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newspaperIt is Tuesday night in Nairobi. I arrived last night (Easter Monday), flying out Sunday after Resurrection celebrations. Everywhere since landing and all through the day, I have heard a constant stream of conversation about the shooting attack at Garissa University on April 2nd. Here are some of the themes:


United in Grief

Even though 600 Kenyans have been killed by al Shabab radicals in recent years, this attack has caused increased grief because there were so many killed at once, and they were, as one commentator here said today, “Kenya’s brightest and best.” The technical University in Garissa has attracted bright students from all over the country. The fact that they were young and had so much promise is particularly heartbreaking. One can hear it in the voices of the people.


1998 bombingIn 1998, just a couple of blocks from where I am writing this, another attack—a bomb from al Qaeda—went off at the American Embassy, killing hundreds, mostly Kenyans (pictured, right). That was a complete surprise at the time. Maybe some intelligence analysts somewhere expected something, but most people had no idea there would be an attack like that. Today, people are not surprised when there is an attack, they are just sad. When there is a huge attack such as the one at Garissa, the entire country unites in grief.


The newspapers are running photos of the students, staff, and police who were killed. There are countless stories about them, and there are interviews and conversations everywhere that are consumed with the topic. Every parent thinks about his or her own children. Tonight, I just heard that almost 50 students have not been accounted for yet. There is a lot of speculation about that. Some fear that more students have been recruited into al Shabab, the deadly “youth group” of the al Qaeda franchise.


Kenyans process grief like the rest of us, but they are better about honoring people by going to funerals. I have no doubt that the funeral services for the victims will be gigantic events. Their friends and neighbors will honor them by gathering to pray. The good news is that these funerals, as sad as they are, will be characterized by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They will all be filled with “Resurrection talk.”


I spent a good deal of the day today with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala (pictured, left). Everywhere we went, people came up to thank him for his Good Friday message in the midst of the pain. “Asante sana, Baba” (“Thank you, Father”), they would say one after another. They have been thanking him, the Roman Catholic Cardinal, and the heads of other Churches who are speaking out. They are preaching Resurrection, not just because of the season, but because it is the only tonic that can ease the anguish of such a gaping wound.


United in Faith

As the Archbishop and I moved around Nairobi today, we ran into other Christian leaders, including the chairman of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), the chairman of the Evangelical Alliance. They are all giving essentially the same message: “We grieve, but Jesus is the Victor, and He is our Peace.” I am told that Easter services around Kenya saw record crowds gather. Of course, many Christians are nominal, with 85% of the population of Kenya self-identifying as Christian. The result is that they turn to their faith when there is a terrible blow like this. There is another factor as well.


United in Solidarity

This attack was large enough that it touched many families. Most people I have spoken with know the families or had relatives directly impacted by the attack. There was certainly an “unintended consequence” from the carnage: there is great resolve to deal with it. Not only are their voices calling for dealing with those who perpetrated the act, and of course there are calls to deal with al Shabaab, but there are also many wanting to deal with the causes. Usually with terrible events, there are attempts by politicians to blame the other party. That’s not what I’m seeing and hearing today. Instead, there are calls for increased security, calls for overwhelming force against the combatants, and even calls for dealing with root causes of unrest. Today, there are countless articles and speeches about two topics: corruption and lack of economic opportunity.


Kenyans have been really rocked by finding out that the gunmen in the University attack were all Kenyans. Some were of Somali descent, but all of them were Kenyan. One was a law graduate from Nairobi Law University. It is clear that the recruiting that is going on is quite sophisticated. It must be met with more than platitudes.


In order to turn the tide in this situation, not only will there have to be economic opportunities, but there will also have to be pathways to significance for the young people. For those who have lived in poverty, one might assume that material abundance is the key, but it is much more than comfort that is needed. It is purpose. The Church must rise and speak to the hopelessness and disillusionment that many young people feel. Of course, the best thing to speak to that disillusionment is the Gospel – not platitudes and institutional life but robust faith that is worthy of capturing the imagination and commitment, worthy of inspiring a commitment to sacrificial life in Christ. The same is true around the world. Christian leaders need to take a clue from what senior Kenyan church leaders are saying right now. They are calling for deep discipleship and commitment to Christ, not just church attendance or pie-in-the-sky, fairy dust faith.


Of the great, unintended consequences of the gunmen’s actions is the strength of solidarity among the people of the country to deal with it. Many are speaking with the senior Christian leaders and are volunteering to take up arms. Happily, the Archbishop and the other leaders have a better plan and are able to turn the commitment and energy to more fruitful endeavors. The heart of the effort needs to be this robust discipleship. It is also important that the worship opportunities for young people be relevant to their lives. The use of HBOWM (that’s “Hymns by Old White Men) is often not inspiring. The problem is not with the hymns themselves, as they are powerful, theologically vetted, and enduring; but they require two conversions. First a conversion to Christ, then a conversion to 18th– and 19th-century English culture. Take the same hymns and play them with African rhythms and harmonies and there is a different result.

nairobi cathedral 2Nairobi cathedral

For example, at All Saints Cathedral every Sunday, thousands and thousands of young people come to multiple services for young teens and college-age youth where they sing and dance and hear great teaching and testimonies.


Political Will

Along with all the things that the Church will do about this, there is another factor that the terrorists did not count on. They thought that with a big hit against the country, they would show the futility of trying to defend against their attacks. Instead, what is rising is huge support for the military action that is needed, along with the transformational programs that are needed. Archbishop Wabukala has been asked by the government to take a lead in fighting corruption. Of course, what he is bringing is not merely platitudes but character and discipleship. Those actions will yield a better society, one that is less prone to be able to recruit vulnerable young people. In the last year, scores of young people have gone missing from virtually every county in the country. Now folks are waking up to the possibility that some of them may have been recruited by radicals.


Prevailing Wind Change

Before this last attack, there was a relatively quiet Christian majority and a very loud M*slim minority. Although they are only 15%, they captivated a great deal of the public discourse. It is not even a week since the attack, and it is hard to say what will last, but today I didn’t see any news or quotes from Kenyan M*slim leaders, other than braggadocio from social media surrogates for the terrorists. That is a real change. It is exciting to see Christian leaders so mobilized, not militarily, but mobilized by kerigma (the proclamation of the Good News).


We need to be praying for them. We also need to realize that we are knee-deep in the same struggle, and we must learn from what they are doing right.