By Mari Reitsma Chevako
The Rev. Canon Francis Omondi’s Anglican roots run deep. His grandfather, the Rev. Canon Reuben Omulo, was one of the first Christian converts in Nyanza in western Kenya through the Church Mission Society and became one of the first six African priests to serve through CMS in 1924. According to the first archbishop, Festo H. Olang’, Canon Omulo had a great influence on the development of the church in Nyanza.
Canon Omondi continues his grandfather’s legacy of influence. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1998, made a canon of the Diocese of Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, and serves at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi.
He has recently been appointed to the Anglican Interfaith Commission, which the 2016 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council elevated from being a network and the 2017 Primates’ Meeting launched with funding and new members. The commission held its first meeting this spring at All Saints Garden Conference Centre in Cairo. Its stated purpose is to “build relationships of mutual trust and respect with people of other faiths,” “to move toward a greater understanding of our neighbors,” “to raise awareness of persecution and discrimination,” and “to build and embed networks of interfaith cooperation for the common good” at every level of the Communion. Archbishop Justin Welby has described its success as “essential to our future.”
In the fall of 2015, at the height of religiously motivated violence, Omondi was invited to a United Nations General Assembly Side Meeting to share his views on reducing sectarian tensions in Kenya and beyond.
In matters of justice and faith, Omondi sees tensions arising from dualistic thinking that divides people into us and them. In an article for the pan-African online publication The Elephant, Omondi argued that that the Book of Genesis depicts “the willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than see them as a threat. … Joseph forces his brothers to recognise that just as a brother can be a stranger (when kept at a distance), so a stranger can turn out to be a brother.”
Omondi seems never to have lacked zeal to reach across lines that divide us. As a student at Kenyatta University in the mid 1980s, he and his classmates were concerned for Muslim communities in the Horn of Africa that local churches had overlooked.
“And why would they not be reached? Why was no one trying to reach them?” When Omondi tells his story to a room full of American friends and supporters, the questions are clearly as pertinent to him now as they were when he was a student. He intends for us to find them pertinent when thinking about the strangers in our midst.
Omondi and his classmates organized open-air evangelistic events and tried to attract a crowd. It was not an effective approach, however, and work with Muslims clearly needed to be reimagined. There were no mission programs or infrastructures within the Kenyan church at that time for preparing and sending zealous young people to cross-cultural ministry in their own country.
In 1988, Omondi and his classmates attended a student missionary conference where they heard John Stott’s call to incarnational mission based on John 20:21: “As my Father sent me, so I send you.” Hearing Stott’s message gave the students a renewed sense that they could be missionaries within their nation. They were later inspired by Rev. Bayo Famonure of Nigeria, who had founded a national mission agency. It became clear to Omondi and his peers that the only way to reach the unreached people was to form their own national mission organization.
The result was the Sheepfold Ministry, created with the intent of establishing communities of believers and worshipers of Christ among unreached people groups, specifically among Muslims in the Horn of Africa.
Omondi knew that this enterprise could not succeed without the support of local churches. Though he recruited candidates from universities, he required them to be recommended and commissioned by their local churches.
In 1990, Sheepfold established a center in northeastern Kenya that began training and sending people out. Omondi and his wife, Anne, moved into an unreached area where they have established themselves and raised three sons. Sheepfold Ministry has grown and expanded, with 300 people working long term in nine centers among seven people groups in Kenya, as well as in Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
Living as a Christian in a Muslim community in northeastern Kenya has come with challenges, including a rising tide of Islamic insurgency. On April 3, 2015, Al-Shabaab militants opened fire on Garissa University, focusing their attack on Christians and killing 147. Kenyan security forces urged Omondi and his family to leave the area, warning that the government could no longer protect them. Nevertheless, the Omondis have become such an integral part of the community that Muslim elders promised to protect them, and they decided to stay. Strangers have become brothers willing to lay their lives down for each other.
The threats continue, and as Omondi sees it, the mission field will only grow more hostile. But remaining among people who suffer because of terror is a witness in itself. 30 years into his ministry, Omondi continues to live by the inspiration he found in Stott’s call to incarnational ministry among unreached people.
“While obeying the call has come with huge costs, the results have been tremendous,” Omondi said. “Those who had been hostile to faith before are reconciled and own us in a more powerful way. That is because participating in Jesus’ mission of liberating love is best done as part of a community. Missions, therefore, is not about counting results by the number of ‘converts,’ but by maintaining a true witness in the midst of our calling.”
Omondi cites John 10:16, the verse that inspired the name for the Sheepfold Ministry: “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock, with one shepherd” (CEB). In this verse, Omondi sees Jesus claiming his position as a shepherd with a large flock that he has come to lead, and the flock exists in multiple pens scattered around the world.
“The name has proven to be prophetic,” Omondi said. “It’s like when you name a child, you are not aware of all that the name will come to mean.” The verse has caused him to understand that among Muslim neighbors are the Lord’s “other sheep” who have not yet learned to hear his voice. They too will respond to the Shepherd if they are patiently taught to hear him.
Omondi sees a new paradigm for missions that he calls the Come Paradigm.
Most of us are familiar with the Go Paradigm, which is based on Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “Go and make disciples” and in Mark 16:15 to “Go into all the world.” In this paradigm, the emphasis is on going to the uncivilized world and unreached peoples, as missionaries from the West once went to Africa.
The Come Paradigm emphasizes the way in which Christ initiates mission to unreached people and invites Christians to join him in this task. It suggests that Christ the Good Shepherd has his people, his sheep, in all parts of the world, and he is in the world pursuing them to bring them into his fellowship. Because his people have an innate ability to hear and relate to him, he is not distant or remote, but is both manifest and latent among them.
Think of Acts 16:9, in which Paul is compelled to go to Macedonia by a vision of a man pleading, “Come help us,” or Acts 10:1-8, in which Cornelius, a God-fearing religious seeker though not a believer, was told by God to summon Peter. Think, too, of Paul at Mars Hill who shared the gospel by appealing to the imaginations of the people through the general revelation they had received about an unknown God.
Omondi believes Christ initiated the move to the unreached in northeast Kenya and invited him and others to join the work. This understanding has influenced his attitude toward the unreached: they are the Lord’s own, and the Lord has been seeking them and is among them, revealing himself in a way they do not yet fully understand. The missionary task is for believers to be witnesses for Christ who through their lives and voices invite others to Christ.
While each part of Omondi’s ministry is shaped by social and religious realities in Kenya, his example is nevertheless instructive to American Christians challenged to be relevant in a culture in which we’re increasingly divided by our beliefs on how to engage it effectively.
For Omondi, questions about Christian witness should always return us to Christ, who came to live among us.
“You will never have a hearing if you are not fully present in another’s context,” Omondi said. “Remember, we are humans first. Connect in this way. What are the issues that concern them? Where do they look for solutions? Then share the solutions you find in Scripture for the issues that concern you. But connect first as humans.”
Mari Reitsma Chevako is an English as a Second Language lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.