A perusal of global events will often yield stories of inter-ethnic conflict. These range from hate crimes of one group against another, to an attack on another’s worship center, to extreme genocidal stories. Sadly, some of these stories even include the Church’s active or passive participation.
The stories that get reported less often are those of the Church’s role in healing nations—where Christian leaders recognize their failures of the past and take positive steps to repent, recover, and rebuild not only their nations but also the reputation of the Church as moral authority. This is one of these stories—the Kenyan church’s recovery after the post-election violence in 2008.
Following the Kenyan national elections of 2007, pitting incumbent Mwai Kibaki against Raila Odinga, tensions began to build as Kibaki was declared the winner. Accusations of election-rigging escalated into violence, largely between supporters of Kibaki (mostly members of the largest Kenyan ethnicity, the Gikuyu) and supporters of Odinga (mostly members of the second-largest, the Luo).
By the end of February 2008, more than 1,100 had died and more than 250,000 were internally displaced. The election was “only the Molotov cocktail that ignited the gasoline-soaked heap of ethnic hostilities”.1
Hedwig Simuyu-Otsieno has described the intensity of the situation in early 2008—down to the family level.2 For a long time, inter-marriage between communities had been normal, but many families were now split right down the middle, with people that had been married for years suddenly finding that they could not co-exist.
People lost their homes. Neighbors turned on neighbors. People were afraid to travel from one section of Kibera (one of Nairobi’s largest slum communities) to another because Kiberans tended to live in sub-communities of their own ethnic people.
The nation and the world were shocked. No one expected that this sleeping hatred existed in Kenya, much less that it could be awakened and result in brutal murders.
After the violence shattered the apparent stability of this peaceful nation (where over 70-80% claim to be Christian), the question arose: where was the Church in all this?
Rather than casting all the blame on politicians, pastors courageously took action and began to repent:
- On a national level, the National Council of Churches of Kenya released a statement in which they confessed partisanship and disunity. They confessed that they had “…identified with our people based on ethnicity; and after the elections, we are divided on how to deal with the crisis”.
- They called church leaders to “to recapture their strategic position as the moral authority of the nation. We have put in place measures to enable us to overcome the divisive forces and set off on a new beginning. As the church we will do our best in helping achieve the rebirth of a new Kenya”.3
- On a local level, pastors began to offer compassionate relief to those who had been harmed—assisting at camps for displaced people, visiting the violence-ridden areas, preaching reconciliation. The process of peace-building had begun.
Lessons in Peace-Building
Pastoral repentance in February 2008 began a long process of peace-building initiatives that continue to this day—and have borne fruit in the peaceful elections of March 2013. Many groups within and outside Kenya began to get involved in addressing the issues that helped provoke or accelerate the violence in 2008 and five years later they are still at work.
In February 2013, I and two ministry colleagues from the USA4 had the opportunity to be part of this process. We joined with East African leadership from ALARM (Africa Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, a ministry launched after the Rwandan genocide of 1994) and World Relief Kenya to continue their peace-building initiatives with pastors from two of the 2008 ‘hot spots’—the Kibera slums and the Molo area north of Nairobi. We were invited because two of us are World Relief (USA) Board members and because two of us serve with Development Associates International which utilizes a course entitled ‘Culture, Ethnicity & Diversity’, which the World Relief Kenya staff knew and wanted us to use.
Although our experience was but a microcosm of Kenya’s healing (about 100 pastors participated), it exposed us to a process of peace-building from which the Church around the world can learn. These four lessons stand out:
1. Spirit of repentance and reconciliation
In both Kibera and Molo, Rwandan leaders Celestin Musekura (ALARM) and Jean-Paul “JP” Ndagijimana (World Relief Kenya) relayed stories from their own journey after their nation’s genocide. Celestin related how one of the murderers of several of his family members was now forgiven and serving as the caretaker of his mother. Their stories of forgiveness communicated to the pastors that multi-ethnic forgiveness and growth together are possible.
In Molo, JP led the group through a time of confession and forgiveness. There were multiple ethnicities present, and we sat interspersed in a circle. The eldest member of each community became their spokesman. Each spokesman was instructed specifically to ask the members of other groups for forgiveness for “things that my people did to your people”. Then the representative of the offended group would respond, ideally pronouncing the other community forgiven. All groups participated as both confessors and forgivers.
We were merely observers until JP called upon me to ask forgiveness for the evils done by the white man. He then asked another colleague5 to confess and ask forgiveness for the negative impact of colonialism. For us Westerners, with our highly individualistic worldview, this act of serving as confessor representing our forefathers was quite awkward, but the spiritual power of the service was tangible.
This ceremony could have been words only, but this group had been meeting together for months and had been building relationships. There were tears, embraces, and then the ‘forgiver’ would follow the pronouncement of forgiveness with a prayer for God’s blessing on the other’s community.
2. Intentionality towards multi-ethnic peace and relationships
After the 2008 violence, World Relief Kenya and others joined together to (in the words of JP) “establish a peace programme in a bid to play an active role in ensuring that the Church is empowered to be actively involved in the peace making process and equipping Church leaders to have the heart, mind and hands of Jesus towards restoration and reconciliation”.6
A critically important leader in this initiative was Pastor John Gichinga, former pastor of Nairobi Baptist Church and now a World Relief staff member. Working with World Relief Kenya, they produced a challenging documentary from the 2008 election aftermath entitled “Grave Errors”. The basic message to Christian leaders was: what do we need to do to make sure that this never happens again?
Peace program groups had been meeting together for months by the time we visited. More than 300 Christian leaders from dozens of diverse ethnic communities were involved. They knew that if Kenya was going to change, it had to start with them. Pastor Dorothy Munyao of Jesus the Distinct King Church (Kibera) explained that learning together had taught her that “Peace starts with me. When I have peace, I can be able to spread it to others, starting with my home, my neighbors and our community here in Kibera”.7
Together these pastors began making commitments to preach peace, to encourage election involvement based on the qualities of the political candidates rather than ethnic affiliation, and to contest election results through the courts of law rather than by violence.
Understanding the significance of symbolism, the pastors chose to do things together to illustrate to their congregations that they were committed to Christian unity. The pastors in Molo committed to pulpit exchange where pastors from different churches and denominations preach and interact with churches from other ethnic communities.
In the ethnically-charged slum of Kibera, a local saying warns that you need a passport to go from one neighborhood to another. Here, three weeks before the elections, Christian leaders committed to a joint peace caravan:
- More than 100 pastors marched together through the whole of this huge slum.
- Their slogan stated “Bonga Amani”—we stand for peace. Pastors from one ethnic section of Kibera would preach in another section to show that they were standing together.
3. Integral ministry
The peace-building initiative also carried with it a practical component. Part of the driving force behind supporting the candidate from one’s own ethnic group was economic. In short, if our man gets elected, our area often benefits with more consistent electricity, better roads, etc.
As part of the goals of the peace-building initiative Christian leaders agreed to address what JP calls the “scarcity mentality”. He explained: “We knew that building for peace would require us equipping leaders to deal with fear and insecurity caused by limited resources, and lack of trust that a leader will not pull all resources to one community and forget others”.8
To address this, World Relief Kenya and other groups and churches have established an agricultural program and a savings program in Kibera—with multi-ethnic partnerships built into them.
4. Exhorting each other to lead
Pastor Sam Mutongori of the Israel Church (Kibera) challenged his colleagues: “God sends us as leaders, not as tribal representative to His people”.9 Pastors from Molo agreed that pastors throughout Kenya should join hands pro-actively to:
- preach against tribalism and break tribal boundaries, stereotypical thinking and attitudes;
- preach forgiveness and restoration of relationships just as God forgave us and Christ restored our relationship with him;
- preach the truth, not lie to the congregation or manipulate the truth for selfish gain;
- hold interdenominational meetings;10
- pray and intercede for prospective leaders, including a day to fast and
- pray for the elections;
- take a neutral political stand;
- stand up against propaganda, and discipline pastors involved in it; and
- distance themselves from politicians, refusing to have them campaign during church events.11
Hope for the future
Pastor Jackson Nyaribu Magoma of Jesus Revival International Ministry (Molo area) has written: “Though this area has had its challenges in the past, we have hope about the future, and we as children of God have a role to play in making God known. As the church we must be impartial during the election period. We must preach peace”.12
JP writes: “These pastors are representatives of a larger community and they have carried the message of peace-building and reconciliation in their hearts to their communities. We pray that God will continue working through his servants in reinforcing peace as the country moves forward”.13
1 This phrase was developed by PhD candidate Joshua Harper, in a paper prepared at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (April 2008).
2 Hedwig wrote this as a paper related to the “Culture, Ethnicity, & Diversity” course taught at Africa International University in August 2012.
4 Our USA team included Tim Breene (Board member of World Relief USA), Michele Breene (staff member of Development Associates International), and myself (staff member of Development Associates International and Board member of World Relief USA).
5 Tim and Michele Breene are both from England and Michele (who was chosen in this exercise) grew up in Kenya.
6 Quoted from our personal correspondence.
7 From feedback compiled by World Relief Kenya.
8 Quoted from our personal correspondence.
9 From feedback compiled by World Relief Kenya.
10 In many situations in Kenya, denominations were planted along ethnic lines, so the term “interdenominational” means multi-cultural.
11 Preceding the 2007 elections and subsequent violence, some pastors would yield their Sunday pulpits to politicians from their ethnic community. Some of these pastors reputedly received money and other benefits by doing this.
12 From feedback compiled by World Relief Kenya.
13 Quoted from our personal correspondence.