Kennedy Odete grew up in Africa’s largest slum in Kibera, Kenya. Life
there is marked by endless pain on a number of levels for the 1.5 million
people who call it home. Crushing poverty and unchecked lawlessness are the order of every day. The Kenyan government considers Kibera an illegal settlement and provides no services or government sponsored schools.
It is awful for everyone who lives there, but a nearly indescribable horror for girls. Abuse, rape and general mistreatment of school-age girls is commonplace. Because there is no education, there is no way out or even a hope for escape to a better life. Increasingly, the girls are pressed into prostitution or sold into sexual slavery. Sixty-six percent of girls there trade sex for food by the age of six. As you can imagine (or maybe you can’t) Kibera has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV.
Kennedy saw this happening to his own younger sisters and was burdened to do something about it. Growing up in a 10 x 10 foot room with his parents and seven siblings, Kennedy somehow taught himself English. From and early age, he had a longing for life beyond the slums. In 2005, he founded a community organization in Kibera called Shining Hope for Community or SHOFCO to begin addressing those issues.
In 2007, Kennedy met Jessica Posner, a student from Wesleyan University who was studying abroad in Kenya. He told her of his dreams for Kibera—to build a school for girls. She urged him to apply for college at Wesleyan. He was accepted and became the first person from the slums to attend college.
After Kennedy’s sophomore year, he and Jessica applied for a Davis Projects for Peace grant to begin building the school in Kibera. Over ten weeks of summer, and in partnership with SHOFCO, the Kibera School for Girls took shape. A plot of land in the slum was secured, an architect was hired, and a principal was recruited to design and implement the curriculum to match the unique circumstances of the girls there. The principal also assembled a staff of certified teachers—all women from Kibera, who will implement a Montessori style curriculum.
Community members helped build the school with 8 rooms and a library open to the community. There is a water tank and a small farm. The school will sell chicken eggs, fresh water and farm-grown produce to support the school and pay teacher salaries. (Already, the Shining Hope Community Center has been constructed, which is providing even more services to the whole area. Ripples.)
Over the succeeding months, Jessica raised more than $100,000 more in donations and grants. The school held interviews for the 45 girls, grades K-1, to be admitted to the first classes of the Kibera School for Girls. Eventually, the school will serve 370 girls in K-8. Orphaned girls and victims of sexual abuse are given priority for admission. Every girl receives free education, which includes their uniforms, books and supplies, as well as solid and nourishing meals each day.
The hope is that the combination of education, nourishment and refuge from the pressures of the slums will prepare the students for higher education and skilled jobs. That, in turn, will keep them out of prostitution and provide a path out of the slums.
Why is this story important? First, it is a beautiful picture of the restoration to which the gospel calls the people of God to be involved. The brokenness and injustice for the girls is clearly not God’s heart for them; it is evidence of our sin-wrecked world. There are hundreds of places under our gaze where the restoring, healing, resurrection power of gospel can make a transforming difference.
Now, to be sure, I don’t know if either Kennedy or Jessica profess Christ. But I wonder…
The Kibera School for Girls recently opened for a new term. Kennedy, who functions as the CEO, was there, greeting each girl with a smile, a handshake, a look-you-in-the-eye “I love you” and a personal word of encouragement. The girls, clearly delighted, seemed to grow in confidence under the encouragement of a man who respected them, valued them and believed in them.
A reporter asked Kennedy why he was so committed to connecting with the girls like that. He replied, “I am welcoming them back to the world they never lived in.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
“I am welcoming them back to the world they never lived in.”
The world of love and respect. The world of being a person and not property. The world of safety and security. The world of possibilities and hope. All of that is a world the Kibera girls have never known.
But Kennedy wants to make that world their home. To rewrite their story with a different setting. To create new memories, new identity. To stir hope in some deep and hidden place that things can be different.
That just sounds like Jesus to me.
He came with a special heart for the least and the left-out, the burnt-out and bedraggled. For those abused & imprisoned, with souls demonized and deadened.
“[the Lord] has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance….The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost….Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest….When he saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Luke 4:18-19, 5:31, 19:10; Matt. 11:28, 9:36)
Jesus hung out with prostitutes and con men, much to the chagrin of upper crust religious types full of their own importance and impressed with their own righteousness—even though they desperately needed Him, too. He was at least as as likely to be found in the mean streets of Kibera than the clean
streets of the suburbs. “and the common people heard him gladly.” (Mark 12:37, NKJV)
Why? Because at every turn, Jesus was “welcoming them back to a world they never lived in.” Isn’t that the whole point of the grace of repentance? Jesus beckons. We turn, trust His cross and empty tomb, and follow Him back to where we have never been. But it’s where our hearts always longed to go. He planted a longing for Him in our hearts. (Eccl. 3:11) We just didn’t know it was Home until we got there.
By mercy, Jesus welcomes us back to the land of forgiveness and no condemnation. The land of everlasting joy that nourishes the soul and sacrificial love beyond measure that feeds the heart. The land of deep purpose for living larger every day than anything the world offers. The land of hope beyond every crushing loss and dying dream. The land of beginning again—and again…and never ending.
What a great way to think about living the Christian life! We get to walk through our ordinary lives, simply welcoming the people we meet back to a world they never lived in. The horrors people live behind their all-together appearance or their well-kept lawns may not be as immediately evident as in Kibera — but they are no less soul-crushing.
As the body of Christ, our eyes really see precious people with wounded souls; our arms open wide so they can see Jesus’ beckoning; and through our vocal cords they can hear Jesus saying, “ I love you”.
For the girls and boys who become the men and women of all generations, we Christ-followers live to build outposts of hope. Sometimes, they call it a church, but it’s way more than a building with an address.
It’s about a people captured by God’s heart for people, stunned by King Jesus’ visionary love, empowered by the Spirit….and just crazy (faith-full) enough to practically pursue “His kingdom come, His will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.”
After all, we’re just living out the realities of a place we haven’t been….