On Dec. 6, 1942, Ogwada Okach and Nikanor Dhaje, two Kenyan teenagers enrolled in the Mennonite mission school in Shirati, Tanzania, began preaching in the market in Nyarombo, a town in southwestern Kenya just across the border from Tanzania.
Several days earlier, the boys had attended a revival service at the school led by William Nagenda, an Anglican from Uganda.
The powerful movement of the Holy Spirit unleashed at those meetings led many students—including Okach and Dhaje—to publicly repent of their sins, and it sparked in them a deep desire to share the gospel in their homeland.
The impromptu sermon they preached that afternoon in Nyarombo was greeted with a beating.
But 10 days later, Okach and Dhaje returned and preached again, this time at night in the home of Rebecca Kizinza Okendo. That gathering resulted in numerous conversions and a commitment by Okendo and several others to construct a church. Though no one present could have imagined it at the time, the humble gathering in Nyarombo marked the birth of the Mennonite Church in Kenya, a group that has now grown to include some 35,000 members.
Last month, some 70 years later, representatives of the Kenyan Mennonite Church (KMC) gathered to celebrate the publication of Forward in Faith: A History of the Kenya Mennonite Church, 1942-2012, the first extensive narrative of the Mennonite church in Kenya.
Although the small gathering did not generate much attention, it marked a significant moment in the history of the Mennonite church in East Africa and in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship.
One crucial element in the KMC story, typical of many younger churches in Mennonite World Conference, is that it emerged as an indigenous mission effort. To be sure, Okach and Dhaje had been shaped by their experience among Mennonite missionaries, and personnel from the Tanzania Mennonite Church,
Eastern Mennonite Missions and Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference played a crucial role in nurturing the KMC in the decades that followed. But the roots of the KMC were the Pentecostal impulses of the East African Revival; and the church’s leading evangelists, its theological character and its internal challenges were greatly shaped by the Kenyan context.
The global church should also pay attention to this book because it does not flinch from stories of conflict.
The first Kenyan Mennonite congregations emerged primarily among the Suba people, then among the Luo. In the decades that followed, the church expanded to include Kikuyu, Luhya, Mijikenda, Nandi, Maasai and other tribes, each bringing its own language, traditions and memories of intertribal grievances.
Adding to the conflicts were disagreements regarding the oversight role of the Tanzanian bishop. Then, in 1977, when the KMC officially formed as an independent body, fresh tensions emerged over leadership within the newly established group.
Throughout all this, however, deeper themes of public repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation—lingering fruits of the East African Revival—miraculously kept the church alive. Though the details differ, this part of the KMC history, told here with refreshing candor, is a story shared by all our groups.
Finally, “Forward in Faith beautifully illustrates how history can shape identity.
The idea for the book project emerged in 2003 at the MWC assembly in Zimbabwe out of a conversation between Kenyan bishop Dominic Opondo and David W. Shenk, a church leader and scholar whose family story was interwoven into the history of the KMC.
Concerned that the church’s earliest leaders were now quite old, the two leaders convened a meeting to launch a collaborative process of research and writing. Led by Francis Ojwang’, nearly a dozen writers began to collect sources, often in the form of oral interviews.
In January 2012, nine Kenyan bishops, pastors and leaders, representing the dioceses of the KMC, gathered with several editors at the Mennonite Guest House in Nairobi to review the emerging manuscript. For three days, they read each section aloud, then discussed whether the story it portrayed was accurate, moving on only after reaching consensus.
The process was not easy.
But the collective effort to remember rightly and the book that resulted continue to shape KMC identity.
“This is the account of the acts of the Holy Spirit in calling forth and forming the Mennonite Church in Kenya,” writes Francis Ojwang’ in the foreword. “Just as ancient Israel and the early church made a high priority of writing their history of the acts of God among them, so also the KMC needed to record [its] journey with Jesus Christ.”
Who is tending to the memory of your congregation or conference? How is the past shaping your identity today?
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review. This appeared in the June issue.