An Immaculate Conception for the ages unfolds under Kenyan acacia tree

An Immaculate Conception for the ages unfolds under Kenyan acacia tree

An Immaculate Conception for the ages unfolds under Kenyan acacia tree

Father Albert Kemboi and Father Bruno Okoli celebrate Mass for the isolated Turkana people in Kalopiria, outside Lodwar, in nothern Kenya on Dec. 8. (Credit: John Allen/Crux.)

Reporters covering the Church go to a lot of Masses, but even by that standard, an Immaculate Conception celebration under an acacia tree in Turkana, Kenya, one of the hottest, poorest, and most abandoned places on earth, was something special.

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This reporting is made possible by Aid to the Church in Need, a global papal foundation supporting the suffering Church worldwide. To learn more about Aid to the Church in Need's efforts and how you can support them, click here.

LODWAR/KALOPIRIA, KENYA – When you’re a reporter covering the Catholic Church, you end up going to more than your fair share of Masses. After a while, you tend to think you’ve seen it all.

Yet on Friday in the remote northern Kenya village of Kalopiria, I was jarred out of that complacency by watching two remarkable priests celebrate the most stunning liturgy I’ve ever seen – in part for its setting, in part for its people, and in part because it was the closest I’ll probably ever come to knowing what it was like for St. Isaac Jogues, St. Francis Xavier, St. Junipero Serra, and the other great missionaries to carry the Gospel to people who’ve never, ever heard it before.

My Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I are in Kenya this week, trying to capture something of the wild diversity of Catholic life here. It’s a trip sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation that supports the suffering and persecuted church around the world, and which funds multiple projects up and down the country.

This Thursday and Friday, we were in Lodwar, a city of roughly 50,000 that forms the heart of the Turkana region of Kenya, infamous as the country’s most isolated, under-developed, and chronically poor area. It ranks 47th out of Kenya’s 47 counties on virtually every index of development, including per-capita income, share of the population in extreme poverty, access to safe drinking water, and so on.

The Turkana ethnic group is made up largely of pastoralists, meaning nomads who follow their sheep, goats and cattle seasonally in search of grazing lands. They’re among the most isolated peoples in the world, in part because the region was a restricted zone during the British colonial era in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Turkana have had almost no contact with the outside world, and for most of Kenya’s history, they’ve been ignored and forgotten by their fellow Kenyans and everyone else.

They also had no contact with Christianity at all until 1961, when the first missionaries arrived, so the roots of the faith here don’t run deep.

Friday morning, I accompanied Father Albert Kemboi and his friend, Father Bruno Okoli, a Nigerian, as Kemboi headed out of town to say Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception at one of his parish’s 26 “outstations,” meaning a place outside town set up for Mass for people too far away to make it in.

This one is about 40 miles away, but that doesn’t come close to capturing the distance one has to cover. To get there, the energetic 34-year-old Kemboi has to drive down a series of charitably named “roads,” so uneven and full of potholes your bones feel like you’re riding the world’s most brutal roller-coaster, and on good days the journey easily takes an hour and a half or more.

(As one illustration of the ardors, Kemboi said he has to change the shock absorbers on his Toyota Hilux SUV every two weeks. The vehicle was purchased for the diocese through a grant from Aid to the Church in Need, which also pays for the meager Mass stipend Kemboi and his fellow priests receive.)

Kemboi undertakes these adventures every day Monday through Saturday, each day leaving his residence by 6:00 a.m. to visit three or four outstations like Kalopiria, and getting back only late at night – if, that is, he’s able to get back at all, since sudden rains can always make roads impassable, often meaning he’s compelled to stick around for three or four days waiting for the waters to recede.

At one stage, I asked Kemboi what he would do if his car broke down on one of these trips.

“It depends on the time of day,” he said. “If it’s night, I’ll just sleep in the car. If it’s day, I’ll try to flag someone down to help me” – adding, with no apparent sense of frustration at all, that it usually “only takes” half a day or so to get moving.

Kemboi, by the way, is hardly the only priest here putting it all on the line in such a dramatic way. Each of the Lodwar diocese’s 25 parishes has a cluster of outstations, and each will have at least one priest, like him, assigned to take care of them.

When we finally arrived Friday for the Mass, we were in a vast open field atop a ridge, marked only by a large acacia tree and a small table set up as a makeshift altar. As I wandered around, I didn’t notice much to suggest advanced civilization had ever reached the spot, except for a rusted and abandoned oil lamp lying on the ground – sort of a metaphor, I thought, about promises of development never fulfilled.

Such musing came later, however, because at first we were forced to exit our car about 30 yards before the site. Turkana women, festooned with stacks of beads on their necks and colorful native dress, insisted on leading us the rest of the way in a procession composed of exuberant dancing, singing and gyrating.

Most of these people, by the way, had walked far more than 30 yards to get there. Because of the need for space to accommodate their animal herds, Turkana dwellings tend to be strung out over large distances. Some had trekked two or three hours, crossing difficult and treacherous valleys, rifts and ridges, and in a deeply inhospitable climate. (Lodwar has one of the highest average annual temperatures of any inhabited area of the planet. During our time there it was well over 100, and we were told that’s the cool season.)

All that, by the way, helps explain why it’s a standing joke in Kenyan Catholic circles that when a new bishop is appointed to Lodwar, the question is, “What did that guy do wrong to get sent there??”

Since the Turkana are rarely stationary, following their animals in search of grazing land, a priest almost never gets the same congregation twice. Kemboi said that in some ways, he’s starting from scratch every time.

When the service began, there were about thirty people arranged in a semi-circle with men on one end and women on another. By the end the total had swelled to around 70, but hardly equally distributed – just four or five were grown men, with a few teenage boys, and the overwhelming majority were women, girls and infants.

Okoli handled the homily, speaking in English and translated by a local catechist.

“I can see that you are very happy to see your priest and your visitors,” he said. “But there’s a bigger reason you should be happy today, because it is the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who’s our mother.”

It went on from there, with Okoli using a strongly catechetical approach.

“These people need to know the most basic things about the faith,” he said. Okoli, who’s a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan on a missionary assignment in Lodwar, is currently scrambling to pick up the local Turkana tongue.

At the end of Mass, the congregation wanted to show its gratitude for our visit. Elsewhere, that might be expressed in a polite round of applause; here, it took the form of a dance and song that reached crescendo when I was lifted off the ground and borne aloft around the altar like the game-winning coach in the Super Bowl.

The coda came when I was put back down and expected to take part in a dance that featured so much jumping up and down, it probably could be marketed as a work-out routine. The Turkana then began the long journey home, seemingly delighted with the experience.

It would be easy to romanticize such a scene – a noble, long-suffering people, served by heroic missionary priests, adding up to the Church at its very best. Yet while that’s indeed part of what I witnessed Friday, it wasn’t the whole story.

For one thing, from the very moment Kemboi and Okoli arived, people began pestering them with requests – for food, for money, for help with some personal or family need. In all honesty, a healthy share seemed to look at the Mass more as an investment than an act of devotion, hoping they’d get something tangible out of it.

(Okoli told me he pegs that share at about 50 percent, and later in the day Lodwar’s bishop, Dominic Kimengich, laughingly said, “Sometimes it’s even less!”)

Before people scattered, Kemboi asked the group if anyone had anything they wanted to say. A wizened Turkana man, akin to a sort of village elder, popped up to deliver an impassioned appeal.

“The only place we can get water is the river,” he said, pointing over a hill, “and when it’s dry we have no place to go,” he said. “We are hungry, we need food.

“I’m begging you,” he shouted in fluent Swahili, thinking his visitors would understand, “as blessed people, help us! You have come to visit us, now help us with these things!”

(So committed was he to selling the message that he grabbed my hand during our up-and-down dance, repeating his pleas in song.)

Afterwards, I asked Kemboi who the man was, and he laughingly replied, “I have no idea.

“I’ve never seen him at Mass before, and as a matter of fact, he’s not even Catholic,” he said. “You could tell by the way he talks that he comes from the Protestants,” meaning the Evangelical and Pentecostals churches springing up in Lodwar just like across much of the rest of the world.

For that guy, obviously this Mass wasn’t entirely an act of faith either.

I asked Kemboi if he ever does hand out food supplies, water, and other basic necessities, and he said he does when he can afford it out of his Mass stipend. (Given that the stipend comes to about $100 a month, however, and that’s all he has to live on, it’s hit and miss.)

Of course, there’s another way of looking at such inevitable missionary realities. Kimengich said, “If someone comes to Mass without faith, only wanting food, and you give it to him, you’ve still done something important. You may not have saved a soul, but you’ve fed a hungry person, and that’s worth doing.”

However eager the Turkana may be to hear the Gospel, they’re not always so enthusiastic about living it, which can also frustrate the pastors who minister to them. They practice polygamy, for instance, so before communion, Kemboi asked how many people were in that kind of marriage to remind them not to come forward. Plenty of hands shot up.

At a personal level, priests such as Kemboi and Okoli pour their hearts into serving these people, but they’re under no illusions they’re all angels.

As we got out of the SUV at the Mass site, I noticed that Kemboi insisted we lock all the doors, especially the entrance for the rear area. Later, he explained he does that so people desperate for a ride won’t hop in uninvited and refuse to leave, which he said happened to him a lot when he first started.

“Yeah, but don’t you feel bad about it?”

In reply, he told a story of a time he had agreed to give several Turkana a lift. Along the way, his car got stuck in a muddy crossing and he needed help pushing it out. When he asked the Turkana to lend a hand, he said, they walked to the other side of the road and sat down, explaining, “Father, if you want our help, you need to give us money first!”

Kemboi also said quite often, he’ll hand a tribesman money, or medicine, or maybe give him a ride after Mass, and when it’s over the guy will just walk away, with no gratitude of any kind.

Tellingly, Okoli said, the Turkana language has no word for “thank you.”

Yet, despite the flaws of any such group of people, there’s a beauty and serenity about the Turkana, a capacity to take joy in simple things, that’s almost intoxicating. This is a people receiving Christianity pure, without any historical baggage. Meanwhile, the priests who minister here come off as quiet heroes, choosing a life not because it’s easy but because it’s demanding, and not really convinced they’re doing anything extraordinary.

“Life here is incredibly hard, we know that,” said Kimengich. “But it’s also very beautiful, because every day you know for sure you’re making a difference.”

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