Challenging African and American High-school Students

Becky Hill

The Africans packed tightly into the high-school auditorium and up into the balcony, pressing against each other from wall to wall. They would have easily broken any U.S. fire code, but that didn't matter here. The Kenyans were curious about the group of Americans on the stage. Who were they?

As Cru staff member Isaac Kanyingi looked around the old auditorium, he also had questions.

This age group represented a quarter of Kenya's population, poised to have a great influence on their country. Would this be the generation, Isaac wondered, to help Kenyans start living for Christ?

During the opening songs in the auditorium, the school leader often shouted, "Praise God!" and the crowd of teenagers -- in a public high school -- automatically mumbled, "Amen."

For years, Kenya has been saturated with missionaries from all over the world. Politically stable, peaceful and financially strong, Kenya was a strategic country to reach.

Christian influence resulted in many Kenyans having heard some form of the gospel, and today, 80 percent say they are Christians. Many public school rooms post a "God is Good" sticker near the front of the room, and Christian Religious Education (or the alternative Islamic Religious Education) is a required class.

Yet the night's singing and shouting only disguises the hurt among many students crammed into the auditorium.

Because of the rapid spread of AIDS in the country, the average life expectancy among Kenyans has dropped from 63 to 46 years. The government has been characterized as corrupt, and the United Nations recently reported an increase in drug abuse nationwide, particularly calling heroin abuse a "serious problem."

Isaac saw the effects of this moral decline firsthand during his seven years as a high-school teacher. He knew the Kenyans did not need another foreign missionary to come and preach the gospel to them. Rather, Isaac believes that Kenyans need to apply what they've heard.

"Kenyans are a religious people," he says, "but if we have a nation that is supposedly 80 percent Christian, we should not be seeing the things we are seeing. Every Kenyan wants to be baptized and go to church on Sundays, but they have Christianity with no power, no relationship [with God]."

Isaac saw the need, especially in high schools, for Christian students to challenge each other to grow in their faith and be intentional in telling others about Christ. He found this kind of structure in Cru, called Life Ministry in Kenya.

Isaac and his wife, Tabitha, joined Cru, becoming the only current staff members with its Kenyan high-school ministry. They prayed that God would use them to raise up high-schoolers to change Kenya. With this goal in mind, Isaac did what no one would have expected: He invited more missionaries.

"The students are looking for role models," says 27-year-old Jacob Kinyanjui, a Kenyan volunteer with Life Ministry. "Kenyans' morals have highly deteriorated because of the media, mostly from the United States."

So Isaac capitalized on the way Kenyans view Western culture and invited a group of American high-school students to come. He wanted them to accomplish a double purpose: break the Kenyan stereotypes that Americans are gleefully immoral, and model how to live boldly and wholeheartedly as Christians.

Isaac knew the students would be challenged when the people they were trying to imitate came and talked about Christ. When the Americans left, he hoped the Kenyans would be on track to become spiritual leaders, not just followers.

The two previous summers, Isaac had invited Americans to come to the capital city of Nairobi, and had seen tremendous success. At the end of the last school year, over 900 high-school students at eight schools were involved in a Life Ministry movement.

So Isaac's heart soon turned toward his hometown, Nakuru. He encouraged 30 Kenyan volunteers, many of them recent high-school graduates, to join the Americans in talking to the high-school students.

The group drove two and a half hours northwest from Nairobi, through Africa's Great Rift Valley, passing several lakes and ancient craters. Baboons lounged by the side of the road, and wild zebras came in from the countryside to graze alongside farm horses, watching the seven vanloads of humans bump across the potholed road.

When the group arrived in Nakuru that evening, they went straight to one of Kenya's largest high schools, Nakuru High School. Many students were still walking toward the auditorium, their curiosity piqued by the vanloads of visitors.

"They've never seen such a convoy," Isaac said, laughing. "Now they all want to come and see what's happening."

That evening, students packed into the auditorium and lined up in the back to hear the Americans and Kenyan volunteers tell stories about how God had worked in their lives. The teens absorbed each story, as outside the sun sank low on the African horizon.

After the program, there was time to mingle. Kenyans soon surrounded every American, flooding them with questions. One young man came up to Dennis Miller, a 19-year-old from Houston, and confidently asked, "What advice can you give to me?" The group around them leaned in to hear Dennis' response.

Without hesitation, Dennis replied, "The best advice I can give anyone is to always trust God. And in order to trust God, you need to have a personal relationship with Christ." Aware that his answer sounded simple, Dennis discussed with the group what it means to really follow Christ.

Conversations continued as the evening settled in.

Although Nakuru is Kenya's fourth largest city, the night air was quiet and dark. Inside the school, only a few dim light bulbs shone, and the students were eventually forced to say goodnight. They stepped out into the peaceful glow of the moon.

In the following days, the Life Ministry group visited 19 high schools in Nakuru, giving talks on academics and relationships, while also presenting the gospel clearly. In every school, the students and teachers alike were impressed.

"They've never come across people who are so honest," says Laurette Mkumwaka, an English teacher at Mema Secondary School in Nakuru. "Some students came to me and said, 'How can we join such a team?'"

The group also had an impact on the Kenyan volunteers. Several are thinking about traveling to neighboring African countries to talk to more students.

During their three weeks in Nairobi and Nakuru, the Americans and Kenyan volunteers talked to over 20,000 high-school students. More than 1,000 students indicated decisions to receive Christ, and thousands more began to understand that the Christian life extends beyond once a week in church to an authentic, passionate lifestyle for God.

Isaac was pleased, especially since he sees this mission as urgent. Kenya, he believes, bears resemblance to the spiritual climate of America in the 1950s -- and that landscape changed dramatically in a few years.

"We might not always have such freedom in the schools," says Isaac. "We want to seize the moment, before the doors close, and establish a movement that will last."

As the Americans prepared to leave, they held on to the hope that the Kenyans they met would indeed lead their generation. One night during dinner, they met a young man who encouraged this hope.

George Gachara had come to say thank you.

Until last year, George had lost hope. "I was a Christian," the 18-year-old recalls, "but I was trapped in sin."

Then he joined 350 other teenagers for a conference in Nairobi last year hosted by Life Ministry. But George came with the burden of past hurts and unconfessed sin.

"When I went there," he says, "I was heartbroken. I had so much bitterness. But I am now free." He tells the group about the change that happened in his life after he made a renewed commitment to follow Christ.

One year later, George is a youth leader at his church, actively seeking ways to tell his classmates at Nakuru Day School about Christ. While talking with Cru staff member Nancy Wilson, George admitted his dream to be president of Kenya. He laughed at the thought.

"Don't limit God," Nancy encouraged him. "He has something very special for you. One life can impact a nation."

Isaac and Tabitha trust that high-schoolers like George will indeed influence the nation, and that the generation will be changed.

"We are a young ministry," says Isaac, "But I look forward to a day when we will have a high-school ministry in Nairobi and Nakuru, in Eldoret and Kisumu and Mombasa. All we have to do is trust God."

Isaac knows the road will not be easy and, like on the real road to Nakuru, there might be some potholes and bumps on their journey. But he has faith that someday, he will see his vision come true, as high-school students, strong in their faith, lead the country.

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