I saw the movie “Out of Africa” some thirty years ago. It starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and was based on a journal by the Danish author Karen Blixen. At its publication, the popular book was supposed to help “demystify” Africa for a European population. I am less interested in the movie and book then in the setting. Blixen’s farm in Kenya was at the base of the hills outside Nairobi. That is where I am sitting at the moment. In fact, this area is called “Karen.”
In my role as Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s, I have been in Kenya for the past week. I came here with a team of professors from the Tobin College of Business to offer a program on Pastoral Planning and Church Management.
We are collaborating with the Center for Leadership and Management (CLM) at Tangaza University College. The CLM promotes the training of women and men to take up the mantle of leadership in society and in the Church. The College itself is the collaborative product of more than 20 religious communities with the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) among them. Walking around the campus, the number of young sisters and priests is wonderfully evident. Clearly, this College is poised to make a difference in the future of the African Church. The Vincentian Family charism is part of that effort.
Many experiences from my time here come be shared in this essay. Let me highlight two. First of all, the youth and energy of the Kenyan Church is evident. One sees it in the religious men and women who serve in the Church as well as in those who participate in its ministries and worship. Here, a typical Sunday liturgy is two hours long! People tell me that if the homily is less than an hour, the congregation presumes that the celebrant did not prepare. I cannot testify to the quality of the homily in terms of content (the preaching was in Swahili), but I will witness to the length. The quality and dynamism of the movement and music in the liturgy is heartening and moves one to deeper participation.
The second element which I would like to highlight is the participation of the Vincentian Family in the service of the poor. I saw the outreach of the parishes to those who are in need as well as the special ministries which the Daughters of Charity offer to the dying, the elderly, those afflicted with HIV, and children with significant physical and mental challenges. Nairobi has the largest urban slum in Africa called Kibera. I visited this area with one of the priests of my Congregation and saw the opportunities for education which the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Vincentians offer to the children of the poor.
My time here has been a blessing and an education. The small service which our SJU team was able to provide for the 120 participants in our program is just another link in their growth in faith and mission. Our gifts as a University are evident and should be shared with generosity and dedication. The lessons of the African Church should be learned with attention and humility. That is the attitude which I bring “out of Africa” with me from this latest experience.