This year’s OCMC Mission Team to the Turkana region of Kenya were blessed to witness the baptism of 119 newly-illumined.
Turkana. To me this word evokes memories of stifling heat, colorful clothes, joyous song, and vibrant dancing. This was the second trip for my wife and me to these beautiful people, located in the far northwestern desert of Kenya. Some of the Turkana people are considered an unreached people group which means that they have not heard the name of Jesus Christ, or don't know enough about Him to become Christian. It has been a joy and an honor to minister in Turkana and we hope to return there in the future.
After a Team orientation in Boston and long hours traveling, we arrived in Lodwar, the largest city in Turkana-land. We made an additional four-hour drive through the arid desert to reach Loupwala, where our first catechitical seminar was held. As we began that last leg, we realized that we had the same Land Cruiser our Team had last year. Because of years of use on the bumpy rutted roads of the region, the 4X4 no longer worked. Not to our surprise, we soon were stuck in the soft sand. After thirty minutes of pushing and the help of another car (with a working 4X4) we were on our way again. Then darkness fell. The narrow road was at times lined by thorn trees and because of the heat all the windows were open and thorn branches would whack those sitting near the windows. After another two hours of constant vigilance from the approaching thorn bushes, and getting stuck in the sand several more times, we finally arrived at the compound of the Orthodox priest serving Loupwala, Fr. Zachariah. We set up our tents in the dark, and fell asleep.
The next day we woke up, purified water from the new bore hole built by OCMC, and walked to where people had gathered under the shade of an acacia tree. We began celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the same sacred sacrament that millions of Orthodox celebrate every Sunday across the world. As similar as the service was, it was also different. The scorching sun; the different sounds of the Turkana language; the smells of a desert; the sand blowing with the wind; the rhythmic dancing of the congregation. Yet for all the differences, the experience melded together with the familiar; the same petitions; the same readings from the Gospel and Epistle; the same Body and Blood of Christ.
Fr. Vladamir, another priest living in the region, had told us that after the Liturgy we would baptize around 20 people. We walked down to the dry riverbed to look for a pool of water although it had not rained for almost a year and the river had been dry for many months. The entire community walked as a mass of people in a giant procession towards the river. This is how early Christians must have felt. Walking together, sharing in each other’s joy. Eventually we found a pool of water and started the baptisms. 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 10 – 15 - 25 – 50 – 100 – 119! An entire community was baptized. Not 20 people, but 119! After finishing the baptisms, we slowly walked back; hot, dehydrated, hungry, tired and overjoyed. Once back at Fr. Zachariah’s compound we collapsed on the woven mats and drank as much water as we wanted. What a difference the newly constructed bore hole made from last year’s Team when we rationed our water.
The next day we were supposed to go to Nacabosan, an hour’s walk from our base in Loupwala, an area we had been invited to bring the Christian message. The priests of the area told us that there had been a falling out between the two villages, yet after much discussion we decided to go anyway. Nacabosan is also an hour’s walk from the nearest dirt road and deep in one of the most remote regions of Kenya. A little nervous about how we would be received, we walked through the already hot sun to Nacabosan. Once there we were greeted by Salale, the shaman of the village. We were shown a place they had built just for us to stay if we wanted to stay overnight and their village school, located under an acacia tree. Under the acacia tree we performed skits of Bible stories and then broke up into small groups for catechism lessons. Later the members of our team and the young adults from the village stood in a circle and took turns teaching each other the simplest songs we could remember. It was a beautiful experience of unity trying to pronounce the foreign sounds of the Turkana language, trying to teach our difficult language, and finally dancing together. We gave Salale a solar powered MP3 player with the Bible loaded in the Turkana language. Finally, before we left one of the Elders of the village led the entire village in a prayer. He thanked us for the lessons we brought about God and prayed for reconciliation with the village of Loupwala. Having finished our lessons and saying our goodbyes, we started back towards Loupwala. Forty minutes later we arrived at the dry river bed we had crossed that morning. The river had started flowing! As we crossed the river and felt the air rushing out of the newly wet sand we thought how beautiful it was to witness this blessing of God on the two villages.
While many other beautiful events occurred on this trip I would like to leave you with this thought. Thanks to your prayers and support the Church in Africa is growing. We heard stories of miracles on our trip. We saw a people embracing Christ. We saw a river flow in a drought stricken region. Going on a mission trip is a life-changing experience. As much good as you can bring to those you go to serve, you get more in return.