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Kenya’s Orthodox Miracle

Poor but enthusiastic, an African church promotes fellowship

“It’s a miracle,” said Archbishop Makarios of Kenya and Irinoupolis about the Orthodox Patriarchal Ecclesiastical School some 15 miles west of Kenya’s capital of Nairobi.

“I say it’s a miracle,” he continued, “because we have people coming from all over the continent belonging to different cultures and different nations. This institution is the center for Orthodoxy not just for Kenya, but for the whole African continent.”

Hearing these words alone, a visitor might expect to discover a cluster of well-maintained buildings encircled by a sprawling campus nestled in one of Nairobi’s more upscale suburbs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A hard place to find, this tiny, resource-poor institution is lost among the narrow, unpaved streets of Kawanegware – Nairobi’s most notoriously dangerous shantytown. To get to the seminary, the visitor takes Naivasha Road, the district’s major thoroughfare, until he reaches an otherwise ordinary intersection – that is if it were not for the clutter of some dozen signposts, each advertising a different nearby church congregation.

“Sanctuary of Glory Gospel Revival Centre” reads one. “African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa,” “African Christian Church” and “Seventh Day Adventist Church” read still others. Hidden among the signs, a hand-painted panel in black and white reads in part: “Orthodox Patriarchal Ecclesiastical School Makarios III Archbishop of Cyprus.” At the top, a small red arrow points left.

Veering left, Naivasha Road’s pot-holed pavement quickly turns to a rutty dirt street, and life in the surrounding slum slows to a crawl. Lining either side of the trail, drainage ditches bubble with stagnant sewage. Cows graze in the nearby trash heaps. However, such placid appearances can be deceiving; the neighborhood has an unrivaled infamy for violent crime. For the few daring to jerk their way through this bumpy stretch, locked doors and unfastened seatbelts are the preferred precautionary measures. After several twists and turns, the dirt lane abruptly narrows and the seminary’s entrance comes into view. Uniformed, armed guards emerge from behind the closed campus gates to greet the arriving visitors.

The seminary traces its origins to the former, controversial president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, who visited Kenya in 1970. The following year, in cooperation with President Jomo Kenyatta, the archbishop devised plans to construct a seminary in the Riruta Satellite section of Kawanegware. Opening its doors over a decade later in 1982, the seminary has already graduated more than 500 African Orthodox priests. In 1995, in an effort to foster African unity, the seminary began recruiting students of the Byzantine Orthodox tradition from all over the continent.

Much like an African Union summit in downtown Nairobi, the patriarchal seminary – which is part of the Greek-dominated Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa – today attracts a pan-African crowd. Recent graduates include men from Burundi, Cameroon, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This past year, the seminary, which enrolls about 45 students in its three-year program, graduated seven priests, each of whom held a different African passport. But despite their cultural differences, said the archbishop, all the students share the same objective: “To discover the true meaning of life in Orthodox Christianity and take that authentic message to the different tribes of Kenya and Africa.

“Orthodoxy, through the liturgical life of the school, is uniting them all and they become one. And you know how difficult that is when you are dealing with diverse cultures. It is not something easy, something simple. But by the grace of God, we are able to achieve so many things,” he said.

Summer vacation has just begun, but in the seminary’s lush, palm-filled courtyard, two seminarians sit anxiously outside the archbishop’s office. Dressed in dapper black suits and wearing sunglasses – attire that seems to disguise their humble origins as peasant farmers – second-year Philip Chasia and third-year Charles Otieno await their appointment with the archbishop at which they will present their progress reports. The young men plan to spend the summer visiting remote parishes and villages in their home province of Nyanza some 250 miles west of the Kenyan capital near Lake Victoria. Readying for the trip, they are full of zeal.

“These three months,” began Mr. Otieno, “we are taking the theological knowledge we have gained here and bringing it to our people of south Nyanza.” From what he has seen, the people there hunger for Jesus. They want more churches and priests. “I’m going to plant the Orthodox faith there,” chimed in Mr. Chasia, who will work in two isolated villages whose residents have expressed interest in the Orthodox faith. “At the moment, they cannot even make the Sign of the Cross. They just don’t know anything concerning the Orthodox Church. So my plan is to build for them a very good foundation.”

Innocently, the seminarians recognize but remain undeterred by the vocation’s inherent challenges: too few priests, a vast territory to cover, tough competition from other churches, a diverse flock to serve and a permanent shortage of funds.“It’s not easy. It’s a heavy task. There are many challenges,” said Mr. Chasia. “You have to sweat. You really have to sweat.”

While Kenya’s Orthodox Church constitutes Africa’s largest indigenous Orthodox community, it comprises only an estimated 300,000 of Kenya’s 30 million people. But despite the church’s modest size, few would dispute that its 156 priests, who serve over 300 parishes, are overworked. Adding to the workload, the church continues to expand, receiving new members on a regular basis.

“The number is increasing every day,” added Archbishop Makarios.

A widely dispersed community, pockets of Orthodox faithful are scattered across the country. This fact complicates the lives of priests, some of whom walk up to 15 miles a day or take long, unsafe and expensive bus rides to reach the most isolated parishes. A number of them serve three or four parishes and as many as 10 communities that span staggering distances.

In a predominantly Protestant country with a growing number and variety of evangelical communities vying for attention, the Orthodox Church does not take its diverse community for granted.

The Orthodox Church of Kenya promotes “inclusive fellowship” among its members, who together represent more than 15 tribes, including the Ki Kuyu, Kisii, Luhja, Luo, Maasai, Nandi, Pokot and Turkana. Accordingly, as Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria affirmed in Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely circulated newspaper, Orthodox priests are expected to celebrate the sacraments in the local vernacular.

“We insist that the liturgy is in local African languages,” he stressed. “Every people’s language is very dear to them.”

According to Archbishop Makarios, this commitment to tribal pluralism combined with the church’s origins as a homegrown initiative have won over many Kenyans.“Roman Catholics and Protestants came here during the colonial era. Orthodoxy came here too during that time. But it had no connection to the colonial powers,” he explained. “The people here are comfortable with that. They very much like the way we accept them and work with them, not rule them or take anything from them.”

Rather, it was the head of the independent African Orthodox Church in South Africa, Bishop Daniel Alexander, who introduced Orthodoxy to Kenya when he visited the country in 1935. During his 16-month stay, he lectured widely, baptized many new Orthodox faithful and ordained new priests, a handful of whom later founded the African Orthodox Church in Kenya.

After World War II, the Orthodox Church grew quickly, attracting many new members, some of whom fiercely opposed colonial rule. As sociopolitical tensions in the country heightened in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the church became a stronghold of the Mau Mau independence movement, many of whose leaders professed Orthodoxy.

Yet despite this rich legacy, the Orthodox Church struggles to ward off stiff competition from evangelical communities, which many Kenyans perceive as more charismatic.

“Our faith is different from the Protestants,” explained the seminarian Philip Chasia.“Some people like a lively church, maybe jumping, singing. If you try to imitate what the other churches are doing, then the [Orthodox] canon is against you.

“You cannot add or subtract anything. You have to stick to the doctrines of the church,” he continued. “So it is very easy for them to convince Orthodox faithful to go to the other side. Any church that drops in here from America,” he said, “within one minute, that church is full with people.

“Besides,” he added, “nobody has heard about the Orthodox.”

While the Orthodox Patriarchal Ecclesiastical School continues to prepare most of Africa’s Orthodox priests, it struggles to meet operating costs.

“We don’t have any financial resources. All the money we receive comes from abroad,” admitted Archbishop Makarios. “We have our friends in Cyprus, Greece, America, Australia and Europe.”

By any standard, members of the school community live modestly, to say the least. Nonetheless, they all count themselves among Kenya’s luckier individuals.

Back at the school, over a plate of cheese, the archbishop and a visiting professor, Evangelos Ioannidis, discussed living conditions on and off campus. A volunteer from Thessalonica, Greece, Professor Ioannidis came to the school to teach seminarians the Greek language.

“This is paradise,” Professor Ioannidis said about the seminary grounds. “Hell is out there,” he continued, gesturing to the slum on the other side of the gates. For many young Kenyans, finding employment much less getting an education seems more the stuff of dreams than reality. Deprived of many of life’s basics, these young people have to fight to survive from one day to the next. With few other options, many of them turn to lives of crime.

“A gun is the best way to get rich quick in Kenya,” said first-year seminarian Isaac Muiruri, who grew up in Riruta Satellite, the district in which the school is located.

Many consider Riruta Satellite among the most dangerous neighborhoods in Kenya. More than a few seminarians and priests have been robbed just outside the campus gates. To protect the community at the seminary, the campus has been tightly sealed, and heavily armed guards stand watch at the gates around the clock.

Seminarian Philip Chasia knows the neighborhood’s dangers first hand. “I have been robbed several times – not once, but several times.

“They come in with a gun looking for money, a mobile phone, anything. They come even in the daytime. The police station is just here, not far, but it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“To survive, you have to do something. You just have to find a solution,” explained Charles Otieno.

“You hear the news. So many people here in Kenya are dying. They do not have enough food to eat. Cattle do not have grass to eat. The government is not going to provide for you. It’s just a matter of survival.”

But iron gates and armed guards do little to prevent these real-world pressures from seeping into seminary life. Students at the Patriarchal School have differing goals. Some want to complete their studies and become priests. Others wish to continue their education abroad and return to teach.

“And some are just here for leisure,” Mr. Chasia said frankly. “To come here, eat for three years, get an allowance of 3,000 shillings [about $44] a month, and, if assigned to the outside, some bus fare. And life continues.”

All seminarians receive a stipend during the nine months of the year they are enrolled in classes. The sum is paltry, especially for the married seminarians who must support wives and children in addition to themselves. (Orthodoxy permits married priests on the condition they marry prior to ordination.) Because the school does not offer seminarians any part-time job opportunities – something many would like to see changed – the stipend serves as the only source of income for most of them during the academic year.

The administration “should try and find a way to assist married seminarians, or they should just take single men,” suggested Mr. Chasia, who pays 2,000 shillings (about $29) a month in rent for the thin, metal house he shares with his wife. Utilities are extra.

“Because once you have a wife or child at home, you are the one who has to do everything for your family. My wife just finished high school. To work, she needs more education or a profession, which we can’t afford. Why does my wife have to suffer?” Mr. Otieno agreed. “So even though I’m going to be a priest,” he added. “I am still going to do whatever I was doing – fish and grow crops – to survive and make my life and my home happy.”

Despite these hardships, the archbishop’s words continued to hit high notes. “Again, I repeat, this is the great miracle for me. They know what they’re doing and they don’t do it because we pay them a lot. We don’t. You understand? It’s because they love what they are doing. They believe in the fruits. They are doing it with all their hearts and minds.”

“We are one, united Orthodox Church. Perhaps one day, Orthodoxy will be the church of Kenya,” he mused. “If we continue in this way and we are serious about what we are doing, perhaps one day.”

The archbishop glanced over at the thick stack of applications anchored at the corner of his desk. He reached out and picked them up – about 80 in all. Proud of their bulk and heft, he flattened their edges and put them into some semblance of order. Then suddenly, a look of tempered enthusiasm washed over his face. “Fifteen to 20 is enough,” he said decisively.

In years to come Orthodoxy may achieve the archbishop’s dream. But for the moment, Nairobi’s Orthodox Patriarchal Ecclesiastical School will have to proceed forming the next generation of Africa’s Orthodox priests at a cautious pace.

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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