By Laura McKillip Wood
The sun beat down on the American visitors as they made their way through dirt streets and stepped over the open sewers that lined them. Tin and wooden shanties crowded together. Whole families with five to ten members lived in one room. The smells of smoldering cooking fires, garbage, and sewage permeated the air in the slums of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya.
Just the week before, a 14-year-old boy, loved by many in the community, faced the guns of a corrupt police force. Shot multiple times, the boy died immediately. The visitors knew nothing of this, though. They walked the slums on a vision trip, having come from churches around the United States to see the work of Missions of Hope International and to pray about partnering with them in ministry.
Touring the skills training center of the mission later that day, the Americans noticed that Mary, a resident of the slums, had disappeared from their number. The tour continued, and Mary met up with it some time later. Mary had been called away by the neighborhood “thugs,” as they called themselves. Mary had spoken to them before, but this time their message was different. Mary invited the Americans to sit down for tea, a custom carried over from the days of British colonialism, and explained what the men wanted.
“Last week, a boy was killed.” Mary described his death. “People are scared. They want change. Those men begged me to do something.” As she spoke, they heard a noise from the other room. Soon, one of the “thugs” burst through the door. A ripple of apprehension went through the group. What did he want from them?
The man looked at them and spoke. “If we’d had one of your schools here, he’d have been in school and would be alive, not dead. We need a school. We need a church. Our community needs God!”
A Life of Ministry
This man knew the reputation of Mary and her husband, Wallace. Mary grew up in rural Kenya. Her father had two wives, and she was one of 20 children. Mary graduated from the university in Nairobi. She became a Christian while there, and God began to change her life. During college, she volunteered by working with children from the poorest families in one of Nairobi’s slums.
The slums of Nairobi are among the largest and poorest in the world; 3 million people live there. The Mathari slum, for example, is only about one square mile in size but is home to approximately 800,000 people. The government does not provide electricity, water, or sewage treatment to these areas. People live on the $1 to $2 a day they make doing day labor; they take jobs as they find them but rarely are able to find steady work. They are uneducated and unskilled and survive any way they can.
After graduating, Mary married Wallace, an accountant with Price Waterhouse. His salary supported Missions of Hope International (MOHI), the ministry Mary began, until it grew enough that he also began working there. Mary gathered 50 of the poorest 4-year-olds in the slums of Kenya and started a preschool. Each year, MOHI added a grade, and the school grew one class at a time. They added locations as opportunities arose.
Now MOHI has more than 18,000 students in 21 schools. It also operates two schools for the government and two for another ministry. All of the schools are in areas of extreme poverty in Nairobi or in destitute rural villages. The students who attend their schools receive a high-quality education, but MOHI’s influence does not stop there. Theirs is a wholistic ministry, providing education for children and training in skills such as welding, plumbing, carpentry, sewing, hair styling, and computer operation for adults.
With each school, MOHI also plants a church; these churches tend to the spiritual and emotional health of the people and also build community. MOHI’s philosophy centers on empowering people rather than giving them things. Western funds provide only a portion of the cost of the children’s programs. Parents pay school fees and other costs. This important element of their ministry gives parents dignity and involves them in their children’s education.
Growth has come in part through child sponsorships funded by American Christians in partnership with Christian Missionary Fellowship International (CMF), a missions organization based in Indianapolis. CMF locates American churches interested in partnering with MOHI and sends representatives on vision trips to Kenya. These trips allow American Christians to see how they can work together with Kenyans to improve communities and simultaneously spread the gospel.
MOHI also hosts short-term mission teams from Western countries. These trips are not feel-good volunteer vacations. With foresight and planning by both the Kenyans and the Americans, MOHI utilizes the skills of group members to work in ways that truly benefit the Kenyan ministry long-term. For example, if a medical team visits, they examine patients who may never have been to a doctor before. The medical personnel identify people with potentially life-threatening conditions and connect them with others who can continue their treatments, thus furthering the impact they had during their short time there.
Because of the way MOHI creates community and a sense of ownership, the people band together to support one another, the schools, and the churches. This was evident when a fire ripped through one area. When fire strikes the slum, it hits hard. Shanties sit side-by-side, so fire spreads through them quickly and destroys everything. This time, the fire headed toward a MOHI school building. The people abandoned their own homes and ran toward the school, fighting the flames together to preserve it.
The “thug” who visited the American group at the MOHI skills center made his case well. One team from Third City Christian Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, had traveled to Kenya looking for ministry opportunities. Throughout the remainder of their stay, they felt God telling them to reach out to the community affected by the death of the young boy.
On their way back home, they emailed CMF: “Let the thugs know we will help start their school and a church. Tell them God has heard their prayers.” The spiritual openness of those tough guys in the slums had moved the hearts of the Midwestern Christians. The group from Third City saw the urgency and responded. In the following weeks, they organized child sponsorships for more than 240 children, enabling their Kenyan partners to mobilize quickly and start a new school in a temporary building three months later.
Third City also took up a special offering that allowed MOHI to purchase land for a permanent school building and funded the start of the new church. Since then, Third City and MOHI have continued to work together to advance the gospel and meet the needs of the community.
The slum is changing, one child at a time, through partnerships between Christians on opposite sides of the world. Their love for Christ and concern for people produces a community where people can learn skills they need and find the grace of God in what can be a dark place.
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now serves as the registrar at Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska, and works as an on-call chaplain at a nearby hospital. She and her husband, Andrew, have three teenagers.