Kenya keeping faith: Sisters Giovanna and Magdalene of the Sisters of Mary of Kakamega help run a formation center for aspiring nuns. (Andrew Gitau/Crux.)

Roman Catholicism today is a far-flung global religion with 1.3 billion followers, more than two-thirds of whom live outside the West. In the 21st century, considering other perspectives in thinking about the Church isn’t just a courtesy, it’s a survival strategy.

This week my magazine colleague Inés San Martín and I were in Kenya, Africa, visiting Mombasa, the country’s second city on the Indian Ocean coast, and Lodwar, an impoverished town of 50,000 in the largely desert north and the hub for the pastoralist and still largely isolated Turkana people.

It was a dazzling, exhausting and revealing experience, and far too multilayered for a quick synthesis. Nevertheless, here are a couple of initial takeaways. 

Left vs. right

Suppose I told you I know a Kenyan prelate who’s devoted his life to serving the most impoverished area in a country known for chronic poverty, who cares deeply about the environment and the impact of climate change on matters such as access to safe drinking water, and who’s risked his life to act as a peacemaker between competing tribal groups in massive refugee camps.

Many Americans probably would say, “Sounds like a real liberal.”

Now suppose I said I’d met a Kenyan prelate who belongs to Opus Dei, who puts a strong emphasis on seriousness about priestly life, who thinks the spiritual basics and bringing people to the Catholic faith are vitally important, and who has little interest in what’s bubbling on the theological avant-garde. The reaction probably would be, “That’s a classic conservative.”

All of the above is true of Bishop Dominic Kimengich of Lodwar, and he’s hardly alone. He laughed gently when I asked him if he thinks of himself as “liberal” or “conservative.” Eventually he said, “Here, those categories just don’t apply.”

Or, take Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa.

One minute, Archbishop Kivuva will brag about a recent film produced by the archdiocese defending traditional marriage, and the next he’ll light up discussing the latest efforts to promote inter-religious harmony and peace. That’s a keenly progressive cause in Mombasa, a religiously mixed city in which Catholics, Muslims, Pentecostals and Evangelicals, followers of traditional religions and Hindus all have significant footprints, and all today are under the shadow of cross-border threats from the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in neighboring Somalia.

In Archbishop Kivuva’s eyes, there’s nothing predestined about religious conflict. The real battle lines, he said, don’t run between Muslims and Christians, but between moderates and radicals — and, he warned, there are radical instincts in all traditions.

Women

By reputation, Africa is often considered a fairly male-dominated environment, and so is the Catholic Church here. Yet our experience this week suggested that much of the future of African Catholicism depends on its women.

In Mombasa, we visited the Holy Family Center at St. Martin’s Catholic Church, which abuts the largest slum in the city. Though the parish doesn’t currently have a school, it has a center serving children outside school hours and during breaks, and it sees the full gamut of challenges — alcohol and drug addiction, victims of human trafficking and prostitution, kids abandoned or marginalized because they’re HIV-positive, and just basic poverty.

The center is run by Sister Pauline Andrew of the Daughters of Divine Love, an order that’s been serving in the parish since 2004. When we arrived, we were greeted by a reception of traditional songs, dances and dress.

Sister Pauline hopes to see the center grow into a full-blown primary school served by her order, which would live in a nearby convent she’s also building. At the moment, she and another nun commute 14 kilometers every day to work at the parish, and Sister Pauline said that won’t work when the school is up and running.

Standing with Sister Pauline where the second floor of the new convent is supposed to be built as soon as she has the money, I asked Sister Pauline why she chose to do such bone-crushing, emotionally draining work. Looking up from the architect’s plans as if the question were impertinent, she said simply, “This is where God wants me,” and launched into a detailed explanation of her plans to model small-scale, sustainable urban agriculture by using land at the school and convent to grow crops.

Meanwhile in Lodwar, I visited the Bethany Guest House and an adjacent formation center for aspiring nuns, members of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of the Immaculate Conception, an order founded under Bishop Kimengich.

There, I met Sister Giovanna, who runs the formation center, and Sister Magdalene, who heads the guest house. They spoke passionately about forming the next generation of women religious to go out and evangelize, teach and serve. They also described their aim to teach these young girls trade skills for self-reliance, so they can pass them on to others.

Sister Magdalene walked us through the formation center, explaining what has already been accomplished and what needs to be done in a hurry. Here, too, growth is one main challenge — they have five women in formation now, with another eight expected to arrive next year.

Sister Magdalene, too, projected a calm determination when asked about all the different ways such an undertaking could go off the rails.

“This is what the Church needs from me,” she said of seeing the effort through.

Say what you will about these women and their dreams, but one thing is for sure: Terms such as “subservient” and “second-class citizen” simply don’t apply.