MOMBASA, Kenya – Bombolulu, an impoverished neighborhood in Mombasa, Kenya, contains one of the city’s largest slums, with some 75,000 souls crammed in wood and tin homes that can stagger the imagination in terms of squalor.
At the center of it all lies a small Catholic church, which is often like a heart pumping blood into the community, above all by tending to its children. Many of these young people face deep scars, ranging from abuse and abandonment to being born with HIV or having been rescued from human trafficking networks, and would seem to have every reason in the world for feeling either rage or despair, and perhaps both.
And yet, you wouldn’t have known any of that based on a visit my Crux colleague John L. Allen Jr. and I paid Tuesday afternoon to St. Martin Catholic Church, where 150 children put up a wildly raucous, enthusiastic and upbeat welcome for two strangers they’ll probably never see again in their lives.
Taken altogether, the scene was a reminder of the paradox that sometimes where life is the toughest, the heart has to grow even larger just to make it through.
Wearing distinctive dress reflecting membership in the Pontifical Missionary Childhood, the Legion of Mary or even a group of altar boys, the children danced and sang passionately, both in English and Kikuyu, a language belonging to one of the largest of Kenya’s more than 40 tribes.
“God has created us to help in His Creation,” is the loose translation to one of the songs, according to Sister Pauline Andrew, a member of the Sisters of Divine Love and arguably the prime mover behind the children’s center.
“He’s given us eyes to see what he’s created, a mouth to speak the message of God, and feet to go give witness wherever he needs us,” she translated. The children who sang the song weren’t older than four or five, and not only did they belt out the number in almost pitch-perfect fashion, but they also gyrated and danced – at one stage, drawing wary Crux staff into the show.
These kids attend the Holy Family Center, run by Andrew and another member of her community. They’ve been there since 2004, traveling some 10 miles every day for over a decade until, with the help of the global papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) they were able to begin building a convent.
Physically, the location is really just around the corner from the church, though crude unpaved roads running over decades of neglect make it seem longer by car.
Currently the two sisters live in what’s been built of the convent, but since it’s missing the entire second floor and a roof, it’s sometimes an adventure. When heavy rains come for instance, water filters downstairs.
The nuns hope the site will be the foundation for a new Catholic primary school, designed to serve the children of the parish – and, by extension the slums. They’ve paid $16,000 for the land with the help of members of their congregation serving in the United States, and they estimate the rest of the work will run to around $60,000 – again, with some of it coming from Aid to the Church in Need.
They’ve also received help from other Catholic aid agencies, “older siblings” such as the Pontifical Mission Societies (a group under the direct jurisdiction of the pope), but they say much is still needed to guarantee completion.
“We’re here to serve Christianity,” Andrew said. In Bombolulu, that’s some 3,000 people, who live in a Muslim-majority neighborhood in the only major city in Kenya where Christians are not a strong majority.
The day center serves children who range in age from 1 to 14, primarily striving to give them a Christian formation, which also serves the double purpose of keeping them off the streets. The church is also staffed by two Marist priests, who are working on launching a secondary school to be ready when the sister’s first cohort reaches the right age.
Beyond singing and dancing, the children recited several Bible verses, always beginning with “I have a memory verse for you,” and the actual passage.
Oftentimes, Catholic conversation in various parts of the world can pivot on whether you’re happy or frustrated with Rome. But in Mombasa on one joyous (and incredibly muggy) Tuesday afternoon, the focus wasn’t Rome but St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts,” went the passage from chapter one of Paul’s letter cited by one of the children. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.”
In the classic Gospel sense of the term, the Kenyan kids we saw on Tuesday are the opposite of fools. Their wisdom lies in the fact that, better than most, they know what suffering and pain is all about, yet they’ve chosen to glorify God through singing, hence as St. Augustine said, praying twice.