This past July, I traveled to Kenya to learn more about its Catholic liturgy. What kind of music, community influences, and rituals would I encounter that might challenge the way liturgy is conducted in my own context?
Through the help of the East African Jesuit Province, I visited a rural parish called Our Lady of Assumption Nyamagwa in Kisii, a farming town in the fertile hills of inland Kenya. I mainly worked with two local composers, choir managers, and the choir itself—a whopping 1,200 singers in size. What I learned from them, and what we shared together, rekindled many of the heart-rending feelings I encountered from past visits to El Salvador, Peru, and India, and would radically challenge any clinging interest—no matter how slight—I had in material wealth, competition, and self reliance. Below are two of the key lessons I learned from my trip.
The Joy of Poverty
I met a composer named Richard Kibwage who earned about $80 a month to support his family of six. His house was made of clay and didn’t have electricity or running water. So why did he always have a gigantic smile on his face and a roaring laugh in his belly? He was proud beyond belief to introduce me to his home, his family, and prepare a bountiful dinner. During Sunday Mass, why was the congregation so boundlessly joyous and celebratory? As I learned over the weeks I spent with Richard, his joy was found in God, who gave him life, a family, and a community of musicians. This happiness came to life in his popular piece “Ni Furaha Kubwa,” whose first line reads, “How happy and joyous we are for this day God has given us,” and pours from the same font that moved me to compose “Shout to the Lord With Songs of Praise.” I heard countless testimonies of people like Richard who found joy not in material possession, but in each other and in God. How could I continue to strive for what St. Ignatius called “spiritual poverty,” that is, emptying myself of material desires and instead seeking happiness through God?
The Celebration of Death
Funerals in Kisii lasted about five hours; had I not seen the casket, I would have thought I was at a party. There was constant dancing, joyful singing, and laughter throughout the liturgy—why such happiness during a sad time? I later asked Fr. Chris, the parish pastor, about this approach. “I remember what it was like if we’d greet the family and weep together without anything else to come of it,” he said. “What good does that do them? Rather, we acknowledge and mourn the loss—this is important to do. But then we move on—we recognize that the person has entered into heaven, and that just as it is a gift to be born, it is also a gift to be reborn into eternal life. How could one not be happy about this?” How could I also be moved to more radically trust in God’s promise of life?
Beyond these euphoric realizations, however, there lay an undercurrent of doubt. What about the senseless, heart-breaking suffering I also encountered? What would I do in response, both while in country and when I returned to the United States? Check back for my next article, where I will reflect on what the Kenyan people taught me about the Crucified Christ, the Resurrected Lord, and the urgency of social action.