Home hit hard that day. I had received three crushing messages from friends in the states – things were crumbling, people were crumbling. The ground beneath my feet in Kenya was crumbling by the weight of their pain. I wanted to snap fingers and let distance fall away with the sound. I found my way to the back of the bus, tears blurring the view as I prayed for restoration and for bravery and maybe slightly selfishly for life to turn back to days when things weren’t so – well, just so. “It would be a good day for you to show Yourself strong, “I whispered. “It would be a fine day for You to rescue and save.” The poverty-painted landscape was dissonant.
“It would be a fine day for you to be God.”
Kayole Matopeni is near the City Center in Nairobi. There was once upon a time I had a picture painted in my mind of slums – of late-night informercial images and desolation put on display for all to see. But driving along the rollercoaster roads, the slums have proven themselves to be life in tattered high-walled miniature. People live and die, work and rest, buy and sell and trade. Humanity is welcomed and lost. Parents go to work and children go to school and teenagers dream of a life that’s bigger and brooms are kept in quiet corners to sweep away the dust that returns and returns.
It was there in the dust we found her home – the oldest of three children in the school that had invited them all in after Alice, the director, had watched them through the iron gate entryway day after day. F led the way to the rusted corrugated metal door and moved the rock that kept it closed.
Inside, two dogs sniffed a frightened welcome in the mud and muck courtyard with the place in middle where a cow had been. For a moment, it has been a better time in their lives, a time when milk could be drunk and sold for a little food money. Then the cow was stolen. The courtyard felt ravaged. A grandmother staying with the family fled for higher ground.
And so it was just F and her two brothers most hours of the day.
She stood there watching us, wondering what we would say about this place – about her. The door to her home was open, revealing one bed for everyone. There was no room for anything or anyone else, no room to invite guests, no room to have a seat and talk. But now here were guests, ghosts in clothes with no stains or tears, quietly taking in every small detail.
“Your home, it is so very beautiful.”
She looked with curious eyes and smiled, then stood a little taller in the doorway.
“It really is lovely.”
She smiled again.
We prayed for her, prayed for the home and for the day there would be no more need.
Stepping through the rusted metal outer door, we began our journey back to the noise of the school. Through a field of debris, a woman walked toward us, eyes like flint. Alice recognized her. “Oh friends, this is E. She is the mother.” She didn’t know why she felt it important to leave her work and walk across the slum. But E was here now, here with us.
She stood there, resilient in the smog and dirt. I recognized the smell of the dump – of waste and chemicals and fire. I had worked in the dump so many times in Guatemala, but never had I known someone like E. Her labor had become her identity – pants shredded, boots warped, shirt like sandpaper, flies swarming skin embedded with refuse. The dump had tied itself around her.
She shared her story.
From sunrise to starlight, she bends over the debris, her hands growing more swollen and deformed from sifting through trash to find food scraps. A bucket of scraps earns a few cents. On the best of days, E might make five dollars. On the rest of days, she will be fortunate to bring home a dollar.
A dollar. For a mom and three children.
I can’t remember the last time I really ached. You know, one of those deep, overwhelming, catch your breath in your throat aches that lives somewhere between a sigh and a scream. Even walking the sewage-lined paths that mocked streets in the Mathare Slums the day before, I felt the sorrowful hope of what my best friend Courtney and I had coined the “beautiful-awful” of this very fragile life. It was the same hope I had felt in so many other places – abandoned churches in Romanian villages and forgotten streets in east Austin neighborhoods. I had come to expect the hope, always encouraging others to look deeply for it when pity threatened to choke.
I can’t remember the last time I really ached. But I ached for E.
My hands felt so empty. I wanted to snatch her from the slum and be her safekeeping, to build a big house and take away all longing, to make life easy and carefree. The words prayed for the crumbling at home repeated in my head.
“It would be a good day for you to show Yourself strong, It would be a fine day for You to rescue and save. It would be a fine day for you to be God.”
We listened as she gave thanks for the education of her children, of her dreams that their lives would be better. And then we asked if we might pray. Alice smiled and looked at our group. “No, friends. You do not ask to pray in Kenya. You ask HOW you might pray here – we will pray Heaven down today.”
E’s eyes glistened with tears as she responded. “We need God’s will to be done. Pray for it to be well with my family.” Hands reached for hands. She hesitated and then held hers out. Surely no one would want to hold the hands that were deformed and dirty.
Hands reached for hands. And hers completed the circle.
There was silence for a moment, and then her hushed voice fought through the tears now streaming.
“I need Jesus.” And so, there on the street near her home, holding hands with strangers, E received money for food and a welcome into the family of God. Eternity met us all there. Eternity spoke its response.
We stood side-by-side, stripped of all but who we were. The ache had overwhelmed the hope for me – and I had wanted to save and fix and take away the pain so there would be no more crumbling. But the woman in sandpaper shirt and shredded pants became the gentle reminder of hope in the midst of the crumbling. She hadn’t asked for salvation from her days. She asked for salvation in them.
I am so thankful for the ministry efforts of Alice and her husband in the Matopeni slum. They are now providing guidance on what can be done to assist E and her family – and not rob them of dignity. If you would like to know more about the work being done through this ministry partner of Orphan Outreach, message me.
And here’s a little something for you – a playlist of the songs I carry with me as I travel. What songs need to be added?
Oh, and by the way, thank you, Lee, for the gift of the photo. I will cherish it forever (but goodness, I am an ugly weeper).