By Blake Tommey
What in the world do missions and the environment have to do with each other?
“More than you might think,” said Sam Harrell, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s associate coordinator of Global Missions. In fact, for the past three years, Harrell who founded Kenya-based community development organization, Africa Exchange, together with his wife Melody, have stood at the convergence of mission and the environment with CBF’s annual environmental immersion experience, Kutana Kenya.
“A lot of the challenges we attend to in mission—in the context of global migration, global church and global poverty—exist because of misuse of the environment, whether that’s global misuse or on a local scale,” Harrell explained.
“For instance, climate change in eastern Africa, a water-scarce region, has a tremendous effect on hunger, which has an effect on infant mortality and migration. People have more children when infant mortality rises. People migrate because they can no longer be subsistence farmers. These things are all tied together. And if we’re discerning with folks what it means to follow Jesus under such circumstances, which should include loving one’s neighbor, we have to attend to our environment and work together to protect it.”
Kutana Kenya allows for serious reflection on the environment, Harrell said, and provides an opportunity each May for graduate or divinity students to explore its intersection with mission and sustainable development. Over a period of 18 days, the team travels to six unique ecosystems to experience Kenya’s ecological diversity firsthand and to learn from indigenous communities and NGOs. Those communities offer challenges to Western assumptions about sustainability, he explained, and help transform our relationship to the natural world. Kutana , a Swahili word, indicates an active meeting or encounter based in reciprocal learning, he added.
That means that subsistence farmers in Kenya’s Lumakanda community, for instance, have everything to teach us about caring for communities and ecosystems, Harrell explained. Whereas most Americans may not experience the direct results of climate change, families in Lumakanda face unpredictable rainfall as global weather patterns change. In turn, drought or flooding constantly threaten the crops on which they depend for daily survival. As global poverty and displacement increasingly correlate with climate phenomena, he said, Western Christians may find their stewardship-based theology lacking. Instead, the Church must grasp the connection between environmental degradation and global crises to instill yet a deeper value in creation.
“That’s a good start. But if everything was created by the eternal Word of God, that includes all of the created order. That means all of the created order is holy and bears the divine image. Rather than being there just for our use, it has its own value and it has a voice. It has a right to exist simply because it is. Of course, we can’t say a tree is the same as a human; but see how many humans survive if all the trees are wiped out.”
Alongside hands-on service learning, Kutana Kenya participants also engage in reading and discussion throughout the trip. This year, the team collectively read Wangari Maathai’s Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, in which Maathai, a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmental activist, implores humanity to shift to a new level of consciousness. “We all share one planet and are one humanity,” Maathai said. “There is no escaping this reality. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and, in the process, heal our own—indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.”
Darnysha Nard, Pastoral Resident at First Baptist Greensboro, N.C., accompanied the Kutana team in May and said the Kenya experience wakened her sense of shared humanity, as Maathai describes. Life in Kipkarren, where the group spent two nights staying in local households, is connected to life in Greensboro, New York or anywhere else we depend on natural resources, she explained. Being in Kenya, with all its beauty and biodiversity, simply brought that connection to life.
“I sat outside one afternoon, read a book and journaled,” Nard said. “As I looked out onto the lake, I thought of all the hippos, the monkeys and the many different kinds of birds that live in that environment. I felt small. The world is so big and filled with many living things whose existence is interwoven and dependent on one another. I was grateful to breathe the fresh air as a reminder to be gentle to this world that is home to us all.”
More powerful than even the birds and hippos, however, were the relationships, she said, more specifically with Pastor Rebecca, who hosted her for two nights in Kipkarren. “She cooked our meals, told stories about her family, introduced us to people in the community and did all the things an aunt would do for you,” Nard explained. “I no longer felt like a guest. I felt like a part of the family.”
Monica Ramirez-Leon, a sexual assault victims advocate in Atlanta, Georgia, participated in Kutana Kenya as well and said her experience in Kenya confirmed a growing passion for the environment and its protection. “I’ll never forget what Sam said to us our first night in Brackenhurst: ‘We take care of the things we put value on,’” she quoted. “That was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment for me. I realized that I’m starting to put value in the environment; so where can I go from here?”
Like Nard, Ramirez-Leon was overwhelmed by the hospitality of her hosts, more specifically the Sisit community, she said. On days nine through 11, the team traveled to Sisit, a remote village in the highlands of western Kenya, where Africa Exchange partnered to develop a preschool, suspension bridge and to provide clean, running water. Twelve years of partnership with Africa Exchange also yielded Sisit’s Trees for Life program, in which residents work to reestablish tree cover over important local watersheds. Increased tree cover improves water quality, preserves wildlife habitats and reduces flooding and erosion in local streams.
Despite its development, Sisit still lacks paved roads, Ramirez-Leon explained, so the group had to hike a short distance to reach their host community. While trudging through the arid hills, Ramirez-Leon was struck by how similar the Kenyan highlands were to the region in Mexico where her parents grew up. In fact, she said, they could easily be the same desert hills, and, theologically speaking, they are.
“In the past, I really wasn’t sensitive to my environment and its protection, but that really brought it home for me in a way I never expected,” she said. “My parents probably walked similar paths in similar hills back in Mexico.
“And the way we were received by the Sisit community, oh my goodness. It was pure joy. Meanwhile, we were all just trying to catch our breath from the hike. But it was powerful. You don’t get to experience that unless you go, and once you do, you experience such an amazing welcome. I really understood what hospitality is.”
Because of its position on the equator, Kenya offers an immense diversity of ecosystems in which to observe the interconnectedness of life on Earth, Harrell explained. That includes coastal reefs, acacia forests, snow-capped mountains and the Mara-Serengeti, which supports elephants, crocodiles, wildebeest and more than 500 species of birds. Of course, he added, those ecosystems are disappearing and communities across Kenya are now responding to increasingly dire climate forces.
That’s why the Harrells and Africa Exchange Program Director Mark Okello continue to host Kutana Kenya each May, helping young people make the connection between creation care and mission. In addition, Kutana Kenya serves as cross-cultural field orientation for Global Service Corps applicants.