A few weeks ago I paid a visit to the Fourth Night blog. This is the personal blog of a young journalist named Constantine Markides. Constantine is the son of Kyriacos Markides, author of "Mountain of Silence." and a professor at the University of Maine. Constantine had recently accompanied the Orthodox Archbishop of Kenya to the second largest slum in Africa on the outskirts of Nairobi. Kibera is inhabited by over a million people. The houses have no plumbing and no electricity. There are distinct communities within, typically separated by tribe and/or language.While there he took a number of photographs of the appalling conditions. Seeing these photographs left an indelible impression on me. For many days afterward, I thought about what I had seen and what it meant about the wide gulf between my life and the life led by other human beings on the same planet. The memory of those pictures lingered for awhile and eventually was filed in the recesses of my mind until brought again to the fore last Sunday by the presence of a young Orthodox priest from Kenya. Father Athanasios Akunda.
Father Akunda had come to visit our parish in Maine to share with us his work as a missionary in South Africa. Although there are a number of Greek immigrant communities in that country, the legacy of apartheid precluded any outreach on their part until the last few years. Father Akunda is the vanguard of an effort to establish an indigenous Orthodox Church in South Africa that includes all races. As he celebrated the divine liturgy with us I could only imagine the anxiety he was feeling for family in Kenya whom he had not been able to contact despite repeated attempts. The New Year began in his native Kenya with tragic consequences for many Kenyans as widespread violence erupted in the wake of the contested presidential elections between incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, and challenger Raila Odinga held on on December 27th. Reports coming in from all over Kenya are painting a vivid picture of growing unrest and escalating conflict. According to Reuters, over 300 people have already died in the clashes between rival factions and the police. In Nakuru, the Orthodox church of St. George was destroyed and in other locations the homes of Orthodox priests were burned.
The African Orthodox Church has an interesting and convoluted history. It represents the efforts of Africans to establish an indigenous Church unencumbered by the baggage of the colonial past. A detailed background can be found here. The man most responsible for much of the growth of Orthodoxy in Africa was Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. He first arrived in Kenya in 1957, while in exile, where he spoke to the Kenyan people of freedom and justice during a time when they were still under colonial rule. A friend of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan revolutionary leader, the Archbishop returned in 1971 to a hero's welcome. During his visit he baptized 5000 new Orthodox Christians. On his way back to Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios made the following statement:
“What especially moved me is the fact that in the eastern region of Africa there are thousands of Africans who follow the Orthodox faith. I sincerely believe that Greece can contribute to the Christianizing of hundreds of thousands of Africans and through Orthodoxy, the Greek spirit will shed light through the immense African continent.” He eventually became known for his efforts on behalf of the African people, which included the building of a seminary, as the "Apostle to Africa."
The Kenyan capital city of Nairobi houses the Makarios III Patriarchal Seminary and St. George Orthodox Church lies nearby in the heart of the Kibera slums, which have been a flash point for much of the recent violence. Father Athanasios graduated from the Makarios Seminary six years ago and went on to receive his Masters of Divinity degree at Holy Cross Theological Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts. More impressive than his academic credentials, however, was his deep love for Christ and his steadfast dedication to establishing the Church throughout the world. His story is inspirational on some many levels. Fr. Akunda’s gift for the work of missions was the reason Archbishop Seraphim brought him to South Africa in the 1990s. His efforts, combined with the work that had been done by the St. Nicholas of Japan Mission Society and Dr. Steven Hayes, resulted in Orthodox mission parishes springing up in places like Shoshanguve, Mamelodi, Eldorado Park and Yeoville, among people who were not traditionally Orthodox. Relying solely on public transportation, Fr. Akunda visits these far flung communities regularly. Efforts such as that of Father Akunda are bearing fruit throughout the vast continent of Africa and are supported by the Orthodox Mission Center Support a Mission Priest (SAMP).
Writing for the Cyprus Mail, Constantine Markides has been reporting on Limassol-born Archbishop of Kenya, Makarios Tyllirides, whose efforts over the past three decades have led to a flourishing of Orthodoxy in East Africa and the continuation of the Makarios legacy throughout Kenya. It is Orthodoxy's unique approach to missions is responsible in part to its increasing numbers in Africa:
"In one week this month, he consecrated three churches, one in the Nairobi periphery shantytown of Kangemi, another in the southern hillside community of Karinde, and another in the jungle village of Ivola near Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. But although the ceremonies did not diverge in substance from those performed in Cyprus and Greece, there was an additional dimension to them: the rituals of the tribal community were also included.
The Archbishop does not merely grudgingly allow these tribal traditions. In fact, he insists that they be incorporated into the Orthodox services.
“Actually, we as a church are the ones who are encouraging and keeping alive the culture of these people,” Archbishop Makarios said. “For some of these tribes, this is the first time that written texts [the translated texts of the Orthodox services] are circulating in their dialects. In fact, the services you heard today in Swahili were published in Cyprus.” Archbishop Makarios noted that technological advances and the Kenyan government’s adoption of English as its official pedagogical language had only served to sever the 42 tribes of Kenya from their native dialect.
“We also insist that every tribe demonstrates [in the church] its traditional dances and songs,” the Archbishop said. “That way we maintain the tradition.”
The 62-year-old Archbishop is so supportive of their traditions that he joins in on the dances with them, wearing his bishopric regalia, scepter in hand.
“Many cannot imagine a bishop dancing,” he said. “[They find] it unthinkable in our tradition. But here we do it. It does no harm to anybody.”
The Archbishop has also learned the chants in the language spoken in the particular region, so the liturgies are conducted in both Greek as well as the local dialect.
All of this, along with his commitment to building schools and clinics
in remote regions, has helped to draw in crowds. The churches overflow
during the consecrations, with attendees one moment bowing down and
crossing themselves silently, and the next ululating and clapping their
hands over their heads.
Last Wednesday during the funeral service of a 38-year-old Presbytera who died from post-natal anemia after giving birth to her 11th child, hundreds of Kenyans, possibly even a thousand, gathered from the neighbouring villages to hear him speak.
But despite the innumerable churches constructed under his guidance and the thousands of Kenyans who have joined the Orthodox Church in Kenya. Archbishop Makarios insists that proselytising does not take place.
“We don’t go out knocking on doors to bring people in. We merely say come and see. If they like what we are doing, then they will join us."
MAY THEIR EFFORTS BE BLESSED AND MAY ALL CHRISTIANS FIND IT IN THEIR HEART TO SUPPORT AND PRAY FOR THEM AND THEIR FLOCK.