‘One tribe, one people’

The Unitarian Community Children’s Center in Ruiru, Kenya.

Unitarian Universalism is growing rapidly in Africa, uniting people from many tribes to serve the poor.

Image: The Unitarian Community Children’s Center in Ruiru, Kenya, run by Eliza Nyambura (in pink) serves 80 children. Many have HIV/AIDS. (© Scott Kraft)

© Scott Kraft


The four-wheel-drive Toyota carrying the Rev. Patrick Magara, his wife Alice, and me had left the paved road an hour ago, and now it was winding through the verdant hills of western Kenya, passing town after remote town. As the afternoon sun ducked toward the horizon, casting ever-longer shadows, the vehicle took a right turn and squeezed up an even narrower rutted track flanked by thick, wild shrubbery.

Reaching a plateau, it turned onto an open field and stopped near four dozen people gathered on wood benches beneath an acacia tree. As we approached, we heard voices welcoming us in song.

“Unitarianism is echoing,” the choir director, 18-year-old Esther Biyaki, sang in Kisii, the local language. The congregation responded: “Echoing all over the world.” “Unitarianism is echoing,” she sang again. Came the reply: “Echoing in Kenya, where everyone wants to join.” As the congregants sang, the local pastor, Joseph Nyangau, a rail-thin man of 45, reached out his hand to welcome Magara, who oversees several dozen Unitarian Universalist congregations in this remote part of Kenya.

Nyangau, who farms maize and tomatoes here, has been the pastor in Kiabugesi for four years. In that time he has built his congregation from five people to fifty on an average Sunday. Most are impoverished subsistence farmers. They are drawn together by the spirit of Unitarianism, which they regard as a theological breath of fresh air.

“We stand as a family of love, peace, unity, and justice,” Nyangau said. “We take the Bible literally, but we only believe in one God. Others talk about three Gods, but we talk about one God. And Unitarianism teaches us about that God.” In his sermons, Nyangau takes a passage of scripture and interprets it line by line. “We don’t want to be charismatic,” he explained. “We try to teach them to think for themselves, not to be excited by somebody else.” Added Magara: “We honor the Old Testament writings. We imagine Jesus as our brother, and we are all sons of God.”

I traveled to Kenya in November 2008 on assignment for UU World to report on Unitarian Universalism’s rapid growth in Africa. Ten years ago, the continent counted only a handful of UU congregations—four in South Africa, where Unitarianism was introduced in 1857, and two in Nigeria, where a Unitarian church was founded in 1919. Recently, congregations have emerged in places such as Kampala, Uganda; Bujumbura, Burundi; and Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. But the most spectacular growth has occurred in Kenya, where local leaders say sixty-eight congregations have sprouted in the Kisii province, a six-hour drive west of Nairobi. Several dozen more have emerged in Nairobi and central Kenya.

Christianity is booming in Africa. Its presence here has been nurtured by foreign missionaries, who have assiduously planted congregations as part of a theological imperative to spread the faith. Today, small billboards on Kenya’s roadways advertise the schools and churches of Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics. Unitarian Universalists do not have that tradition of proselytizing mission work, but UU principles have made their way into Africa nonetheless. On a continent where Internet access is growing quickly, people in remote areas are discovering Unitarianism in Google-powered spiritual journeys.

The highlands of Kisii District in western Kenya, where Unitarian Universalism has grown with determined fury, are blessed with heavenly beauty. This is the heart of tea country, and fields of Kenya’s finest export cascade down hills that soar up to 7,000 feet, shimmering like multi-hued green silk carpets. Kisii is home to two million people, 90 percent of whom live far from paved roads. Most are ethnic Kisiis, and although Swahili is the official language of Kenya, most people here speak Kisii in their day-to-day life.

Patrick Magara was born in these hills, the son of a local chief. Until about a decade ago, Magara was the pastor of the Grace Covenant Adventist Church and the spiritual leader of a group of two dozen Seventh-day Adventist churches. He was also general secretary of the East African Christian Alliance, an association of Bible-believing churches of several denominations. In 1999, the Alliance sponsored him as a student at a non-denominational seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied for two years.

During his sojourn in the United States, Magara struck up a friendship with a Unitarian Universalist he met in a grocery store. His new friend told him about Unitarianism, and Magara was intrigued by the description of a church where there was true freedom of worship. Magara was ripe for conversion. “I was questioning things,” he recalled. “I was surprised that even my own church leaders treated Africans like children. And I was finding some weaknesses in my Christian beliefs. The idea that God was in each one of us was appealing.”

When he returned to Kenya, Magara lost touch with his American friend, but he researched Unitarian Universalism on the Internet, using a computer at the local post office. He soon decided to convert and delivered the news first to his colleagues in the Christian Alliance, who were deeply skeptical. “I told them that we have to respect all religions,” he recalled. “The true doctrine is to respect everyone, no matter how they worship God.” Magara then announced his decision to his fellow pastors in southern Kisii and urged them to join him. They did.

He told me there are now sixty-eight UU congregations in this region, with several thousand members. His estimates are impossible to verify, but visits by international UU officials suggest that he has at least several dozen congregations with a total membership of well over 500. In addition, the churches have started preschools, schools, and an orphanage that cater to hundreds of children.

Magara, a slightly built, impish man of 63, still lives in his hometown of Sengera, a village of 1,500 a half-hour’s drive south of the city of Kisii. He and his wife Alice live in a two-bedroom house near the center of Sengera. Although the house is wired for electricity, the Magaras say they cannot afford to be connected. (A computer donated by an American UU sits idle in one of their bedrooms.)

Alice Magara, a strong-willed woman of 45, leads her own UU congregation. She is a driving force in her husband’s efforts to increase UU membership and to create new UU-run businesses to pay for schools, provide aid for widows and orphans, and build new churches.

Patrick Magara took a pre-breakfast stroll around town, dressed, as usual, in a double-breasted suit, a formality favored by Kenyan men of his generation, and his pastoral collar. As he walked, adults and children greeted him cheerily, calling him “Bishop.” A sign advertised the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland’s two Sunday services, run by a Scottish missionary. “They have a colonial mentality,” Magara said. “No African is allowed to lead their services.”

A few blocks from his home, Magara stopped at another house he owns, this one occupied by his other wife, with whom he has seven children. Theresa Magara, 54, lives with their widowed daughter and her five children, all of whom Magara supports. One of his sons by Theresa, Justine, oversees a second group of UU congregations in Kisii District. After a short visit, Theresa asked Magara to lead a prayer, and he obliged. As he left, he gave her a 50-shilling note (about 60 U.S. cents).

Unitarians in Kisii condone multiple marriage, which is part of Kisii culture. That stance sets them apart from other denominations in Kenya, which discourage the practice. Isaac Choti, who runs a Unitarian-sponsored elementary school in a nearby village, has two wives, both of whom are teachers at the school. “I had been a Christian all my life,” Choti said, “but my church had policies I didn’t like. Some churches make it hard for us. They say you can only come with one wife. But Jesus said come as you are. In UU, they welcome everyone.”

In other important ways, Kisii Unitarians embrace a progressive view of the role of women in society. For example, the churches take an activist position against domestic violence, which is a particular problem in Kisii, where women often are saddled with much of the heavy farming work while husbands idle away their days smoking and talking with friends. Female circumcision also remains a common practice. But the Magaras, and most Unitarians here, preach against it.

“The reason I like Unitarianism so much is that it allows us to be free to do our own things, free even to tell the government that they have made a mistake,” Alice Magara said. “As Unitarians, we fight for human rights. We teach against female circumcision, though people still do it secretly because it is a Kisii cultural thing.”

Over the course of two days, the Magaras took me to a dozen of their Kisii congregations, and hundreds of UU members, alerted by cell phone, were waiting for us. Several of the congregations had prepared detailed written proposals requesting donations of hundreds of dollars to pay for new churches, medical clinics, schools, grain mills, and orphanages.

The Kenyan congregations have received some donations in recent years from individuals, the most prominent of whom is Arizona UU Janice Brunson. Brunson has made several trips to Kenya, and has traveled across the United States to talk about UUs in Africa and encourage American UUs to make donations to their brothers and sisters in Kenya.

I visited a field of five-foot stalks of maize grown from seeds Brunson donated. The local UU leaders planned to use the proceeds from that harvest to build ovens for a new brick-making factory then under construction. Church leaders said they would use the proceeds from the brick factory to help pay salaries for teachers at a local UU primary school.

“When I first started, I wasn’t sure what I was even doing,” Brunson said in a phone interview. The economic distress of UU members in Africa was great, but she said it was clear that just pouring money into schools and clinics wasn’t the answer. Eventually, she decided that the best way to help was to support business efforts that would benefit a large group of people.

Brunson’s efforts in Africa have highlighted a difficult question for American Unitarian Universalists: How do you set up a fruitful relationship with UU groups in Africa without making them dependent on a stream of funding from overseas? Many churches in the United States, seeking to win converts, provide direct support to missionaries and pay for schools and other social work. But that kind of charity work is often a one-way street that, development experts say, can create a paternal relationship that makes the recipients dependent on foreign aid.

That’s the reason, according to the Rev. Eric Cherry, director of international resources for the Unitarian Universalist Association, that the UUA has not donated money directly to UU churches in Kenya. Instead, the UUA has been trying to create a mutually beneficial spiritual relationship. “We’re thrilled that people in Kenya think that Unitarian Universalism fits them and that it’s a religion they want to promote,” Cherry said. “But traditional missionary work is not something that the UUA wants to do. We operate more on a partnership model.”

While I was in Kenya in November 2008, a UUA delegation that included Cherry and UUA President William G. Sinkford visited Unitarian Universalists in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria. It was, as Sinkford put it, “an antidote to parochialism.” “We were instructed by the wonderful reality that folks here are creating an African Unitarian Universalism which will be different in many ways from American Unitarian Universalism,” Sinkford said during his stopover in Nairobi. “The essence of Unitarian Universalism is its open-heartedness.”

The journey, Sinkford said, “also has helped me understand that, in a context where poverty is extreme, managing a Unitarian Universalist church that does not address that poverty is simply impossible.”

The collection taken by the congregation in Kiabugesi rarely amounts to more than a few shillings, pennies in U.S. currency. Pastor Nyangau gives that money to the neediest in the congregation.

The Kiabugesi congregation also runs a preschool, with a volunteer member of the church teaching thirty children by candlelight in a one-room hut. The congregation has planted a small field of maize, and it hopes to use the proceeds to complete a medical clinic next to the field. Work on the clinic has been halted for now, and its cinderblock frame was overgrown with tall weeds. Once the clinic is finished, Nyangau said, he hopes to find a doctor willing to make occasional visits.

“There are many people who need a doctor but don’t have the money to go into town,” he said. The nearest clinic is forty miles away in Kisii town.

Not far from Kiabugesi, the members of the Mariba Women’s Group were gathered in the home of its founder, Jane Okenyuri, 35. The women run an orphanage for fourteen children. They recently borrowed $500 to buy two cows. They sell the milk to local residents to pay for the orphanage’s expenses, and they take turns caring for the children.

Okenyuri said the group’s mission is to help the poor, though what she didn’t say is that the group members themselves are living hand to mouth. She said things are looking up, though, because “electricity is coming soon.”

Okenyuri used to belong to another church, but she became interested in Unitarian Universalism “because I felt it was a church with freedom, a church that wasn’t always pounding people.”

“We found that Unitarians defend women very much,” she added. “We have a problem in Kenya and we are determined to change a system where a pregnant woman has to carry sticks on her head, push a wheelbarrow, or work in the field while the men sit around. Unitarianism teaches our husbands that we are equal. Those other churches tell us we must obey.”

Elsewhere in Kisii District, the Magaras run Sarah’s Orphanage, a school with eleven teachers and 620 pupils in a four-room schoolhouse. The children live in the surrounding villages, but the Magaras dream of building a boarding school and hospital.

“There are very many children in government school classes,” said Ibrahim Ontiri, the headmaster of Sarah’s Orphanage. “But they are not raised in the UU faith.” His pupils spend 30 minutes each day talking about Unitarian Universalism, reading the Bible, and singing. Their brick school has a corrugated roof (“When it rains, we just have to stop because it’s too loud,” one teacher explained) and open holes in the walls that function as windows. Teachers tend a field of maize to provide food for the children.

“Mostly, we work without payment,” said Margaret Gekonge, who teaches English and Swahili. “But we do it because we love these children and we pity them.”

A few miles further south, down a road that winds past a swollen, chocolate-colored river and tin roofs twinkling on the hillside like sequins, the UU congregation of Mlimani has started to implement some of its ambitious plans. Started in 2005, the sixty-member congregation operates a nursery school for 160 pupils and an orphanage that houses seventy-five of those children. UUs in Mlimani raise money by running a bee-keeping operation, a carpentry shop, and a dressmaking store. They borrowed money to buy a mill to grind maize into flour. But the mill only makes about $3 a day, barely enough to service the loan.

Pastor Nathan Oriri said his church provides food, clothing, and medical services for the orphans as well as children living with HIV/AIDS. He is seeking about $800 to build a permanent church, hospital, polytechnic school, seminary, and additional dormitories for the orphanage in Mlimani. He also hopes to launch a poultry project.

Oriri attributed the church’s rapid growth in its small community to its civic involvement and the appeal of UU principles. “With Unitarian Universalism, there are no rules,” he said. “It is easier than other churches.”

About 160 miles east of Kisii District, near the capital Nairobi, another cluster of Unitarian Universalist congregations formed independently several years ago. Unlike the mostly poor, ethnically homogeneous groups in Kisii, these congregations represent the broad diversity of Kenya’s tribes and its socioeconomic landscape. A dozen congregations in the Rift Valley are comprised primarily of Samburu and Masai, two tribes of tall cattle-herders known for their colorful print wraparound clothing and ornate beadwork. A dozen other UU groups, including members of various Kenyan tribes, are scattered on the mile-high Equatorial Plateau of central Kenya that stretches from Nairobi north to the summit of Mt. Kenya.

Jackson Longolol, a tall Samburu elder who leads one of the Rift Valley congregations, said Unitarian Universalism has struck a chord with the herders. “Unitarian Universalism helps them feel more civilized,” he said. “In Kenya today, there is a lot of competition among churches, and people want to go where their needs are met.”

Tribal identity is a strong force in Kenya’s political landscape. A disputed election between politicians from Kenya’s two largest tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo, touched off several weeks of tribal fighting in late 2007 and early 2008 that left 800 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Unitarian Universalist leaders in central Kenya, especially in multi-ethnic urban areas like Nairobi, have used UU teachings to stress the need for congregations to welcome all ethnic groups into their membership. Last year, as part of that effort, the two UU organizations in Kenya—Magara’s Unitarian Universalist Council of Kenya (UUCK) in Kisii and the Kenya Unitarian Universalist Council (KUUC) in central Kenya—agreed to work together under the umbrella of the KUUC.

“Our goal is: ‘One day, one tribe, one people,’” said John K. Mbugua, a Kikuyu who is director of UU congregations in central Kenya. Mbugua, a psychological counselor, was a Presbyterian who converted to Unitarian Universalism when a friend described its principle of equality and inclusiveness.

“I had never heard of Unitarian Universalism, but when he told me that it was a faith where everybody was equal in the eyes of God, I was blown away,” he said. “It broke my heart. Even Hindus, Buddhists, traditional faiths. All are equal. Now we are all brought together by faith.”

Mbugua’s wife, Eliza Nyambura, said she stresses that message of inclusion in the congregation of seventy members that she oversees north of Nairobi. “What we tell them is that if you become a UU there is no difference between a Kikuyu, a Masai, or a Luo,” she said. “They are all the same in the eyes of God. That message really resonates with people.”

The social issues that bring many UUs together in the United States take a back seat for most Kenyan UUs. While domestic violence and women’s rights are important to Kenyan UUs, most of them are opposed to abortion and homosexuality. In fact, some Kenyan UU leaders joined a recent protest against abortion in front of Kenya’s Parliament.

“We promote positive practices like unity, peace, love, and the care of others,” said Justine Magara, Patrick Magara’s son and a KUUC director. “But we discourage people from homosexuality, alcohol, rape, and incest. Homosexuality is not all that common in Africa, anyway; it’s something we feel has been introduced by Western influences. But we do have a problem in Kenya with domestic violence.”

A church recently launched by Mark Kiyimba in Kampala, Uganda, however, has an active lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender group—in a country where homosexuality is against the law—and its congregants are mostly middle-class professionals. His congregation runs an orphanage and school for more than 200 children who have HIV/AIDS or who have lost one or both parents to the disease.

About sixty UUs from throughout Kenya came together for a Sunday service in a Comfort Inn in Nairobi in November to welcome the American delegation that included President Sinkford, his wife Maria, Eric Cherry, and Paula Cole Jones of the UUA’s JUUST Change consultancy program. Mbugua, Patrick Magara, and Alice Magara led the service from behind a rectangular table decorated with a yellow cloth with a flaming chalice logo. Alice Magara began the service by lighting a white candle. Patrick Magara preached a sermon in English and Swahili. Delegations from a half-dozen congregations performed songs for the group before the service ended with the Lord’s Prayer.

Ben Macharia, 44, chairman of the KUUC and a former Roman Catholic, described the phenomenal growth of Unitarian Universalism in Kenya and its efforts to reach across tribal and socioeconomic barriers. “We are working together, despite our differences,” he told the UUA delegation. But, he added, UUs in Kenya face a number of financial challenges, and he said he hoped that new relationships with American UUs would help the organization grow.

Addressing the group, Sinkford said: “What I have heard this morning are stories that are so similar to what I hear in the United States—people coming up to me saying that they never thought they’d find a church like this, where people from different ethnic groups and tribal backgrounds and socioeconomic status and religious traditions can come together and worship as one people. Unitarian Universalism is a faith without borders, and I can promise you that this is a relationship that will go on and on and on.”

The road north from Nairobi climbs gently toward Ruiru, a city of 200,000 surrounded by coffee plantations. Well off the paved roads, at the end of a rutted track, Eliza Nyambura operates a preschool sponsored by her UU church. About eighty barefoot children, wearing identical maroon sweaters as their school uniform, gather in one of two rooms for daily lessons in math, language, and UU principles. During recess, they roll old tires around on the dirt yard.

One-fourth of the children, Nyambura said, have HIV/AIDS, and most of the others are the sons or daughters of parents with HIV/AIDS who live in the neighborhood. Some of the children’s parents work as coffee pickers; most of the rest are unemployed.

“We have to feed them every day because this is often their only meal,” Nyambura said. One of the two schoolrooms functions as the kitchen, and the teachers take turns preparing porridge on the dirt floor over a wood fire. The teachers “are like volunteers, mostly, but every few months we have enough to pay them,” she said. The school survives on about $50 a month, which comes from donations, the proceeds from a posho mill, and the collection plate at area UU churches. The central Kenya UU churches also operate a vocational training school for teenagers, where they learn welding and other skills.

The preschool is one of eight overseen by Nyambura’s husband, John Mbugua, and Ben Macharia, the KUUC chairman, who is also a social worker. The schools are part of the Ruiru Children’s Support Program, which the men launched three years ago to help children whose families have been touched by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When the pair converted to Unitarian Universalism two years ago, they made the schools part of the UU mission.

The congregations in central Kenya, unlike those in Kisii and the Rift Valley, include many middle-class professionals, including doctors, nurses, and government workers. But few of them have church buildings. Most meet in a local coffee shop or a member’s home. There’s a real need across Kenya, they say, for Unitarian Universalist material to be translated into the local languages.

“We want to get the message to the people, and material in their language is the strongest entry point,” Macharia said. “But we don’t have the budget to be truly effective and let people know we exist.” Macharia and other Kenyan UU leaders have reached out to international UU groups, hoping to bring more UU leadership training to the country.

Cherry said the UUA is excited by the growth of Unitarian Universalism across Africa, and it envisions even more growth—and more cross-cultural exchanges—in the future. “Unitarian Universalism really does have a saving message that is unique from any other religion in the world,” Cherry said as he sipped tea in downtown Nairobi. “The more interesting question sometimes is why Unitarian Universalism hasn’t grown even more quickly on this continent. Technology, particularly the Internet, is making it harder and harder for our religion to be hidden under a bushel, and that is a great blessing.”

Like other UU leaders here, Ben Macharia thinks Unitarian Universalism is an unstoppable force in Kenya. “There’s been a silent rebellion toward Christianity here,” Macharia said. “People have yearned quietly for a liberal religion, an open-minded religion. Now there is a choice and they feel welcome. That is the conversation. You can feel it. That is the driving force.”

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