Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Day #9 in Kenya, a Christian Kikuyu Burial

This day begins a cold, rainy, and foggy morning, with heavy mist leaning toward spitting rain. As I step out of our little cottage here at Kenya Baptist Theological College, I ponder the task that has been set before me. Pastor Linus Kirimi, of the Imani (Faith) Baptist Church, and Deputy Principal of KBTC, has requested that I conduct the burial service for a gentleman who died of AIDS this past Friday. The gentleman was a Kikuyu tribesman, husband of at least one wife, and father of several children. One of his wives, Teresia, is a member of Imani Church, though her husband was not a believer. Although reticent about such a daunting task, I recall the now famous words of Dr. Keith Parks to Martha and me, upon our interviewing for global mission service, "The key word in missions is 'flexibility.'" I've conducted many a funeral service, including some cross-culturally, but an African burial service is quite an alien beast.

Our Wayland mission team piles in the vehicle with Pastor Linus and Ministry Director Humphrey, and we head toward the Misiri slum, where we have been working these nine days. We know it like the back of our hands now, having visited the HIV+ clients, the Miracle House orphanage, and those persons who have come to faith in Jesus Christ through the power of God's Spirit, and our witness. Micah, Jessica, and Kelsey have begun to find their mission niches in this place. Kelsey, whose heart is burning to be a nurse, is giving injections to clients in the ghetto. Micah always has his eye on the economics of families and the community, and is struggling with innovative solutions to the demonic cycle of poverty. Jessica told us on Sunday, "Kenya is beginning to hold a special place in my heart." She has a history here, and, I believe she is finding it. (Her grandmother tutored one of the most respected and wisest pastors in Kenya.) The muddy, slippery, and unmanageable roads prevent us from making it all the way to the cemetery, so we are forced to walk the last kilometer on foot.

As we approach the large group of mourners, standing in the now driving rain with umbrellas in hand, we realize the service has begun. The Master of Ceremonies (perhaps similar to a funeral director?) is instructing guests where to stand. Pastor Linus and I approach the coffin, which stands far removed from all present. "The people do not stand too close, because the man was not a believer," the Kenyan tells me. "But you can stand close to it, Dr. Shaw, because you preach to the living, not to the dead."

Obedient to the national's request, I move toward the head of the red-stained wooden coffin, outlined in goldleaf, with a sliding door above the deceased's face. A simple framed photograph stands on the sliding door, with the gentleman's name printed below the picture. The man's widow, Teresia, sits approximately 30 feet away, alone, clothed in black, with a white lace drape.

As soon as Linus and I approach the coffin, a round-faced, rotund woman begins to sing, in the Kikuyu tribal language, a song in pentatonic tones. As she finishes the first phrase, the rest of the mourners respond. The Kikuyu woman continues with a second phrase, and the rain-drenched chorus responds. The lining out continues for several moments. Soon after, Pastor Linus begins the same process, and I notice that several strong voices line out, and then the majority of folks respond.

Following the music, Pastor Linus speaks to me, and asks me to preach.
The sermon I preach, translated by associate pastor Shadrach, is drawn from Jesus' dialogue on the Bethany road with Martha, who had two days prior lost her single brother. "I am the resurrection and the life . . . whoever believes in me, yet he dies, shall he live," Jesus declares. The sermon is for the living, many who believe, and many who do not. I address Teresia (or Mama Susan, according to Kikuyu culture, the mother's identity enveloped in that of her firstborn child), to give her hope for her grief and sorrow. And just as Martha in the New Testament narrative surely found solace in the Jesus' words, I trust this Kikuyu woman finds encouragement in the Gospel story.

Shortly after my homily, Pastor Linus calls for strong men, and these Kenyan pall bearers come forward, with a Kenyan pastor and a muzungu missionary at the head of the coffin. We move toward an open, freshly dug grave. To my astonishment, six men jump into the pit, and the simple coffin is lowered gingerly down, to their waiting hands. I wonder how this pit, dug to fit the casket precisely, will accomodate the box without a jolt to the grave floor. But no sudden thud is heard, and the six men are pulled from the hole, without ever stepping on the wooden box.

"Grab a handful of dirt behind you," Pastor Linus instructs me, and those persons immediately around the pit, including widow Teresia, pick up rich, red Kenyan soil with their right hands. And then as Pastor Linus speaks, each one throws the dirt onto the coffin deep within the hole.

"Get a spade," the instructions continue, "for you are the preacher, and must fill the hole."

So I begin to shovel dirt into the 12 foot pit, in the driving rain, with hundreds of Kenyans watching. I work for several moments, and then many African men join me. The work continues, and as it does, the Kenyan women sing. As I shovel and listen, I ask Shadrach the meaning of the words.

"I am a watchman, waiting for the Savior, listening for the trumpet call . . . one day I will go to glory, to be with my Jesus," the Kikuyu song declares. The song, pitched in Eb major, lined out by strong women's voices, and antiphoned by the remaining hundreds, is in open fifths, in pentatonic scale. After several moments, there is a modulation to F major, and the fervor of the multitude increases. We dig, and we sing, and we stand in the driving rain.

When a mound stands atop the grave, Pastor Linus calls to me, and says, "Take the cross, and place it at the head. Tell them what it means." And so I give witness to the cross of Jesus Christ, explaining the sacrifice of our Lord for all peoples on the earth, the victory over death and sin and the grave, and the witness of the Church here in this place. And then, as instructed, I plunge it deep into the red Kenyan soil in front of me.

I am asked to pray, and the swirl of the novelty and alienness of this experience grab me. The mourning widow . . . my American students . . . the pandemic of AIDS in Kenya . . . the deprivation and poverty of Misiri slum . . . the cross of Jesus Christ . . . the mission of Wayland . . .

God is here, and has always been here. Christ's love for these people, and for all peoples, encircles us all, and we thank the LORD for the community of faith--even in the slums of Kenya. By his stripes we are healed.