Whose Church? Ethnicity, Identity, and the Politics of Belonging in the Adventist Church in Kenya — Part 1

Written by: 
Published:
November 11, 2019

Editor’s Note: In this six-part series for Spectrum, journalist Godfrey Sang explores the current tensions in the Adventist church in Kenya through the lenses of ethnicity, identity, and politics.

Abstract

While the church exists within a particular socio-cultural context, there is an ambiguous dichotomy between ethno-geographical identity and spirituality in most Christian denominations in Africa. This has never been more apparent in the Seventh-day Adventist church in Kenya, more particularly in the Central Kenya Conference which has seen some ethnocentric dissent in the last few months. Some individuals, unhappy with the Central Kenya Conference which brings together hundreds of churches in the geographical center of Kenya, formed their own Conference in disregard of the stipulated process of creating one. At the heart of their concerns were, among other things, exclusion and marginalization along ethnic lines. But while the creation of a parallel church organization would normally mean an immediate separation from the Adventist church, the new group insisted that they would not be leaving, and instead began converting existing churches into its affiliation. In many ways, their activism reflects the acute social consciousness among Kenyans vacillating between territorialism, belonging, and the fluidity of institutional authority. The situation at hand has raised fundamental questions about identity within a social and spiritual context. It has also added a new course to the complex relationship between process, transition, and institutional legitimacy. The unprecedented situation has prompted calibrated deleveraging initiatives by the Central Kenya Conference aimed at consolidating the flock, but more importantly, releasing the wind in the sails of the dissenters now threatening to unravel the fabric holding the Church together. This paper examines the socio-historical antecedents to the dissension and its development through time and implications for the future.

Background

On October 19, 2016, Seventh-day Adventists around the world were overjoyed when one of their own, David Maraga, took the oath of office as the President of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of the Republic of Kenya. An Adventist was in charge of the third arm of Government, the Judiciary. He was easily the third most powerful man in Kenya after the President and the Speaker of the National Assembly. Congratulatory messages poured in from around the world, from Adventists across all regions, nations, tribes, and races. In Kenya, it did not matter that Maraga belonged to a particular ethnic group; Adventists from all walks of life were especially proud that one among them was elevated to such a position. He placed the Adventist church in a positive focus particularly when he declared on national television that he had never taken a bribe, a fact that touched many Kenyans in a country known to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Maraga also stated that he would not take any duties as judge on the Sabbath day.  

For many years, if one stated in Kenya that they were a Seventh-day Adventist, they would immediately be associated with the Abagusii or Kisii community. That is because of their extraordinary numbers in the Adventist church in Kenya. Maraga, himself a Kisii, seemed to add to that mind. But it wasn’t so in the mind of Mama Grace Bor, 92, a Nandi woman from Sigot in northern Nandi. To her, Maraga was just a fellow Adventist. Frail and wheelchair-bound, Mama Grace had travelled to Nairobi in February 2018 to seek treatment. When she felt better, she asked to be taken to the historic Shauri Moyo SDA church in Nairobi where she had first congregated in the 1950s as a young person. It so happened that on that day, Justice Maraga was in attendance. She approached him, and not sure he would agree, invited him to her local church at Sigot, a remote area in Nandi, 200 miles west of Nairobi. Adventism had first been introduced there in the 1940s and Mama Grace was one of the pioneer members. To her surprise, Justice Maraga agreed and even suggested the best day to come. She immediately contacted Ms. Sarah Serem, Kenya’s Ambassador to China and a practicing Adventist, who firmed up the appointment with Maraga so as to allow for preparations to receive him. When she went back home, she told everyone that Justice Maraga was coming to their church and few believed her. On May 5, 2018, Justice Maraga was indeed at Sigot in a function attended by thousands of Adventists from across Nandi and Uasin Gishu counties including Nandi Governor Stephen Sang and local dignitaries. Touched by the old lady’s church that had taken a while to complete, Maraga helped raise KSh. 2.8 million ($28,000) to complete it and also to complete a nearby church named Ng’aniat. On August 31, 2019, Justice Maraga returned to Sigot where he officially opened the two completed churches.

A church in crisis

But while Justice Maraga had built enormous goodwill for the Adventist church in Kenya, all was not well. Just about the time of his appointment, a section of members of the church moved to Kenya Government’s Registrar of Societies to challenge the office bearers of the church’s main administrative unit. The move would eventually force a tense election which led to a series of actions that have left the Kenyan church divided. The persons, drawn from the Kisii community, cited among other things, perennial marginalization and exclusion from the affairs and leadership of the church. This they said, was particularly apparent in the elections for the Central Kenya Conference in September 2015 where they had fielded a number of candidates who did not make it through. But that was just a tip of the iceberg.

The struggle for the heart of the Central Kenya Conference, which geographically covers the traditional homelands of the populous Gema communities (Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru) and also the Kamba and Maasai people, began a while back. While the Gema communities are indeed in the majority, the Adventists in the area are numerically inferior to the migrant Kisii who formed the bulk of the membership particularly in Nairobi and Kajiado counties. The contention then became how could a community with such small numbers in the Adventist church dominate leadership in Central Kenya?

This paper attempts to answer these questions in the light of the recent events at the Central Kenya Conference and more particularly at the Nairobi Central Seventh-day Adventist Church. It looks at how ethnicity, the politics of identity, and the fragility of spiritual authority became central to a crisis in the Adventist church that has existed in Kenya for over a century. It also tries to analyze what the events mean to the larger Adventist community in the Central Kenya Conference and the rest of the church in Kenya and the world at large.

Boundaries of belonging

Worshippers arriving at Nairobi Central Church on the morning of Sabbath, August 10, 2019, were shocked to find a contingent of security officers barricading the entrance turning them away. This was the start of Campmeeting, and perplexed worshippers and guest speakers began making frantic phone calls to find answers. The leadership of the church, also taken by surprise, was unable to offer any credible explanation. It turned out that the Government had decided to close down the building until the wrangles that had visited the church had been settled. The closure sent shockwaves across Adventist circles, not just in Kenya but internationally. The matter was picked up by all the major television and radio stations and online chatrooms were abuzz with the happenings at the Nairobi Central Church. Rarely had the Adventist church been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons as it was at this time.

Nairobi County Commissioner Flora Mworoa, had apparently ordered the shutdown. She did not even inform the church leaders in advance that the move was in the offing. It was not immediately clear how and why Ms. Mworoa reached the decision to close Nairobi Central, but members saw a powerful hand, high in Government, working behind the scenes to frustrate the church. Word went around that the conflict had a lot to do with impending church elections, slated for 2020. These elections would determine the officeholders in the Central Kenya Conference (CKC).

CKC is currently the wealthiest conference, not just in Kenya but in the entire East Central Africa Division. Covering the geographical area of Nairobi which is Eastern Africa’s largest and wealthiest city, the CKC’s membership is drawn from nearly every tribe in Kenya including immigrants from other countries in East Africa and beyond. Such diverse membership (and the money involved), redefined the boundaries of belonging and the CKC’s leadership became desirable for many, particularly those from outside the territory.

The fight for the control of the CKC began a while back, as early as the 1980s. Each electoral cycle, which comes every five years, has seen many interested parties gunning for the control of the CKC, a contest that has come to reflect Kenya’s acrimonious national political elections. This last CKC electoral period in 2015, was particularly contentious and issues arising from the elections have taken the church in big circles culminating in the formation of the unsanctioned Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference (NCC) and the brief closure of Nairobi Central. Being the largest church in the CKC, Nairobi Central provides the largest number of delegates from a single unit. It is easy to see why the fight for the CKC begins with Nairobi Central.

A brief history of the Nairobi Central Church

The Nairobi Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, popularly known as Maxwell, is a historic church dating back to pre-Independence days. Situated at the heart of Nairobi, it was named in honor of the great missionary to East Africa, Spencer George Maxwell (older brother of author Arthur S. Maxwell, famous for Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories and other titles). Maxwell arrived in Kenya in 1921 and worked tirelessly to establish the Adventist faith which was first introduced in Kenya in 1906. As the Superintendent of the East Africa Union Mission (EAUM), it was his idea to move the head office from Nakuru to Nairobi in 1936. He left Kenya in 1941 for Nyasaland (Malawi) and in 1942, the East Africa Union Mission was re-organized under the Southern Africa Division, severing links with the Northern European Division. Pr. Hubert M. Sparrow from South Africa arrived to take charge.

Throughout the 1930s and 40s, most of the missionary children in East Africa attended the Nairobi European School (now Nairobi Primary). Since it did not have boarding facilities, the church organized for them to stay at a hostel located at Crauford Road, a walking distance from the school. Crauford Road, which connected the Nairobi Hill to the Central Business District, was renamed Milimani road at Independence (and recently renamed Jakaya Kikwete Road). This area has been associated with the Adventist church since 1944. Mrs. Pearson, wife of the Secretary of the Kenya Mission Field Gordon Pearson, took charge of the hostel. Plans were underway to establish a school for the missionary children who had to endure long stretches of time away from their parents. The hostel was a home far from home.[1]

In September 1949, the Maxwell Preparatory School was founded on the Crauford Road property. The school was meant to give an Adventist education to the children whose parents labored in the mission fields scattered all over Eastern Africa. From September 1949, regular Sabbath services were held there for the school and missionary community. This was not the first Adventist church in Nairobi. There was already a vibrant congregation in Nairobi’s Pumwani area in the African district. A church had also been established at Karura some 10 km. away from Nairobi. This church was established in 1933 by W. W. Armstrong the founder of the Central Kenya Mission which is today the Central Kenya Conference. Some of the missionaries at the Kenya Mission Field congregated there while the church at Crauford Road primarily served the school community.

In 1956, the East Africa Union established the Highlands Mission to expand the work among the Europeans of Kenya.[2] It was based in Eldoret where the first church had been established by David Sparrow, the first Adventist on the Uasin Gishu plateau back in 1911. The Highlands Mission soon expanded to Nairobi’s Crauford Road where they set up a church building to serve the school community. It became a branch of the Highlands Church in Eldoret. In Kenya’s colonial past, the larger area where the new church was situated was known as the Nairobi Hill, an area exclusively set for European residence. At the top of the hill stood the stately Government House constructed in 1925, now State House Nairobi, the present seat of the Government of Kenya. There were scarcely any Africans living on Nairobi Hill except perhaps as servants. The church acquired adjacent properties to expand their holdings into one large compound which eventually housed the offices of the KMF, the Maxwell Preparatory School, and the hostel. The property was bounded below by the Delamere Flats which were constructed in 1951. Pr. D.L. Ringering who was the head of the Highlands Mission, served as its first pastor.

While the church at Crauford road served the school community and the Europeans, the Africans largely attended the church at Pumwani Social Hall constructed in 1924 in Majengo in the middle of Nairobi’s African District. Soon, the Pumwani church was so heavily packed there was scarcely any sitting or even standing space, necessitating the construction of a new church building. The church acquired some property at nearby Shauri Moyo and commissioned the construction of a spacious new building. After completion, the Shauri Moyo church was opened in March 1958 and dedicated on the same day as the new Maxwell Church at Crauford Road. The two churches were quite different in character and worship atmosphere. Exquisite musical performances by the highly talented Maxwell students using various instruments, gave the Sabbath services at Crauford road a touch of class.[3] There were hardly any musical instruments in Shauri Moyo, with a strong emphasis on hymns and choral music. The services at Maxwell was held in English while the church at Shauri Moyo held its services in Kiswahili, which most Europeans did not understand. Most Africans at this time did not speak English and so the barrier was more lingual than racial.

The other church under the Highlands Mission was at Kitale town where two Adventist settler farmers, Hendrik W. Kruger and Thuys de Lange (both originally from South Africa), had acquired a five-acre plot and constructed a church using the exact same design as that of Maxwell in Nairobi. Unlike the two churches in Nairobi and Eldoret, the Kitale church held its services in the Afrikaans language. By 1958, their building was still under construction, membership dropped significantly as most Afrikaner settlers returned to South Africa from whence they had come. They eventually abandoned the uncompleted church and the Baptist Church took it over.[4]

In the last years of colonial rule, the Maxwell Church was fully opened to Africans as an English-speaking church. Due to its location, most of those attending were middle-class Africans, many of them senior civil servants, professionals, and other prominent Adventists. It immediately acquired a reputation of being a bit of an elitist church. Meanwhile Crauford road was renamed Milimani road and with the expanding city of Nairobi, it became a very strategic location close to government offices and commercial establishments.

In 1989, the East Africa Union relocated its offices from Invergara Grove (now Gitanga Road) in Lavington to Milimani road which was recently renamed Jakaya Kikwete road. They renovated and occupied the former facilities of the Maxwell Preparatory School which had since moved to a new campus on Magadi Road in Ongata Rongai. The school was renamed the Maxwell Adventist Academy (MAA) and, like its forerunner, continues to offer an international curriculum mainly for missionary children.

Other than the church and the EAU offices, the Literature Ministry Services (LMS) under the Home Health Services stationed at Invergara, opened the Adventist Book Centre as well as a large hostel and restaurant. The Adventist Medical Services, which had been on Crauford road since colonial days, was renamed the Better Living Centre and is now the Better Living Hospital. A new school, the Maxwell Adventist Preparatory School (MAPS), offering the local curriculum, was also opened here. The Adventist Media Ministries now broadcasts the local “Hope Channel Kenya” from there.

Meanwhile, the Adventist church experienced unprecedented growth in Kenya in the 1980s following the successful conclusion of the “1000 days of Reaping,” a worldwide series of evangelistic campaigns and baptism that commenced on September 18, 1982 and ended on June 15, 1985. This led to record growth of the East Africa Union and in particular the Central Kenya Conference. By January 1985, some 65,000 new members had joined the Adventist church in Kenya.[5] By the end of the period, over 100,000 new people had joined the church, bringing the totals in Kenya to well over 300,000 Adventists. This made the EAU one of the fastest growing administrative units in the whole world. 

With expanding membership, Maxwell church was soon overflowing and in the late 80s there was a need to build a larger sanctuary. In 1995, a massive ultra-modern church was completed and renamed Nairobi Central Seventh-day Adventist Church (NCSDAC). It would often be referred to as Nairobi Central Church (NCC) or informally as Maxwell. Membership shot to well over 7,000, easily becoming one of the largest Adventist churches in the world. With its strategic location, most of the members, like those of the original Maxwell, were the elite of society who tended to prefer the service conducted in the English language. It also became a transitional church for new people in Nairobi who congregated there first before moving to or forming congregations closer to where they lived. It was therefore the mother church of many churches around the city of Nairobi, particularly those that held their services in the English language. It naturally became the nerve center of the goings-on in the Adventist church in Kenya.

 

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.

Read Part 6 here.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Southern African Division Outlook, December 15, 1949, Vol. XLVII Number 23, Kenilworth, Cape, p. 3

[2] Adventist Yearbook 1957, Review & Herald, p. 159

[3] Southern African Division Outlook Vol. LXI No. 12, December 15, 1963, Kenilworth, Cape, p. 16

[4] Sang, Godfrey K., Kili, Hosea K., (2017) On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist Church came to Western Kenya, Gapman Publications Ltd., Nairobi.

[5] Daily Nation, January 9, 1985, Nation Newspapers Ltd., Nairobi, p. 18

 

Godfrey K. Sang is a historical researcher and writer with an interest in Adventist history. He is the co-author of the book On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist church came to Western Kenya. The views expressed here are his own. godfreysang@gmail.com

Photo Credits: Pop & Zebra on Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons / SpectrumMagazine.org

 

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