area on the outskirts of Maua. It was a simple place for her to live with her family of three generations, but it was also clearly "holy ground." And as her family gathered for the blessing from a local pastor, we all sang the hymn Holy Ground as a way of commemorating the day. And...it was a very special time.

And if that wasn't enough, when we went to visit a Rescue Center for 44 street children who had been abandoned as glue sniffers in local communities, at the conclusion of our visit the staff there planted three trees, which is a great honor in Kenya, for Revs. Jim Monroe and Sue Owen (who had been so instrumental in important ministry work with the Maua Methodist Hospital)...and a tree for our Volunteer in Mission team as well.

Celebrating life in the midst of difficult and challenging circumstances seems to be a common characteristic of the church in Kenya.

3. How We Respond to Daily Difficulties Makes a Great Deal of Difference to Our Collective Happiness

Finally, I found the Kenyan ability to overcome the daily difficulties of life something that helped me re-frame my own sense of things. Whether it was in their ability to navigate the horrendous traffic...and constant near misses while driving...without expressing any sense  of "road rage," or their willingness to look for alternatives to the simple challenges of going to a well in the rural community to find water, or finding a solution to a workplace problem, or walking by foot for miles in order to get to a medical clinic...it was clear that we have much to learn from the Kenyans about patience, perseverance, and problem solving.

While I was in Kenya, these three lists of characteristics continued to grow. And as time passed, I found myself simply being moved by the accumulation of kindness, generosity, determination, and grace. It made me think about Mother Teresa's famous statement: "We don't do great things. We do small things with great love." I want to be part of a world in which those around me want to live in such a way.

It isn't that those of us involved in this Volunteer in Mission Team didn't have something to contribute as well while we were in Kenya. We built a house for an AIDs orphan and her aunt. We gave out de-worming medicine to hundreds of children in six schools. We preached in six different churches. We painted and built fencing at an orphanage. We played and taught children in an after school program. And...we brought school and medical supplies, play equipment, and other assorted items for each place we worked. And...we contributed funds to purchase desks, build a community house as a demonstration project, and pay for other special projects related to the Maua Methodist Hospital, the orphanage and the Rescue Center.

But when all was said and done, each of us received back so much more spiritually than we were able to give materially. And this is what made this experience such a powerful reminder of what the church is called to be.

Are there problems in Kenya? Absolutely. There are too many people dependent on growing the drug miraa to sustain themselves economically. Many of the roads are the worst I've ever seen...or ridden on! And yes...Kenya is rated 124th on the World Happiness Inventory.

But there is much more to observe and receive from this place as well.

Mind you, life is complex, and it is easy to make generalizations, but it is also true that when people connect personally and develop relationships with each other, when life is celebrated and cynicism gives way to hope, and when anger and fear are replaced by kindness and understanding.... life is enriched and we become better as a community. These are among the memories of my time in Kenya, which leads me to conclude with some simple questions for you to ponder:

  • Are you taking time to cultivate relationships with those around you? What simple steps can you take to connect more deeply with others?
  • Are you finding ways to celebrate life? What is worthy of a simple "thank you" or a "praise God" from the past week?
  • Are you able to let go of little slights and grudges...and even the temptations of "road rage"? How do you move from frustration to perseverance?

I wish you well in these ventures....Your responses may not increase your material well-being or even  improve our nation's overall "happiness" ranking, but I guarantee you that how you respond to these questions will change your sense of spiritual well-being and bring a greater sense of inner peace to your life.

Note: For more information and photos of our 2018 Volunteers in Mission trip to Kenya in July click here.

Let us walk in the light of God's love,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.



Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org