Finding God in Hard Places

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(On May 31st a team from Neighborhood Ministries – six younger, seven older – traveled to Nairobi Kenya. As part of the Emerging Leaders Initiative, urban youth experienced life in a culture very different from their own.

Can God be found in hard places? What we discovered changed our lives …)

One afternoon, while the team worked at the farm, Gloria (a team member) and I had the opportunity to sit in on a masters-level class for pastors serving Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums.

Teaching older students requires a measure of disorientation: pushing people out of comfort zones in order to grasp new ideas. I’ve experienced this in my doctoral studies. That afternoon my disorientation centered around the perplexing incongruity of poverty and joy.

The church that hosted the class was called “The Inspiration Center.” The name evokes a certain expectation. Yet there was little that was inspirational about the barren upstairs meeting room overlooking the Mathare slum.

Windows were left open allowing cool air to drift through the room. But Chris, our instructor, had to use a microphone. It was difficult hearing him over the sounds of a children’s choir singing! They sang for over an hour; some songs I recognized as hymns. It was truly beautiful.

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Later we walked into Mathare to a place where a man had been killed and his shack destroyed during the recent tribal uprising. At first, I was uncomfortable, wondering how people would view this mixed group coming into their community. Then as part of the service one of the residents, a friend of the slain man, addressed us.

His demeanor was calm, dignified. He expressed gratitude to God for our presence there. His trust in God was striking.

Singing in slums; dignity amidst death; poverty and joy … Growing up poor in American was hard, but the contrasts here were staggering! “What is going on here; how do I make sense of all this?” I asked myself.

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As we walked back to the Center one of the pastors joined me. He shared a perspective I’ll never forget. “There’s life here!” he exclaimed. He pointed to the children in their brightly colored school uniforms. He talked about the residents paying $10.00 a month rent who purchase and rent adjacent shacks for income (enterprise!). He talked about people going to and from work, and the Christians who had moved into Mathare to live there and serve. And he declared repeatedly: “There’s LIFE here!”

Is God in hard places?

Years ago, a church elder looked at Five Points, assessed the challenges and declared, “God is not here.”

He was wrong. A closer look revealed something different: God was indeed at work, changing lives, offering hope. The same is true in places like Mathare, Dagoretti and Tumaini.

There are “remainers” like Michael (ministry leaders in Dagoretti) whose lives are changed and in turn become change-agents for the Lord in their community. There are “returners” like Eunice, who after years in the States returned to her native Nairobi to create the Tumaini Children’s Home. And there are relocators, people whom God burdens to go and dwell among those in need.

How does one respond to poverty? My answer is that we see it for what it is, but then look for God. Chris challenged us: “When you go into Mathare look for God. And when you find him, celebrate.”

Celebrate? Yes, and more! We can respond by supporting those who serve in hard places. We can pray and give. If God so moves, we can become a relocator and go. At the very least we can share in God’s greater Kingdom work by responding to needs in our own communities, meeting them in Christ’s name.

For now, we’re doing the latter. The Emerging Leaders now have friends serving and growing in hard places. They too want it known that in their Denver neighborhood “There’s life here!” I believe our community will be the better for it.

Ted (reprint; first published in Kingdom in the Streets, July 2008)

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