A Guided Search: Kenya
At the end of my sophomore year in high school my father, mother and I went to Kenya where I was enrolled in Rift Valley Academy. Since I planned on attending college in the States upon graduation and British schools were reluctant to give full entering credit to American students, it was felt I should go to RVA, a school run by missionaries for mission children. The school was in Kijabe a 12 hour train ride away from Kisumu which was the nearest large town near the center of Friends Africa Mission in Kaimosi. I arrived at school with the sudden realization that not only was I the first Friend to ever attend RVA but that Quakerism was a relatively unknown faith that was assumed to be like the rest of “orthodox Christianity,” i.e. Evangelical Protestant. Although many of the aspects of the religion practiced at RVA were relatively well known to me and in fact seemed quite similar to some of that preached by some Friends pastors I knew, I still felt that somehow there was something different in what I had been taught at home.
I began to read, for the first time really, the writings of Friends, Faith and Practice, and the Bible. I had been led to these sources earlier and had splashed around the surface but had not delved into them. I read the Bible straight through twice in the first year, plus scriptural readings assigned in class, and studied George Fox’s Journal, Barclay’s Apology, and some history of Friends. I came to appreciate early Friends and the Bible, especially John’s Gospel and the prophets, as trustworthy guides that were not to be followed “lock step,” but rather as companions along the way.
One of the distinctive characteristics of my Friends practice was in the area of communion. The worship service at RVA observed communion once a month. I decided early on that I would participate in “silent communion” while the others went forward to receive the cup and bread. I did not make a big deal out of this, but it was obvious and several questions came up among the faculty and students. My participation in “silent communion” seemed to satisfy most people and I generally felt accepted. I didn’t realize how different this was until very late one Sunday night during my senior year when I was awakened by a younger student who came from a strong Lutheran background. As I had learned in class and discussions, communion was very central to some students and they missed celebrating the eucharist every week. The young man who woke me was one of these. In addition, communion had been celebrated that morning and would not be celebrated for another month. He explained to me that he had felt “unworthy” that morning and chose not to participate according to his belief that one needed to be “worthy” to partake in the communion. Now, in the middle of the night after wrestling with his beliefs for quite a while, he felt he needed to have communion, but realized that it would be another month before he could take communion in his tradition. He asked me to explain how I “took communion.” I tried to explain the belief that Christ needed no intermediary and then direct access was available if we would listen and open ourselves to commune with Christ. I don’t know how much this changed his views, if at all, but it did seem to give him some peace that night and he was able to get to sleep.
At the conclusion of my two years at RVA, I had what I consider one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. The seniors traditionally took a “senior trip” and we chose to go to Amboseli National Park for a camping trip of several nights. Just previous to leaving on the trip I had been told that my father, mother and several month old sister would be leaving for the US immediately and that I needed to stay in Kenya until graduation in August, more than a month away. The reason for their departure was the serious nature of my father’s health condition. I also had discovered that my sister and mother were “lucky to be alive. During delivery of my sister, whose conception had been deemed improbable if not impossible, my mother had been very near death and a very quick Caeserean section was performed. My sister had not breathed on her own for nearly forty five minutes and it was only through the skill, commitment and dedication of the mission doctors and the “grace of God” that my mother and sister were alive. On the last night of the trip the seniors “gathered sticks, kindled a fire and left it burning” as we shared some of our feelings, especially about our time at RVA. At that time I felt a strong sense of immanent loss with the knowledge that not only was I “alone” in Kenya, but that I might have been within moments of losing my father, mother and sister. However, as I experienced this possible loss a very clear sense of presence somehow communicated to me that I was not alone and that regardless of my aloneness, Someone would be with me.