Interview with the Archbishop of Kenya: from herdsman to Primate

by
30 November 2018

The Archbishop of Kenya, Jackson Sapit, spoke to Hattie Williams

Dixon Andiwa

Archbishop Sapit speaks to Hattie Williams at his residence in Nairobi, Kenya

Archbishop Sapit speaks to Hattie Williams at his residence in Nairobi, Kenya

IN A shady forest in Narok County, Kenya, in 1985, a young man is sitting on a log, exhausted from the uphill walk, watching spiders build and rebuild their webs. He has been working with an English missionary to translate and tape-record Bible stories for the Maasai community.

He remembers an essay he had been instructed to write at school, seven years previously, with the heading: “As I sat on a rock, watching a spider rebuilding its spoiled web, I thought of going back to rebuild my spoiled life.”

He is thinking of his own “fragmented” life when he hears the words of Matthew “like a heat” in his head: “Come to me, all of you who are tired of carrying your heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”

The young man falls to his knees and prays for himself the first time: “Lord help me offload these things that have been troubling me, give me a new beginning, a new life.”

A bright light floods through his eyelids, he feels warmth in his blood, and he is born again.

 

THAT young man is now the Archbishop of Kenya, the Most Revd Jackson Ole Sapit.

He recalls: “I began to visualise this man, whose life was so devastated and broken that a spider had reminded him that he needed to be mended: I was reminded of my story. I began to see that something had helped me out of a devastating situation, but I did not know where I was going.”

We are speaking at his residence in central Nairobi, Kenya, about 200 km from where he grew up in a Maasai village. His mother, he tells me, was the seventh of the 11 wives of his father, who died, an old and wealthy man, in 1969, when Archbishop Sapit was just five.

Mother and son were forced from their home with nothing but their small herd of cows, because there was not enough land to split between the family. “I do not remember many things,” he says, “but I know my mother went home to live among her seven brothers in Narok.”

Because of the highland temperatures, nearly all their cattle were killed by fever. His uncles sold the land, and went elsewhere to look for employment.

Jackson Sapit was forced into school in 1973 (the law was enforced by armed gunmen); but his family were poor and could not pay the fees. Later, however, he was sponsored via World Vision, because he did not have a father, a sign of poverty.

He wrote to thank his sponsors every week via a World Vision address, and, to this day, does not know who those individuals were. “They took us to Christian camps, but, at that early age, I did not make sense of what was happening; it was just singing and dancing and going back home. They paid my school fees; I did well in my exams.”

Soon after he left school, aged 18, he and his mother were forced to move again. He convinced the Maasai village from which they had been sent away years earlier to let them occupy a small plot of land. He began buying and selling cows in Nairobi, walking miles on foot to the markets with his stock.

“I built my herd, and, by the time the Church took me, I had 20 cows,” he says. “I abandoned my cattle-trading to become an interpreter for this English missionary.”

Anglican Church in KenyaAnglican Church in Kenya

When he returned home to his mother after his experience in the forest, singing hymns and praising God, she thought him “crazy” and that her stepsons had bewitched him. “It took her time to understand what had happened,” he says.

But his anger and bitterness at his upbringing had melted away. “I thought, can this God really offload everything, my burden, my loads, the anger and bitterness I had with my stepbrothers? Because, as I grew up, being told what had happened, I had great anger, and at one point I had wanted to join the army so that I could face them and shoot them.”

Archbishop Sapit left his past behind, and became a missionary and an evangelist. He planted churches and schools among Maasai communities, before beginning theological training in Nakuru. He began to understand that his previous hardships were God directing him to his calling.

“When I look back at my journey into Christianity, I can see that God was in every situation; because, if he did not remove me from my original home, I would have never have gone to school, I would never have had an opportunity to interact with the Church.”

 

IN THE 30 years since, Archbishop Sapit has conducted an evangelistic ministry of reconciliation in communities and churches across Kenya, and between Christians and other faiths.

“God had a purpose, and what I am asking of him more and more now is: ‘Give me your presence, your ability to fulfil the purpose you intended me to fulfil.’

“Now that I am in the international limelight, I am asking him to make me a vessel of peace and change so that people can find real meaning in their lives.”

Archbishop Sapit is proud of the “enormous” part played by the Anglican Church of Kenya in helping to secure political peace after the turmoil of the 2017 elections (News, 3 November 2017), and in negotiating an end to the 100-day doctors strike in the country in March last year.

“There was a lot of suffering in hospitals. I made a hard pronouncements through the election period, which were seen to be negative, but God turned them into the needed voice that stabilised many things.”

The political instability of the past year has left many wounds in the nation: dozens of people have been killed in clashes between protesters and the police since President Uhuru Kenyatta was re-elected, in August last year.

A legal challenge brought by the Opposition leader, Raila Odinga, was upheld in the Supreme Court of Kenya, which ordered a rerun of the election two months later (News, 8 September). The rerun was boycotted by Mr Odinga, and protests from his supporters prevented polling stations from opening in 25 constituencies. Mr Kenyatta won 98 per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 39 per cent.

“The elections have divided us forcibly as a nation,” Archbishop Sapit says. “Even the Church: you will see regional sentiments, people speaking differently. My key focus now is to build unity in the Church and the nation, trying to heal those differences.”

Earlier this year, President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga were photographed shaking hands, and have since jointly appointed a Building Bridge Initiative task force.

“People were deeply hurt by the sentiments, by the riots; people lost their lives, therefore there are still many communities and lives to rebuild. But we are so grateful that the President and the main opposition leader came to their senses: the need for dialogue, embracing each other, and reaching out.

“God in his own way enabled that to happen, and now we have a little bit of peace.”

Anglican Church in KenyaAnglican Church in Kenya

His part in the peace process has not gone unnoticed in the Muslim population (Islam is second largest religion in the country next to Christianity). Only a few weeks before we meet, one Muslim man had called, asking whether the Archbishop could pray for him in person.

“I thought he was joking,” Archbishop Sapit says, but he allowed him to visit. “As soon as this man came into the office, he knelt, and asked me to pray for him, as a person, ‘that God will accept me, pray for my family, for what I do’.

“I asked, ‘Why are you getting a Christian to pray for you when you are Muslim?,’ and he said, ‘I know God listens to you, to your prayers. I sold two goats to afford to come here.’ We prayed, and I gave him some money to get back home. He said he would go home peaceful.”

Archbishop Sapit’s peace-building mission has crossed borders, too. When we meet, he is due to visit South Sudan to meet the House of Bishops and government leaders. “There is a need for more voices speaking for peace: I just say, ‘God, use me as you will, and make me the instrument you wanted me to be.’”

 

ARCHBISHOP SAPIT cuts an impressive figure, standing at more than six foot tall in an off-white suit over his purple clerical shirt. When I arrive at his home, his youngest granddaughter gets in a high-five before he can reach over to shake my hand, laughing.

He is grateful to be among his large family again, after returning from China a few days previously. He has been astonished, he says, at the growth of the Christian Church there — and, in particular, the demand for Bibles. His enthusiasm overrides his jet lag.

“I was amazed by what I saw. A few years ago, people were smuggling Bibles into China, and now China is printing millions of Bibles for the whole world. They are sold by the churches.

“I worshipped in a church which had a congregation of 4000 people. They call themselves post-denominational; so they don’t talk of Anglicans, Methodists, or Presbyterians, they just pray together. There was a long queue to buy Bibles, and some people had three or four to give to others who cannot confess to be Christian.”

The persecution of Christians is shifting from East to West, he says. He gives the example of employees in the UK who have been “persecuted” by the courts for wearing a cross at work. Meanwhile, in countries like China, where Christians have been persecuted by the State, there is a revival.

God obviously has a sense of humour, he says. “Christianity and principles in the Bible can be under attack by the law in the West, but in eastern countries, the law is opening up. If the Word dies in one part, God has a way of making it live in other parts. We need to have that wider perspective.”

 

THE Anglican Church in Kenya, too, has grown, but without direction or regulation, he says.

“When I go back to my village, almost every young person is a pastor; they have no theological training, so there is a lot of confusion out there. People have turned the Church into a business so that whatever people give on Sundays is for personal benefit, or they use the Bible to manipulate.

“The Church is missing direction: church is not what it used to be.”

His answer has been to foster a “wholesome ministry for a wholesome nation” since he became Archbishop two and half years ago.

“Wholesome evangelism, worship, pastoral care; even in pastoral care we see a lot of gaps, huge gaps, between Christian faith and Christian practice. How do we enhance our pastoral care so that the worship hour in the church is a celebration of a whole week of pastoral care where pastors visit people at home and in work?

“Many people profess to be Christians and have faith in God and Christ, but their actions from Monday to Sunday speak a different language.”

His hope is for Christians to demonstrate love, care for one another and the environment, and a spirit of hard work, so that they are not “enticed” into stealing and other crimes. “Kenya is 80 per cent Christian, but we are leading in corruption; we divide ourselves when political temperatures rise up, and you wonder: where are the Christians living?”

 

HE CANNOT rule out that parts of the Church, too, are corrupt. “The definition of corruption takes many forms: bribery, looting of public resources, nepotism, favouritism. Because of that diverse definition, you cannot rule out corruption in the Church, because the Church is a human institution run by human beings.”

The preaching of “prosperity gospel”, whereby people give money for the promise of “huge miracles”, is a serious issue, he says. “That is a form of corruption, because you are swindling people, deceiving them for your own gain.”

Stories of church leaders’ — and he is speaking now of the other denominations, too — living a rich lifestyle at the expense of poor people, the mismanagement of resources, or churches promoting people in the family, or of one tribe, over others, have also reached his ears.

Anglican Church in KenyaAnglican Church in Kenya

“We are looking at corruption on a bigger scale. . . In the Church, how do we weed out from ourselves things that are not Christian, and which can make our message ineffective, even in guiding the nation?”

He acknowledges that Christian life is a “struggle” of personal will, an inner fight between the things that the Christian wants to do, and ought to do. “There is always that tension in the world, and the Church is not exempt.

“But the Church is doing a great job. Even the political class are acknowledging that we are where we are because the Church stood firm to say no to things that are not right, and to give direction and a voice when it is needed.”

 

AS WELL as rapid growth, Archbishop Sapit is managing a period of transition and generational change: he has consecrated 13 new bishops since he was appointed Archbishop, and, by January, two new dioceses will have been established.

“Having a renewed house, and having been the head of this house for two years, my major concern now is how to build their unity, and get them to be sharpened, focused, and exposed as a new crop of leaders; so that they have a world-view, not just a local view.

“Some people have never gone out of their diocese. I need to open up their minds to the wider Church, the wider issues.”

This means redefining the part played by the local church, he says: transforming it into a community that supports itself. “It must become a convener and sustainer of discussions around human, physical, socio-economic, and spiritual development, where people will gather throughout the week to talk about anything affecting them.

“When you provide people an opportunity to speak, they will resolve the issues, rather than everybody fighting their little problems alone at home.”

This includes offering free medical provisions to the community, Christians and non-Christians — which is where evangelism comes in. “In that set-up, the church will do a Bible study: how to care and to love in the name of Jesus. Hopefully, many people will return to faith, because they will see the practical sense of this faith.”

The Church is also supporting a year-long training programme and loan to help people to plant and harvest their own crops to support their family, a percentage of which is distributed by the church to vulnerable children, orphans, and the elderly.

Archbishop Sapit was running the programme when he was Bishop of Nakuru. “You are empowering people to do things for themselves, not reach for handouts. We teach people to fix their own problems: as the old story goes, rather than giving someone a fish, teach them how to fish.”

His vision for mission began during his parish ministry in the diocese of Nakuru, when he also ran a rural-development programme for Tearfund. In 2002, he was given a scholarship to study a Master’s in social development and sustainable livelihoods at Reading University.

“I could see the totality of the ministry of Jesus in what I was doing.”

 

ARCHBISHOP SAPIT will be returning to the UK to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. He is optimistic about the Lambeth Conference 2020, and will attend, he says, although he is adamant that the conflict over human sexuality should not take over the agenda.

Dixon AndiwaArchbishop Sapit outside his residence in Nairobi, Kenya, last month

He sees GAFCON, of which his Church is a member, as a “movement of renewal” akin to the East African revival, but he does not condone its focus on splitting the Anglican Communion from those members who have changed the marriage canon, or are considering a change, to allow same-sex marriage in church.

“I know we have those sharp divisions,” he says, “but, when I came in [as Archbishop], I said that these differences should not be the crack that divides and completely crushes this Communion, because we have a wide area of mission, and we can still fight our fights internally.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. He is clear on his position, and that of his Church: “When Churches elected to change canon law on marriage, that really affected relationships, particularly for us in the Global South, who very strongly believe that gay sin is a sin, not acceptable, according to the word of God the way we read it. . .

“If a relationship does not meet the three reasons [causes for matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer], then I do not think we can call it a marriage per se: we can call it another relationship, of which I do not know the name.”

Archbishop Sapit attended the GAFCON conference in Jerusalem earlier this year — partly, he says, because his bishops were attending, and he “did not want them to be confused”. “We said, categorically, that we all recognise GAFCON as a movement for renewal, but not a separate structure of the Anglican Communion, a parallel Church.

“I have been saying to GAFCON: if we can make this a movement of renewal, without affecting the structures of the Communion, we have the opportunity to renew ourselves internally, and provide the mission of ministry and evangelism as God has intended rather than cracking and disintegrating.”

Part of his reasoning for not letting this issue split the Communion is that disagreements between church leaders across continents are nothing new. “In the third century, when we had the Councils of Nicaea, the teaching about divine nature, where the creed has come from, were all moments when the Church was so confused about they stand on, believe in, and how to explain it.

“And this is a moment, again, when the Church is searching under attack. It has become a competition in America and other places; so the war has been hyped.”

He has set up a team to look at the “basics” of faith for the Anglican Church of Kenya. “The House of Bishops is agreed that we shall not be defined by Canterbury, the Episcopal Church, or GAFCON. As a Church, our faith in the Bible defines who we are, and we cannot allow ourselves to be used to wage wars that are not our wars.”

 

THE Archbishop is 59, and will retire at 70; so he has many years to fulfil his vision for the Church. He is proud of the respect that he has commanded from the House of Bishops; of his recent decision to conduct Synod debates in houses, first, to avoid “intimidating” members; and of the investment that the Church has made in its operations.

“In ten years, I want to see this Church grow to become completely self-sustaining; for every diocese to be able to engage in mission; a Church that blesses the vulnerable and less fortunate in society; that heals the nation by being proactive, not reactive; that is well-spread, with a lean secretariat at the top.

“Then stability will happen, and influence to shape society.”

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