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Africa 2009 Report (September 2009)

Report written by Jim's UK pastor Rev. Clive Burnard and colleague Ian Burnham
following their visit to his ministry in Kenya,
September 2009

Jim Harries has been serving God in Africa for over 20 years, the last 16 of them in Kenya. A number of folk from ABC have visited over the years, but there hadn't been a visit from an ABC Pastor during that time.

Clive's invitation to be the Key speaker at the Dew of Hermon Conference in Nigeria provided an ideal opportunity to visit Jim at what is an important time in his ministry as he seeks to widen the scope of the work and promote the concept of Vulnerable Mission.

Africa is a huge continent and the various countries within Africa each have a distinct identity and set of issues. Nigeria is in West Africa. Since oil was discovered there some 25 years ago significant wealth has been acquired leading to material progress which has struggled to be matched by infrastructure and has created tensions between different areas of the country and significant crime and corruption problems. Tensions also exist between the Muslim community (mostly in the north of the country) and Christians in the south. West Africa was one of the first areas of the continent to be evangelised and the church is now growing in stature and developing a wholly Christian but distinctively African take on the faith.

[Omitted - report of Clive and Ian's visit to Nigeria.]

After a week in Nigeria we made a 4 hour flight across the continent to East Africa and had a brief overnight stop in Nairobi before a short internal flight to Kisumu, Kenya's third city, close to the banks of Lake Victoria and about 25 miles from Jim's home.

Our experience in Kenya was entirely different. We left a humid, urban setting in Nigeria for the beautiful climate of rural Kenya, just 5 miles from the Equator. Hot sunny mornings, late afternoon rain and cool evenings. Jim met us at Kisumu airport and we had a full day including a visit to a woman who had been a member of Jim's family but was now married with a family of her own and spoke movingly of the faith she had found as well as the foundation for life as part of that family. We also briefly looked in on a fishing village on the lake before meeting two other missionary folk and making the trip to a Christian retreat centre in the Kakamega rain forest to talk, learn and pray through the ministry in which Jim is involved. Really good day walking in the spectacular forest and opportunity to minister encouragement to the folk who were serving God in different ways in Kenya.

The following day we made the trip to Kima where Jim teaches a couple of days each week at the theological college. Brief tour before abandoning the 4x4 and picking up bikes to travel the 8 miles to Jim's home in the village of Ahono. We arrived as folk began arriving for a small-group meeting of worship and sharing and food in his home. The meeting was joined by a family of chicks from the garden during real African worship and praise. As there is no electricity (or running water) at Jim's home, the 3 evenings there were spent singing, eating and in family devotional times with the 11 kids and the amazing Connie - the housekeeper who runs the domestic agenda especially while Jim is away teaching for 2 or 3 nights a week. Friday, Saturday and Sunday followed similar patterns to each other - travelling, mostly by bike to local indigenous churches to experience a variety of worship services as well as visiting the seminaries in two villages which Jim has set up where he teaches theology to local students (many of whom have now become pastors). Everywhere we went we stumbled across current and former students of Jim's theological teaching and were really encouraged at the very positive view they, and the various pastors we met had of the work Jim has been doing.

Our main observations of the visit and of Jim's ministry were:

There is a huge variety of different churches in Kenya (approx 80% of the population attend church). Most are based on Western money and "compete" with one another for funds and attendees. Jim categorises them mainly into 3 groups. The ones that seek to cast out demons and spirits. Those that recognise them and seek to hear from them, and those that ignore them.
There is a very real sense of the fragility of life in Kenya. Serious illness, death and funerals are a normal and regular feature of life. One lady at Jim's meeting at home recorded in a very matter of fact way the death from rabies of her grand-daughter that week.
There is a far greater awareness of the spirit world and the impact of ancestors spirits in the lives of folk - even folk with a solid understanding of the Christian faith.
The content and format of their meetings reflect these two key elements. Folk rejoice and testify that God has spared or healed them (as there is little alternate by way of the medical resources that we, in the west, rely on so heavily). Illness and death are seen as the intervention of bad spirits in folk's lives.

Jim's local ministry has 3 aspects:

Most significant is his teaching at 2 seminaries that he has set up in Yala and Siaya, where he has taught theology to local students over the years. We met many as we travelled, a good number of whom are now pastors of local churches.
Second is the teaching role he has at KIST. This is a mission organisation based at a village called Kima where there is a large girl's school and medical centre. It is run by an American mission and in many ways its ethos runs counter to Jims vision of vulnerable mission, (i.e. working in local languages, with local resources and local people), but there is a deep mutual respect which enables the tensions to be productive and positive. Jim teaches a couple of courses there and is clearly a valued member of the teaching team. He also uses the college as a base to access e-mail and other IT resources.
Third is Jim's family. Jim regards this in the same way that we look at raising our own families and not really as part of ministry. Whilst that is true, at least in part, there is no doubt that Jim (and Connie) have had, and continue to have a major and blessed influence on a large number of young lives over the years and there was plenty of evidence of that.

Over that last couple of years Jim has begun to influence other missionary organisations (particularly in the US and Germany) towards the concept of Vulnerable Mission through his writing and at mission conferences. They are aware that the traditional form of ministry has its limitations and creates an unhealthy dependency culture and simply ends up imposing a church created in the Western image rather than an African one. They also see the long term impact that Jim's ministry is having and are attracted to it. However, it is difficult for them to fully embrace his vision. This is because key components of Jim's ministry are - a life long commitment to the cause, an absolute commitment to local languages (rather than English which again involves Westernising the culture), and a dependence on local funding - all of which run counter to mission organisation's instincts and history and make it difficult for them (and at times, for us also) to evaluate the work he is doing - simply because they, and we struggle to understand the local culture and issues.

There is no doubt in our minds that Jim has a very significant ministry in Kenya where he has earned enormous local goodwill and respect. That has provided a platform from which he is beginning to promote the concept of vulnerable mission through an organisation called Alliance for Vulnerable Mission.

Inevitably there are a number of anomalies in what Jim is doing. Jim himself is a Westerner (although he has spent about half his life in Africa). He is supported by Western churches and has access to international travel and medicine, and he has little choice other than to live two distinct lives. The first of these is the life spent in a hut with a corrugated iron roof with no western facilities, speaking fluently the local languages and travelling by bike, teaching local folk out of their own culture. The second is the inevitable contact with the Western world of academic papers, conferences and the occasional retreat.

Clive and I have gained a far greater understanding and respect for the work Jim is doing as a result of the visit and various earlier discussions Jim has had with Clive. It is not easy for an outsider to understand and evaluate the work because we judge by Western measures and standards. While we were in Kenya we ate a fruit called a Finesse which I had never come across before. There was no doubt it was fruit, and that it was good. There is no doubt in my mind that Jim is producing real (albeit unfamiliar) fruit in Kenya and also has the potential to develop mission thinking in a significant way internationally. I believe it is a fruit well worth investing in.

By Rev. Clive Burnard and Ian Burnham, Andover Baptist Church, UK, following their visit to Kenya, 1st to 7th September 2009.