The 1989 OCMC Mission Team that traveled to Gachika, Kenya, to build a three-room nursery school.
It was 1988. I sat listening to the priest at a small mission parish in Austin, Texas, talk about mission work taking place in Kenya. The priest's son Dean, who was there also, would be going to Kenya himself. I did not know Dean that well, but everyone that grew up at the Annunciation parish in Houston knew who he was. A university senior, I was attending liturgy not so much as a devout Orthodox Christian, but as a cradle Orthodox whose boyhood priest had called relentlessly on Saturday evenings asking if I would be in church the next morning. After a few years of these calls, Father Nick’s urgings had finally brought me to church on a fairly regular basis. I did not know it, but his timing coincided with the (very) slow process of maturation as my soul started to seek something deeper than college revelry had offered. Words like "faith, hope, and love" or "religion" had little significance to me at that point. But the thought of traveling to a remote village on the other side of the world and helping other people with great needs had certainly piqued my curiosity. Although it was hard to picture myself doing mission work, I was being called. My life was about to change.
A recent architecture graduate living in Queens, New York, Bessie was much more comfortable in her Orthodox skin than me. Having been raised in the Church as a first generation Greek Orthodox American, she attended church throughout her college years at the New York Institute of Technology and already had a much stronger foundation of faith upon which to build. She had previous experience in service to others, a degree in architecture and knowledge of construction, and an active life within the Church. We had little in common. Similarly, though, her priest too had sparked an interest in missions, and she felt the calling to work in Africa. Her parents were far less enthusiastic - recognizing the political unrest, while fearing diseases and also the great distance from home. Yet they reluctantly acquiesced and supported their “little girl” as she prepared to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.
Bessie and I, along with 23 other missionaries, under the guidance of Father Martin and Presbytera Renee Ritsi, spent five weeks during the summer of 1989 in Gachika, Kenya, building a three-room nursery school. No electricity. No running water or plumbing. Certainly no televisions or telephones. Thousands of miles from home with no real access to our friends, families, or jobs. We were up at daybreak, ate a small breakfast, and then went about the day’s work of building from the ground up. There were no power tools or modern equipment of any kind. We chiseled each stone into shape and placed it with mortar mixed by hand. As we reached the higher levels, we would have eight to ten people passing trays of mortar up the chain to the person standing atop our makeshift scaffolding. We got our hands dirty, our faces, and our clothes. We had blisters on our hands and bloody knuckles from lifting and chiseling the stones. We worked all day, every day but Sundays, under the amazing African sky.
As we worked, the team from the States grew close to one another. We also grew close to our Kenyan hosts and villagers who worked with us on the project. We worked alongside our Kenyan brothers as they guided us in their construction process, which was very different than construction in the States. We worked with them, ate with them, prayed with them, and laughed with them. For people in a “poor country” with none of the luxuries we are all accustomed to, the Kenyans were happy, welcoming, and incredibly gracious. The three-room school we built together was a vast improvement for them, but even without it, the children were all so eager to learn. Most of the people we met spoke three languages fluently - Kiswahili, Kikuyu, and remarkably good English. The time we shared with them made us realize how blessed we are. The Kenyans had relatively very little, but they were such good stewards of all God had given to them, and they were very thankful for their blessings.
In addition to the personal relationships among team members and the Kenyans, we also grew in our knowledge and faith in God. We attended services daily at the construction site, and we traveled each Sunday to attend services in different villages. Liturgy was always in the language of the people. It was beautiful to see and hear the same services and sacraments we had known all of our lives being celebrated in different languages and cultures. In one of the churches, they even played drums during the liturgy. Everywhere we went, the people welcomed us with open arms. They had so little, but seemed so rich in their faith in God, hope for the future, and love for us and their fellow men. These words were starting to mean something to me.
The experience we all shared in Kenya would take chapters rather than paragraphs to share. Without question, our team had a positive impact on the village that hosted us, and many, many children have benefited from the school building. I do believe, though, that the greatest accomplishment was the sharing of love between strangers. Strangers from the United States who did not know each other until the summer of 1989, and strangers from different societies, continents, and cultures, bound together by our common Orthodox faith.
That was over twenty years ago, and many of us have responded to various callings since 1989. Our team leader, Dean, served on two mission teams and spent over a year in Africa with OCMC. Since then, Dean has spent the past twenty years providing humanitarian relief all over the world through International Orthodox Christian Charities. We don’t see each other often enough, but I still consider Dean one of my closest friends with a bond that goes back decades and crosses continents. Another team member, Alex, answered the call and took Dean’s place in Kenya, spending a year there leading construction projects. I know Jim and Dimitri (the “Elder”) served on several other OCMC teams. Callie, another Houstonian who now lives in New Orleans, chose to stay behind to help those that lost everything when almost the entire city evacuated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. My cousin, Christine, answered her own calling and served on the OCMC Ghana team in 1989. Since then she has worked tirelessly to serve her parish in Fort Worth for many years. All of the 1989 team members grew tremendously in faith - having witnessed the splendor of God’s creation and the beauty of His Church from an entirely new perspective. OCMC has sent scores of mission teams to communities in thirty-one countries around the world. Its programs have spread God’s word and brought faith, hope, and love to thousands of people.
As for Bessie and me, our lives were certainly changed by the summer in Kenya. Although she would no more have considered marrying a lawyer than I would have considered marrying a New Yorker, God had a different plan. Neither of us could have known that our lives would be forever joined by our decisions to participate in the 1989 mission team. Yet here we are more than twenty years later. We have been blessed with two beautiful children (Costa and Christiana) and have continued our work for the Church, participating for the past 17 years in the growth and development of Saint Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church in Houston. We pray that OCMC and its missionaries will continue spreading God’s word, and that others will respond to the calling and follow their hearts.
For information about OCMC's current short-term mission team opportunities, please visit http://www.ocmc.org/programs/teams_search.aspx?SearchBy=Year.