Kenyan pastors tell of surviving the violence


RIFT VALLEY, Kenya — The run-down minibus taxi rattles diligently up the rocky, potholed road. Inside, the mood is somber and tense. No one dares talk. All are too busy looking out the window for would-be attackers.

It doesn't seem to matter that two Kenyan special forces officers sit guarding both doors with AK-47s and pistols. Everyone is restless and scared. Passengers react with despair and sorrow as the taxi slowly rolls past the charred landscape. Entire villages are now wiped off the map, others are ghost towns.

This hardest-hit area in Kenya's post-election violence may appear somewhat calm, but violence can erupt any second. On a recent weekend more than 70 people died in this Rift Valley province, pushing the nationwide total to almost 800 since the disputed Dec. 27 elections.

The minibus comes to a stop in front of a Baptist church with broken windows. It obviously has been looted -– pages of hymnals are stuck in the weeds and part of a broken speaker sits in the road.

The Kenyan officers jump out to secure the area, then the delegation of Baptist pastors pile out to see the damage. One of the pastors' wives lets out a soft cry as she finds a broken photo frame containing a picture of her 1-year-old. She dusts it off and tucks it in her purse.

This is the first opportunity for these pastors and their wives to survey the damage. With each stop, the pastors share their individual stories. (Because so many Baptist churches have been burned or looted in this province, specific names of churches and pastors are not given.)

At one stop, an entire village lay in shambles. Pastor Samuel, who had led the local Baptist church, quickly picks his way through piles of burned corrugated tin, keeping a watchful eye on the forest and hills nearby for signs of danger.

For weeks, this area was cut off from the rest of the country. Even the media and Red Cross didn't venture into this dangerous territory. Gangs of youth blocked the roads, keeping anyone from coming or going.

Samuel stops in front of a piece of charred, ashen ground. "Here," he says quietly. "Here is our Baptist church."

His face transforms from a look of fear to an aching hurt as he recounts that fatal night four weeks earlier.

"It started on Sunday [Dec. 30]," Samuel whispers. "That morning, people from four different tribes worshipped together in this church. A few hours later, after the election results were announced, they turned on each other."

Shouts and screams pierced through the small village as gangs of youth ransacked and burned homes. The people ran up the hill to the forest. The youth chased after them, waving their pangas (machetes), spears, and bows and arrows. The villagers tried fending them off by throwing stones. The standoff lasted for two gruesome days before police could finally get to the villagers.

"Five churches burned to the ground. The rest were looted. Many of my church members died. We couldn't get to their bodies before the dogs got to them," Samuel says. "Those who survived lost everything. I am a pastor without a Bible."

A slight movement in the tree line stops Samuel in mid-story. Fear returns as he spies a small gang of young men watching. The pastor ducks his head and walks quickly in the opposite direction.

"When will this thing end?" he mutters to himself. "We live in constant fear."

At a Baptist church in another community, Pastor Wallace points to wooden pews pushed together to form makeshift beds. Bicycles and other precious belongings line the walls. A complete living room is set up in one corner.

"Our house of God has really become a home," Wallace says, proud of his church's transformation. "It's very important for a church to open her doors and help those in need."

When post-election riots broke out, Wallace planned to pack up his family and seek safety. He didn't want the two young men staying with them on the church grounds to be pressured into carrying out violent acts with their classmates. As he locked the church compound, 20 families from the community ran to him seeking refuge.

"Right then, I revised my mind. I decided it was not good to go," the pastor says. "I unlocked the gate, and ever since we have been a house of refuge."

The church quickly became a transition house. Often, families knock on the gate in the middle of the night, having barely escaped their burning house. They stay in the church until they can get to a camp for internally displaced people.

Wallace admits there have been some tense times. A church just a few blocks away burned with 30 people inside. On several occasions, youth have also surrounded a Catholic compound not far away.

"We are scared but take courage with God's help. People are safe here. We have seen God work miracles," the pastor says, eyes resting on the two young men living with him. The two are so busy helping with the displaced that neither one has stepped outside the compound to join their classmates wreaking havoc.

At another stop, white tents made of tarp span the show grounds for as far as the eye can see. More than 20,000 tents stake out plots in this camp for internally displaced people, with more added every day.

Each flimsy shelter is labeled according to quadrants. Despite this effort at organization, it's still easy to get lost among the narrow paths and indistinguishable tents.

Pastor Martin and his wife Ann navigate with ease. Everyone from their village and church who's still alive now lives here. Most sit in front of their tents with a distant, glazed look on their faces, grappling with the violence they have experienced.

When Martin and Ann walk up, blank expressions change to huge smiles. "Pastor," they say, "sing and pray with us."

The young couple's joy is contagious, while their compassion is all-encompassing. They, too, lost everything when gangs of youth raided their village. Instead of dwelling on what's lost, Martin says God has called them to offer words of encouragement.

"The joy of the Lord is our strength," Martin insists. "Even when thinking of our problems and other people's problems, the Lord's joy just overflows."

An impromptu worship service starts in the narrow path between tents. People from three rows across hear the singing and quickly come over to join. Ann smiles and grabs their hands, welcoming them into the group.

"We must learn to trust in the promises of the Lord. The Lord has not forgotten us," Martin preaches. "God has plans for our future and we must not forget."

This sermon brings many to tears, even the pastor. Right now, it's hard to think about the future or even life outside the camps. Ann admits she has no plans for moving back to her looted home.

"I'm scared to go back. There is still violence," she explains. "I am fearful that it won't end anytime soon."