By Antonina Zielinska
During a trip to foster his relationship with a parish in Brooklyn, a Kenyan bishop said well meaning people from the developed world often end up causing more harm than good when taking part in short-sighted, mission efforts that leave Africans in greater poverty.
Bishop Domic Kimengich, the first African native bishop of the Diocese of Lodwar in Kenya, visited New York as a guest of two sister charitable organizations who have been helping one of his parishes in Turkana.
Turkana, he said, has had the attention of international aid agencies before, when they came to help people suffering from floods, poverty and violence instigated by foreign powers. Agencies set up various projects to help, including an irrigation system.
“And then they left,” the bishop said, during a joint interview with Currents TV correspondent Michelle Powers and The Tablet.
He said the agencies did not teach the locals how to take over the projects for themselves, nor did they teach them the skills needed to use the infrastructure they left behind. The locals were left without a service they had become dependent on.
“Just coming and going will not help,” the bishop said. “It makes the situation worse.”
The only way much needed aid can work is if it is done in a responsible manner, the bishop said, taking account the God-given dignity of every human being.
Everyone needs some type of help at some point. Every child in the world is dependent on others. However, responsible parents and guardians teach their children to be contributing members of society. He said international aid should follow a similar structure, one that has worked in Kenya before.
When the Bishop of Lodwar was a boy, he experienced a mostly missionary Church. Priests and religious came to his country to spread the Good News.
They opened various schools, including one for his tribe, the Tugen a subtribe of Kalenjin, and convinced parents to allow their sons and daughters to get an education. That was how the young Kenyan first came in contact with Christianity.
Reading about the lives of saints and being inspired by their example, he considered joining a religious order.
Then, he met an African priest. This encounter helped him discern his own vocation.
His people were not too happy with his decision to become the first-ever priest from his tribe. He was a strong young man; choosing a life with no possibilities of having children was not looked upon favorably.
However, he said, what the missionaries taught went beyond human knowledge. The Gospel is stronger than the faults of humans, both of the missionaries and the people they serve, and stronger than human knowledge.
“The people are able to sense the truth of Christianity,” he said.
This he felt in his own life. His own father was baptized on the night before he became a priest. On that night, this newly converted Catholic told his son that he may be Domic’s biological father, but the young transitional deacon was now his spiritual father.
Father Kimengich became part of a growing Kenyan Church. The country, that once relied heavily on foreign missionaries, now has a boom in vocations.
Bishop Kimengich said his own seminary training was made possible by a woman in Wisconsin.
As he was considering his vocation, his bishop put him in contact with Mary Agnes McGrail, a woman from the U.S. who wanted to do something good. The two wrote each other and fostered a strong bond. She sponsored him through seminary and beyond, affording the now-bishop an opportunity to become a canon lawyer. McGrail’s actions not only helped form the first native Bishop of Lodwar, but also inspired others to sponsor seminarians.
“She has spread the ripple of hope,” the bishop said.
The international effort to bring God’s Word to the people of Kenya has bore much fruit, Bishop Kimengich said. It was based on true Gospel values and built through lasting relationships. Now Kenya has experienced such a boom in vocations that the African country sends out missionaries of its own, including to the countries that had originally helped them.
Nonetheless, the country is still in need of assistance. Much of its people are still facing extreme poverty and violence. There is great unemployment, especially among the young, and a minority of Islamic extremists are terrorizing the region.
The country has natural resources that could help boost the economy and oil was recently discovered in the area. If those resources were to be used wisely, he said, the country would not need international help.
However, the violence is part of a bigger problem. Kenya, which borders Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and the Indian Ocean has felt the effects of violence and Islamic extremism that originate in bordering countries.
Kenya has refugee camps to help people, mostly from Somalia, who have suffered from violence in their countries. The UN set up camps, providing food and shelter. The Church offers spiritual counsel and support.
But the violence and hatred persists. The bishop said there is not much he can do to protect his people from extremists who are willing to blow themselves up to attack innocent civilians.
The turmoil in the surrounding countries has also introduced more guns into the country, making tribal disputes deadly.
The bishop said cattle rustling is a great problem in the country. Many Kenyans still have a strong us vs. them tribal mentality and have little qualms about stealing livestock.
“If you have animals, you have life,” the bishop explained.
With the spread of the Gospel, Bishop Kimengich said, many people are able to embrace all people as their brothers and sisters in Christ, and encourage others to do the same.
“Only Christ can bring needed change in the hearts of people,” he said. With the evangelization, “their mental horizon has been expanded.”
However, the influx of weaponry is making healing more difficult. He said a recent cattle rustling left 40 people dead in his diocese.
This, he said, is why Kenya needs international help. There is a need to deal with the consequences of an influx of weaponry that came from global powers.
The people of Kenya are strong and refuse to give in to terrorism, the bishop said.
Despite having been forgotten by many, Kenyans in Turkana know they are not alone. The people of St. Boniface Oratory Church in Downtown Brooklyn have stood by them for over a decade.
Father Mark Lane, c.o., who has served as parochial vicar and then pastor of St. Boniface, visited Kenya in 1991 to give a retreat.
Having been so inspired by his visit, he returned there for three months during a sabbatical in 2000. Despite the extreme poverty Father Lane faced in Turkana, he encountered a people who had so much to offer him. He said living among the people of Turkana forced him to give up many of his daily comforts and allowed him to look at his own life and the world in a new light.
The culture of the people in Turkana is much closer to the culture that Jesus lived in. When Jesus spoke of dusting off His feet or of tending to sheep, those are practices the people are very familiar with.
During his sabbatical, Father Lane wrote letters to the people of his parish in Brooklyn who were so captured by his words that they wanted to foster their bond with the Turkana people. In 2002, they went on their service trip to build a school.
Unlike organizations that sent service trips and then lost contact, St. Boniface parishioners continue their relationship.
When the group returned, the parents of two teenagers who were on the trip were so inspired by the change they saw in their children they set up a 501 (c) (3) organization, Friends of Turkana. The organization is able to help Turkana locals with many immediate practical needs such a food and water, as well as invest in their future through training.
St. Boniface Oratory Church also continues to support the Catholic parish in Turkana by providing spiritual support and resources.
It was St. Boniface and Friends of Turkana that Bishop Kimengich was visiting during his trip to the U.S..
“They come to respond to the needs – to do pastoral work,” the bishop said. “With Friends of Turkana there is something personal.”
He said the organization has been a blessing to people who live in an extremely remote area and face great hardships while lacking basic necessities. The help from Brooklyn allows him and the parish the flexibility to worry about the spiritual needs of their people and not constantly worry about simply surviving.
To learn more about Friends of Turkana, visit www.friendsofturkana.org.