The blast of heat that flooded the cabin of the twin engine prop plane that brought our OCMC Mission Team to Lodwar, Kenya in February, 2010 was a shock. Less than 48-hours earlier we began our epic journey to East Africa shivering on the grounds of Holy Cross Seminary waiting for our bags to be loaded into the vans that took us to Logan International airport.
Our team, nine strong, was comprised of two priests, four seminary students, and three laypeople. We had been invited by His Eminence Makarios, Archbishop of Kenya, to proclaim the Gospel and share Christ with the Turkana – the people indigenous to the extreme northwestern region of Kenya.
As we marched across the gravel air strip we were greeted by the beaming smile of Fr. Vladimir Lonyuduk, an Orthodox priest serving in Lodwar. Our Team was blessed to have Fr. Vladimir Aleandro and Matushka Suzanne who led the very first OCMC Mission Team to Lodwar in 2007. These two priests worked closely together for nearly a month in 2007 and had kept in regular contact ever since. The joyful reunion was but a foretaste of the many incredible blessings that this team witnessed over the course of our two week stay in one of the harshest, most inhospitable environments some of us had ever experienced.
The mission of our Team was to teach and evangelize the Turkana of five communities in and around Lodwar. Some of the people we met were Orthodox, but many of them were not even Christian. We had the help of three Turkana Orthodox priests (Fr. Vladimir, Fr. Zachariah, and Fr. Makarios) to help us to understand Turkana culture and to translate the message we had traveled so many miles to share. The partnership our team enjoyed with these priests was vital. Through them we were able to offer a Christian witness in a way that supplemented their own ministries.
The Turkana are primarily nomadic pastoralists. Families rove large swatches of land as they graze their cattle in search of grass and water (one of the rarest commodities in the region). This area of Kenya is ravaged by cyclical drought, which often wreaks havoc on the livestock that lie at the heart of the Turkana culture and economy. These periods of drought often force people to walk, sometimes more than 10 miles per day, simply for water.
Our team was there in the midst of one of these crippling drought cycles, which occur about every eight to ten years. People in the villages where we preached were only able to eat because of regular food distributions from NGOs (non-government organizations) that were working to stave off cataclysmic famine in the area.
In spite of these struggles, we would regularly see hundreds of people at the seminars we held. Fr. Martin Ritsi (OCMC’s Executive Director and our team leader) and Fr. Vladimir Aleandro celebrated the Liturgy and administered the sacraments as often as possible. Because of the extreme remoteness of these villages (over three hours by jeep from Lodwar), those Turkana who are Orthodox only get to partake of the Eucharist when one of their priests is able to hire transport out to their village.
The people looked hungry, thirsty, and tired. There was an unending plea for food and water. In spite of this great need, we were always greeted with song and dance. Knowing that the people who came to attend the seminars had traveled many miles and sacrificed a day’s labor to be with us, we made food available everywhere we went.
The Holy Spirit was overtly present for the entire time we were in Kenya. Rain, which people hadn’t seen in weeks, seemed to follow our team wherever it went. We heard some of the most powerful stories of conversion imaginable. People who had accepted Christ into their lives reported improved relationships with neighbors and relatives and being filled with a sense of hope that carried them through the immense struggles that they faced.
We were blessed with many opportunities to share the Faith. In Lupala, we showed a movie about the life of Jesus that had been translated into Turkana. Bathed in the blue glow of a video that was projected through a laptop computer onto a sheet that was hung from fence made of palm fronds, over 200 people gathered under the stars to receive the message of the Gospel. It was the first time that some of them had ever seen a movie.
The next day, Fr. Zachariah led us on a 45-minute hike across the desert to meet with a man known as an Emuron in a village neighboring Lupala. The Emuron are very important figures in the traditional Turkana belief system, which is centered on the worship of a deity named Akuj. Emuron serve as shaman and prophets for the Turkana. They determine what, and when, sacrifices should be made to Akuj and without permission from an Emuron the people of a village will not gather.
The Emuron had been told to expect us, but it had rained the night before making the trek to the village quite difficult. Our team, along with Fr. Vladimir, Fr. Makarios, and Fr. Zachariah arrived at this man’s village only to find that he had gone to tend his heard assuming that we were not coming on account of the conditions. Someone from the village ran to fetch him. As he approached our group, he shared how amazed he was to see that we had made the long journey to see him. No missionary, apparently, had ever visited his village.
His face was haggard with deep lines hardened by the wind and sand. The clothing he wore was unassuming – no different then the other Turkana we had met. In fact, it would have been difficult to differentiate him from any of the other villagers were it not for the air of authority that preceded him. So we sat, nine white-faced missionaries and three Turkana priests on one side and him (and only him) on the other. The Holy Spirit must have prepared the heart of this man prior to our arrival because after a brief 15-minute conversation, he invited Fr. Zachariah to gather the people of his village to talk with them about Christ. In that very moment our team witnessed what we pray will be the beginning of a new Orthodox community.
OCMC is committed to continuing this vital mission work among the Turkana. We, the Orthodox faithful of North America, have a beautiful opportunity to help Fr. Vladimir, Fr. Makarios, and Fr. Zachariah share Christ’s message of hope and salvation with people who may have never before heard it.
This witness must address both the significant physical and spiritual needs that exist among the Turkana. In 2010, OCMC will begin construction of a well in Lupala, provide financial assistance to a nursery in Lodwar, prepare to construct a new church, and most importantly help Fr. Vladimir, Fr. Makarios, and Fr. Zachariah to reach their fellow Turkana with the Gospel to name a few.
To help raise awareness and support of these efforts OCMC is inviting parishes and organizations across the country to hold mission walks. Participants will have an opportunity to journey in solidarity with our Turkana brothers and sisters who have to travel extreme distances everyday simply for food and water.
Information on OCMC’s 2010 Missions Walk for the Turkana can be found by visiting http://www.ocmc.org/walks. We pray that the people of your parish or organization will be inspired to walk, so the Turkana won’t have to, and so they can be welcomed into our Orthodox family as members of the Body of Christ.