Word-centered ministry to women is mighty. That’s the main message that impressed and bolstered my heart on a recent trip with a group of Covenant College students to Nairobi, Kenya. Other messages leapt out at my husband and me and the young men and women with whom we worked in the Kibera slum, alongside MTW church planters Pastor Imbumi Makuku and his wife Martha: We Americans are way too comfortable … The world is so huge and so needy … The world’s children are open and ready for gospel love. But one message in particular stood out to me.
On the first day of entering Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, one can hardly take in the layers of impressions—of flowing waste and garbage in the streets; of countless children reaching out hands, grinning, shouting “How ah yoo?”; of caked mud and jagged sheets of metal stuck up everywhere to serve as walls or roofs; of women washing and scrubbing clothes in their wash pans by their doorways; of goats and dogs casually lying and wandering among it all. After several days, we became more used to picking our way, often single-file and holding hands to help keep our footing, through a maze of narrow, hut-lined streets toward our daily destination: Kibera Reformed Presbyterian Church.
This church is not a traditional building but rather a haven of space tucked away inside Kibera—and it serves as church, school, and ministry center. Here, gospel people are not only sweeping clean the passageways and meeting rooms, but they are also shining gospel love and cleansing into many hearts. Our students worked with the children day after day—playing and singing with them, teaching in the various classrooms, helping prepare and serve nutritious lunches from scratch, planning and leading a Saturday morning Bible club for a couple hundred children. In raising up these hundreds of children to know and serve God, the message of hope was clear.
But the message of hope through ministry to the women of Kibera was most astounding to me. In this slum, the women are the fixed points. The children are the moving parts, and the men seem to be the removable parts, in and out—of the area, of jobs, of consecutive or simultaneous sexual relationships. But most of the women are stuck—trying to hold on to a relationship, trying to care for children, trying to make a home among the dirt and disease and darkness of huts without electricity or running water.
It’s at this point that this discussion could go two ways. These two ways represent two biblical responses to human suffering, and perhaps even two approaches to ministry. The first response, which I’ve encountered often through various media and through personal experience, is the response of emotion. How can one deal with such pain—even that of witnessing and processing these women’s lives, much less actually living them—except by deep grieving and weeping? Who weeps with these women of Kibera? Who journeys with them into the stories of their sufferings, their receiving of wrongs, their feelings as they curl up with their children to sleep? At the end of my first day’s visit to Kibera, I returned to the room where we were staying and wept for a long time.
The second response is that of offering the Word of God. On our second day in Kibera, my husband, Niel, and I were privileged to accompany two Kenyan church staff women and an assistant pastor on house visits. Nancy, whose title is simply “evangelist,” oversees the spiritual health of the women visited. Mary, a health worker, oversees medical needs—although they both would tell you they work as a unit. Wycliffe, a young Kenyan relatively new to the pastoral staff, seems both a guardian for and an apprentice to the two women as they visit. Niel and I wind our way through narrow passageways behind the others, marveling at how easily they maneuver both the muddy bumps and pools on ground level and the metal roof coverings slanting down to eye level, all the while greeting and conversing cheerfully with those they pass.
We stop at a cloth-covered doorway, file in, and crowd a little room. Peering through the dark, as we all fill the one couch and several chairs, we see we’re welcomed by a young mother with her young children—five of them, we learn. Nancy introduces us and tells a bit about this woman they call “Mama Mary,” who has become a Christian and a faithful part of the church, who needs prayer for her children and for her husband, who lacks a steady job. Nancy then asks Niel and me to encourage this woman by teaching from the Scriptures—“substantively,” she says—so that the visit will be worthwhile. Nancy is not fooling around. I speak from Genesis about the story of Leah, and Niel speaks from Mark about Jesus’ power over sickness and ultimately over sin. Nancy not only translates but, we can tell, spends some time driving our comments home. She speaks quietly and lovingly but with firmness and authority, and Mama Mary listens. Health worker Mary inquires about the well-being of the children. We pray, and Wycliffe prays. There is a peace in this house. It is the peace of the Word brought home to needy hearts – including ours.
We visit two other dark, one-room homes that morning and spend time teaching the Word and praying, while little faces of children blend with and smile out of the shadows. The second mother, Eveline, has a year-old child with a badly burned foot; Mary has given them some saline solution and medication, and she reiterates the need to keep cleansing and treating the angry-looking wounds. Finally, we visit Abigail, 17, who delivered her first of two children at 14, and who is not—at least now—a Christian. For her we each choose and present verses that clearly present the way of salvation through faith in Christ, and Nancy then explains to this woman and then to us in English that she has made clear the two eternal destinations of heaven and hell, according to the Scriptures. Abigail listens carefully and respectfully, although she seems uncertain and not ready to commit herself. We pray before leaving.
Not Weeping, but the Word
There is no weeping in any of these houses, although there is certainly warrant for it. Returning to Mary’s and Nancy’s church “office,” we have the opportunity to talk over the visits of the morning, and, even more, the whole philosophy of their ministry. “Do we feel like weeping?” they say. “Of course.” In fact, they tell us that they are not routinely able to visit more than three homes in one day, because the devastation of poverty and disease and broken families is too overwhelming. They also want to be able to remember well the details of the visits, in order to pray. They weep later—when they go home, they say. The point is, according to Mary and Nancy, that what these women need is not first of all someone to weep with them, but rather first and foremost someone to show them how to be strong—not strong as in “grit your teeth and buck up,” but strong as in “strong in the Lord.”
Mary and Nancy both have found strength in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures, and that, they say, is what they have to share. The women to whom they minister do not have the time or luxury to focus on their sufferings and their feelings; they are simply trying to survive. What’s interesting, we learn, is that depression and suicide are almost unheard of in Kibera. Introspection and self-analysis have not taken over, as in so many parts of America. Perhaps the urgency of outward need opens avenues for the gospel message to come in. Perhaps the over-fulfillment of Americans’ outward need has closed off those avenues and turned us inward, into unfruitful interior journeys and self-consumed, self-consuming darkness. That is a denser darkness than the darkness of an unlit hut.
In the days that followed, our group members observed Nancy and Mary offering the power of the Word in multiple contexts. We gathered with their AIDS support group, an assembly of about 30 HIV-positive women and assorted children wiggling at breasts and on laps and across the concrete floor of the church sanctuary, well-lit by multiple high windows with shutters open to the sky. Many testimonies came mixed together— those who had learned to accept the need for medication and to take it faithfully, stories of babies who had been saved, and the tales of those (sometimes the same women, sometimes not) who had found salvation and hope in Jesus Christ. These women were hungry for teaching, and they listened eagerly to our students’ sharing of the Word.
Finding Strength in the Scriptures
It was Mary who led this group, taking time to ask personally about many of the women. Less prophetic-seeming than Nancy, more soft-spoken but just as firm, this tall and slender, fortyish, beautiful but not well-looking health worker has the right to speak to this gathering: She is HIV-positive herself, with her own hard story of struggle. She shared that morning that she was just beginning the very course of medication she had been encouraging in a number of the women whose disease was advanced—medication with often difficult side effects. Mary shared this calmly and with continual reference to the strength found in the Lord and in His Word—clearly seizing the opportunity to model for them how it is possible to find hope in God and light for a dark path. We witnessed a remarkable gospel ministry that day.
The women’s Bible study group met on another morning. Twenty minutes into the enthusiastic singing and clapping which began every meeting, another 30 women had gathered in another circle of sanctuary benches, engulfed by little children as always. Several first-time visitors were introduced. As testimonies were offered, one woman stood up and told how she had been learning at Bible study about cleanliness, and how she shared that news with her neighbor who had been regularly dumping a pot of urine all over the ground in front of their doors. Now, however, the pot was getting dumped in the canal which had been dug to carry it away.
Another woman stood up and told about “what a dirty woman she had been, in every way”—including living with a man who was not her husband. Nancy explained that they had studied the Scriptures together to learn God’s teaching about marriage, and this woman had decided to follow that teaching and was giving testimony to her joy in obeying God and finding her life being made clean in all sorts of ways. After all the music, testimonies, and student sharing, the women still, amazingly, asked me to speak “exhaustively” —and I had the privilege of teaching one of the most responsive Bible study groups I have ever led. They listened to the Word like it was the best food they had ever tasted.
We looked together at Nehemiah 8, a chapter all about God’s people coming together around His Word. In that chapter, there is weeping, yes, as a result of reading the Book of the Law. And then Nehemiah says to his people: “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep. … Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” I not only taught that chapter; I got to glimpse it being lived out by God’s people in Kibera.
The ministry we witnessed and briefly shared in Nairobi, in Pastor Makuku’s church, was strong, Word-centered ministry. The Word is primary, because through the Word, by the power of the Spirit, comes the gospel—all the good news of cleansing which the inhabitants of Kibera (and the inhabitants of the whole earth) so desperately need. The emotion comes, indeed—not first, but it comes: One can feel it through the music, through the prayers, and in the faces of so many of the people. Among the Christians there, the emotion is yearning, yes … struggle, yes … but, overwhelmingly, it is joy. The light of the gospel is bringing joy to Kibera. The women there are giving powerful testimony to that gospel and that joy. How much we can learn from their testimony! How mighty is the Word of God!
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Kathleen Nielson is a graduate of Wheaton College, and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in literature from Vanderbilt University. She has taught in the English departments at Vanderbilt, Bethel College, and Wheaton College, has authored various Bible studies, articles, and poems, and speaks extensively at women’s conferences and retreats. Kathleen is married to Dr. Niel Nielson, president of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and they have three sons.