by Erika Marksbury
“It’s so hard to know what’s just a different way of living, and what
really is injustice,” a friend said when we lucky six whom PTS’s Field
Education Office had sent far away for the summer shared our stories.
Though she worked in Ghana and I in Kenya, my friend’s words reflected my
own continuing struggle.
As she elaborated, my
mind traveled the few months and thousands of miles back to the first
mukalala (mountain) fellowship I attended as a Machakos Town Baptist
Church intern. Hiking up the mountain that rises to overlook Machakos
Town, past coffee plants and guava trees, chicken coops and grandfathers’
graves, we came to a concrete structure where a few mamas of the church
had gathered. We faced a roofless row of rooms with four openings along
the front, where tattered cloths hung as doors, hiding the cracks in the
floors and the fact that each room was an entire family’s dwelling.
Dirty-cheeked children peered from behind the cloths, then stepped out
barefooted to join their mamas in greeting us. The women sat on the
ground, kids climbing into their laps, and waited.
I had prepared a message about Jesus healing the woman who bled for
twelve years. I had thought, having seen only a little of their lives,
that these women might sympathize with the painful struggle that leaves a
woman almost hopeless. But up on the mountain, I began to worry that maybe
the text was too real.
Maybe they would understand too well. And maybe I, a privileged girl
who has never been sick, not really, shouldn’t be preaching it to Kenyan
women without roofs or soap. Because it cannot be said of these women that
their faith isn’t enough to heal them, however you interpret that
statement by Jesus in the story. Each Sunday morning, lacking coins to
drop in the offering basket, they bring forward beans, oranges, squash,
whatever their garden yielded that week. They pray continually and rejoice
always. If there’s faith strong enough to heal, it lives in these women.
But they’re still sick….
I preached that text anyway. I didn’t know what else to do.
Opening my eyes with the closing prayer’s “Amen,” I was surprised to
see the group had grown by maybe 10 children. They slipped in while our
heads were bowed and were grinning guiltily. Children sneaking into church
intrigued me. I wondered what had brought them, and if their lives were as
sad as the others gathered there. And then I saw Seth.
She took my hand, walked with me a few steps, and pointed through a
clearing to a place a little farther up, saying, “I live there, on this
Seth is only 10. She snuck in at the end of the gathering. She couldn’t
have known what I’d been thinking. But just by appearing at that moment,
she undermined my assumptions about life, and those who live, on that
mountain. Seth is smart (tested fourth citywide for her grade level, she
told us proudly), healthy (with sparkling teeth and strength to outrun all
her peers), and happy, the very qualities I had assumed were missing from
the lives of those on the mountain.
As I turned back to the gathering, I tried to see it afresh—the dirt a
sign of play, the one-room houses a way for families to stay close, the
lack a freedom from which generosity flowed. I realized the children snuck
in because this is their community, where they want to learn about God’s
love for them. And I was ashamed.
I had decided, before I heard the pastor translate their prayer
requests—“she asks to be healed of malaria”; “she asks God to rescue her
husband from alcoholism”; “she asks for just a little food”—that these
women and children were sick. I had made that decision the moment I
stepped into their space and saw that their lives were not as convenient
or clean or carefree as mine. I had named that difference injustice. And I
had pitied them for it. Perhaps worst of all, I had mistaken my own pity
for sensitivity, for awareness. Seth helped me to see that it was not only
the difference between those lives and mine that was unjust, but also my
analysis of that difference.
Of course, there is plenty in the lives of many Kenyans that is
horribly unjust—the fact that the woman with malaria won’t receive
healthcare, for example, or that families live without roofs while their
leaders dwell in castles. But my pity doesn’t do them any good.
Seth asked me that night, sweeping her arm to indicate the whole of the
mountain, “Is it like this in your place?” I told her no, not knowing
exactly what she meant but betting my answer was pretty safe. My place, my
life, is not like hers. Since returning, though, when I remember the dirt
and the fruit and vegetable offerings, I wonder if, at least in my own
little place, I could help to bring about justice by a different way of
living, more like life on that mountain.