Winter 2003
Volume 7 Number 2

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by Erika Marksbury

“It’s so hard to know what’s just a different way of living, and what really is injustice,” a friend said when we lucky six whom PTS’s Field Education Office had sent far away for the summer shared our stories. Though she worked in Ghana and I in Kenya, my friend’s words reflected my own continuing struggle.

Photo by Erika MarksburyAs she elaborated, my mind traveled the few months and thousands of miles back to the first mukalala (mountain) fellowship I attended as a Machakos Town Baptist Church intern. Hiking up the mountain that rises to overlook Machakos Town, past coffee plants and guava trees, chicken coops and grandfathers’ graves, we came to a concrete structure where a few mamas of the church had gathered. We faced a roofless row of rooms with four openings along the front, where tattered cloths hung as doors, hiding the cracks in the floors and the fact that each room was an entire family’s dwelling. Dirty-cheeked children peered from behind the cloths, then stepped out barefooted to join their mamas in greeting us. The women sat on the ground, kids climbing into their laps, and waited.

I had prepared a message about Jesus healing the woman who bled for twelve years. I had thought, having seen only a little of their lives, that these women might sympathize with the painful struggle that leaves a woman almost hopeless. But up on the mountain, I began to worry that maybe the text was too real.

Maybe they would understand too well. And maybe I, a privileged girl who has never been sick, not really, shouldn’t be preaching it to Kenyan women without roofs or soap. Because it cannot be said of these women that their faith isn’t enough to heal them, however you interpret that statement by Jesus in the story. Each Sunday morning, lacking coins to drop in the offering basket, they bring forward beans, oranges, squash, whatever their garden yielded that week. They pray continually and rejoice always. If there’s faith strong enough to heal, it lives in these women. But they’re still sick….

I preached that text anyway. I didn’t know what else to do.

Opening my eyes with the closing prayer’s “Amen,” I was surprised to see the group had grown by maybe 10 children. They slipped in while our heads were bowed and were grinning guiltily. Children sneaking into church intrigued me. I wondered what had brought them, and if their lives were as sad as the others gathered there. And then I saw Seth.

She took my hand, walked with me a few steps, and pointed through a clearing to a place a little farther up, saying, “I live there, on this mountain.”

Seth is only 10. She snuck in at the end of the gathering. She couldn’t have known what I’d been thinking. But just by appearing at that moment, she undermined my assumptions about life, and those who live, on that mountain. Seth is smart (tested fourth citywide for her grade level, she told us proudly), healthy (with sparkling teeth and strength to outrun all her peers), and happy, the very qualities I had assumed were missing from the lives of those on the mountain.

As I turned back to the gathering, I tried to see it afresh—the dirt a sign of play, the one-room houses a way for families to stay close, the lack a freedom from which generosity flowed. I realized the children snuck in because this is their community, where they want to learn about God’s love for them. And I was ashamed.

I had decided, before I heard the pastor translate their prayer requests—“she asks to be healed of malaria”; “she asks God to rescue her husband from alcoholism”; “she asks for just a little food”—that these women and children were sick. I had made that decision the moment I stepped into their space and saw that their lives were not as convenient or clean or carefree as mine. I had named that difference injustice. And I had pitied them for it. Perhaps worst of all, I had mistaken my own pity for sensitivity, for awareness. Seth helped me to see that it was not only the difference between those lives and mine that was unjust, but also my analysis of that difference.

Of course, there is plenty in the lives of many Kenyans that is horribly unjust—the fact that the woman with malaria won’t receive healthcare, for example, or that families live without roofs while their leaders dwell in castles. But my pity doesn’t do them any good.

Seth asked me that night, sweeping her arm to indicate the whole of the mountain, “Is it like this in your place?” I told her no, not knowing exactly what she meant but betting my answer was pretty safe. My place, my life, is not like hers. Since returning, though, when I remember the dirt and the fruit and vegetable offerings, I wonder if, at least in my own little place, I could help to bring about justice by a different way of living, more like life on that mountain.

© Copyright 2004 Princeton Theological Seminary
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