Under the mango tree

The parish of St. Joseph’s in Nairobi just celebrated 25 years of existence. A testimony from our mission in Kenya.

Zuliani Ok
The procession of Corpus Christi through the streets of the neighborhood Kahawa Sukari in Nairobi.

The mango tree has a lush canopy, under which people take refuge during thunderstorms or when brick classes are lacking and children have to do lessons. Its beautiful colorful fruits, suspended between heaven and earth, are a symbol of the beautiful season in Kenya.

Our church started under a mango tree when a few Catholics, who wanted a place to pray,  read God’s word and share their experience of faith, began to gather there. They did not wait for someone else to prepare a place for them. They began to seek each other out, and everything that happened after stems from that initial moment. A few somewhat faded photos are a testimony to their perseverance. No one dares to look down on that humble beginning.

After a few years, given the increasing number of Christians, the Cardinal of Nairobi (now Servant of God, Maurice Otunga), granted that a parish be established for them. Fr. Alfonso arrived from Uganda while Fr. Roberto and Fr. Valerio were already in Nairobi. They were the pioneers of the Fraternity of Saint Charles in Africa. It was 1998.

Last September 17th, under a clear sky and inside the “big church” that can accommodate 500 people, our parish celebrated its first 25 years of existence. We called the event “25 years of grace.”. The title expresses our gratitude to God for this great little African story. It was our silver wedding anniversary, a time of celebration and joy for the gifts the Lord has given us.

Living in this mission always feels a bit like being suspended between heaven and earth.

The day was designed to show the face of the parish in all its facets as well as to  remember the past. The church was a constellation of colors, due to the uniforms and dresses of the people who had become part of this history: the children, the youth, the Catholic women and men, the disabled and AIDS patients, the school students and the sisters. But especially the founders, in the front row. Some more aged since the photo under the mango tree, others no longer with us. A sure and certain presence, a symbol and witness to the strength of faith on this continent. African elders have a way of communicating that is inherent in the dignity of their movements, however small, and the depth of their gaze. Not in words. The line of founders was simply there, as it had been in the beginning. As was the line of priests, seminarians and Missionary sisters of the Fraternity who have accompanied and tended to this mission: simply present, to serve God’s people.

During the Mass, presided over by the Bishop of Nairobi, this diverse tide of people sang, prayed and danced before the Lord. All the choirs of the parish were present and-believe me-a choir of 250 Africans has unquestionable firepower! At the end of the celebration, there were the inevitable speeches and organized entertainment, marked by a single underlying note: thanks. To God, to the priests, to the Christians, to the founders, to Fr. Daniele who agreed to come on mission to Kahawa Sukari… But especially to Fr. Alfonso who, that day, was celebrating his 50th year in Africa.

With the people’s words and gestures resonated a sincere affection for this priest who, from the Ugandan savannah to the chaotic streets of Nairobi, has always spent himself for people and for God. At the conclusion of the day (note: Mass had started at 10:30 a.m.), there were gifts for the honorees and (live) goat for the Bishop. And of course, the cake, or rather pies, to feed the 2,000 people who had attended the Mass. Thinking back to the mango tree, these 25 years have indeed borne much fruit in works and people changed by the encounter with the Lord. I would say that living in this mission always feels a bit like being suspended between heaven and earth. Just like the mango tree: standing in the midst of men, sharing their existence, but rooted in God who accomplishes what He has started.

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