Looking back on my year in Kenya both reflecting and trying to learn from it, to remember the daily grit as well as the great moments, both the gift and the seeming irony of joy stood out in my mind. As a part of the aftercare team, it was challenging for me to know how to encourage our clients as they remained in the midst of struggle. It’s a gift and a grace to be able to see the hand of God in retrospect, for our clients who have progressed and are healing to see redemption in the face of a baby begotten because of abuse or for men released from prison to understand the cost and the depth of freedom with a new sense of wonder. It’s a greater challenge to see the presence of our God, his strength unfettered, when we remain chained, to mourn with our clients who are illegally detained as we all meet in prison because of human error, apathy, and even malice. Ironically, it’s in these times that we must intentionally be aware, both as individuals and as body, of how God is present, tender and holy in the midst of injustice. We remember that God is not only good when we’re singing or high in the sky eating pie, but we sing because God is good, no matter what may be falling around us. My coworker, Stephen, spent four years in prison as IJM’s first client of police abuse, and his words as our Director of Church and Community Relations now encouraged me while I was learning to seek the peace of God when I was anguished in Spirit. He spoke of the joy of standing outside reaching his arms out as far as he could and reveling in having the space to, of thanking God that he lived through years of being placed in the part of the prison where inmates with illnesses were kept and thanking God each day that he didn’t have cholera, thanking God for his goodness. I long for a faith that responds to all things with gratitude, recognizing the gifts present even amidst the pain. At a time when I not only needed a balm for my soul but was responsible for encouraging our clients who remained in remand, reading the Psalms and seeing the heart of the Psalmist, broken but returning to the truth of praise, reoriented my heart repeatedly even when situations seemed unchanging.
During Holy Week and through the weeks thereafter, I would pray Psalm 22, remembering that God is both the one we seek in desperation and the one who is good, holy to be praised.
Psalm 22: Why Have You Forsaken Me?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
And by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
Enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
They trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
In you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
Scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
They make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
He trusts in the LORD: let him deliver him;
Let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
You made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
And from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
For trouble is near,
And there is no one to help.
Many bulls encompass me;
Strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
They open wide their mouths at me,
Like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within my breast;
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue sticks to my jaws;
You lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me;
A company of evildoers encircles me;
They have pierced my hands and feet-
I can count all my bones-
They stare and gloat over me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
My precious life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
And stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
The affliction of the afflicted,
And he has not hidden his face from him,
But has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
My vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the LORD,
And all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
And he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
Even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
It shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
They shall come and proclaim his righteousness
To a people yet unborn,
That he has done it.
I kept a card on my desk at work with a quote from Larry Crab that reads “God is always working to make His children aware of a dream that remains alive beneath the rubble of every shattered dream, a new dream that when realized will release a new song, sung with tears, till God wipes them away and we sing with nothing but joy in our hearts.”
What does it mean to “sing with nothing but joy in our hearts?” Furthermore, what is joy?
I used to think of joy as “the ecstasy of goodness,” like singing at the top of your lungs with the windows down and the wind blowing, driving as fast as you can to come home at the start of summer. On a greater scale, I thought of joy as the realization and celebration of “a return to kindness and decency” as Audrey Hepburn would say, the gift of people choosing to choose each other’s good. The dictionary defined joy in 3 ways: as the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying, a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight, and the expression of a glad feeling. This leaves joy as the feeling, source, or expression of happiness, but I beg to differ. Joy can be a gift from God he allows us to enter into, or it can be a response we choose to offer up to him as we acknowledge and ask for his presence in our lives. Joy is not sweet or fluffy, and it doesn’t always come without pain.
Joy is seeing the work and the presence of God in our lives here and now and gratefully celebrating the privilege of joining in with our whole selves. Over the past year, my understanding of joy, both the word and the reality, has been challenged, reworked, and eventually purified to hold weight in ways it never did before.
At training week for IJM, joy was presented as “the knowledge of a good well-secured.” This year has been one of the most joyful and most painful of my life. There have been no roller coasters or fluffy kittens, no quick and clear token trinkets that come with a rush and are done. There have been long days, flooding rainstorms, and recurring early mornings. The exhausting thing about giving all that you have is that you can’t do it once; you wake up each day to do it again. There is incredible purpose in choosing to follow, but there is also a creeping, nagging temptation to leave. I appreciate the cost of righteousness when I remember that we cannot actually believe what is true intellectually unless we act upon that with the obedience of trust. But even before the end of my internship, in the midst of everything, this has been a year of falling facedown and crying holy. I started reading the Psalms to start my day at the beginning of April, and in them I’ve found the only sort of consolation for my spirit as I myself sought an answer, a word of encouragement or hope, for our illegally detained clients whom we went to visit in prison.
What do you say to someone you know is in agony, bound by the chains of human apathy, injustice and the chaos of fear? What do you say in the twenty minutes a month you come in to visit, before you leave and they can’t? This has been a question I’ve been living in this year, but the weight of it was strong twice; once visiting clients in remand, the prison facility where those accused are held as they await judgment for an average time period of two years, and once sitting next to a client’s wife as we waited for her husband, Joseph’s, judgment to be delivered. I’ll return to Joseph’s story, but the consolation I felt in those moments and the recurrent theme of peace in the Psalms surprised me in the form of joy.
It’s recounted that St. Francis of Assisi was returning, wet and exhausted, to the monastery after a long journey when Leo, a Monk travelling with him, asked him wherein lies perfect joy. St. Francis responded that if they were taunted, abused, and put out of the monastery when they arrived, they would experience joy “If we accept such injustice, such cruelty, and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring,” and “if we bear all these injustices with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for Him, write O Brother Leo, that here, finally is perfect joy.”
Perfect joy is an awareness of the presence of God and of our existence in and through him no matter how difficult or comfortable our lives may be. Perfect joy is ours as we center our lives on him and are aware of his presence in our lives. Brennan Manning described it well when he wrote, “Christianity doesn’t deny the reality of suffering and evil…. Our hope… is not based on the idea that we are going to be free of pain and suffering. Rather it is based on the conviction that we will triumph over suffering.”
The beauty of the joy exuded, even chosen by my colleagues and clients was not cheap or fake but a resolute bearing of frustration and brokenness with grace, the fruit of the knowledge that this is not the end. It’s in getting up to go to court every morning even when a case has been repeatedly adjourned, knowing that faithfulness is a gift of service to the Lord and to clients. In the cases of Joseph, a client who was freed after being illegally detained, joy resounded in a quiet gratitude, a gift of God in response to faithfulness in uncertainty.
Joseph’s family was one I most connected with throughout my time with IJM, and their friendship humbles me. When I first met their family two weeks after arriving in Nairobi, Joseph’s wife had just given birth to their sixth child, a baby boy, leaving the family without an income as Joseph was in remand and she was caring for the newborn baby. IJM’s aftercare staff were working to make sure his daughter was back in school after dropping out to help earn money, and lawyers were advocating on Joseph’s behalf.
Joseph has a small business selling soccer balls in a different slum, and one early morning at work police officers were demolishing a settlement there. Residents were rallying to defend their homes and their families, and Joseph stepped outside of the kiosk where he was having tea to see what the commotion was. As he stepped outside, he was shot in the crossfire and was taken to the hospital. While he was being treated, his nurse was talking to another nurse treating a police officer who quickly realized they had been wounded at the same scene. Angry, the officer ordered Joseph’s arrest and charged him with robbery with violence, a capital offence. Joseph was taken from the hospital to the remand prison with gunshot wounds, where he remained for 16 months until his release.
Over the next 10 months between my first visit to Joseph’s home and his acquittal, IJM continued to represent Joseph and his family, and they continued. Life wasn’t glamorous. It was difficult. It still will be. But their family modeled what it looks like to be faithful in uncertainty, to address the difficult and pray for its end daily and to continue to live it daily. We continued to visit Joseph in remand. It continued to be crowded and challenging and anything but comfortable, and he continued to yearn for freedom. We continued to pray. His family continued to pray. You continued to pray. In December, 6 thousand letters of encouragement, hope, and shared prayers from you and others around the world were brought to IJM Kenya’s office, delivered to Joseph’s home, and letters along with Joseph’s wife were taken to him in prison to remind him that he was loved and remembered. They reminded those in authority that Joseph was loved and remembered. Our staff sat around our conference room table for a week over lunch pouring through letters. We cried and laughed and prayed and marveled at the hand of God to move the hearts of second grade and middle school classes, working moms, average and extraordinary people who, in some way, were able to love this man who we loved, to pray for his freedom we and he prayed for, to mourn the degree of injustice he faced and to acknowledge him, not only as a victim but as a man, an individual of great worth who mattered and matters still. In a stack of 6,000 letters, I read my mom’s letter, unsigned, and started sobbing. Even as I know that God is compassionate, moving in details, it still amazes me to see how intimately he works, how he knits us together to encourage, uphold, and remind one another of how deep his love and concern is for us.
We delivered the letters. We were moved. We continued to pray. We at IJM Kenya, we at IJM global, we as you and I and Joseph’s family, continued to long for his release and live with the reality of his incarceration. Joseph continued to remain in remand. His case continued and his judgment was postponed in a repetitive series. Joseph’s daughter and son continued in school. Joseph’s wife continued with the small business IJM helped her to start dyeing and selling individual sized packs of snacks to kiosks around Nairobi. We continued to pray.
On May 3, a Thursday afternoon, IJM’s lawyer and I met Joseph’s wife at the courthouse to attend another rescheduled judgment for Joseph. The magistrate was late. Joseph’s wife and I care deeply for one another, but we can’t really say more than “How are you?” and “Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer!” with excitement or “Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer,” with a laugh and a shaking head, depending on the situation. We were sitting next to each other outside the court room waiting, and I wanted the gift of tongues more than anything so that I could turn to her in Kimeru and say words to encourage her that could only come from God, because I certainly couldn’t think of them, even in English. Instead, I reached into my purse for the pack of trident gum I carried for “special times” and got a piece for each of us. She gave me the eye brow not, and we continued to sit. And sit. I started rereading Psalm 22 and was reminded that, no matter what would happen, whether Joseph was acquitted, convicted, or sent back to remand to continue awaiting his judgment, God was present, and God was good. He didn’t speak with audible words or even concepts or ideas, and I didn’t have a revelation of what he was teaching us, much less one out loud and in Kimeru. There was no clear cut understanding of how everything would be ok because of x,y, and z. There was anguish, but there was God.
It didn’t look like court would proceed, but it did. The power went out, and the restless room was left in the shadows of a few small windows and the open door. Our lawyer asked the magistrate if he would be reading Joseph’s judgment, and he replied that is was drafted, but the shadows were disturbing his eyes. We sent Joseph’s wife across the street with change to buy candles and a matchbook, and I stepped outside to call my boss and my mom and ask them to pray. Work at IJM Kenya’s office stopped immediately and was filled with fervent prayer. Our headquarters were called and they prayed. I’m told that the ceramics studio at Taylor was filled with students praying, intervening on behalf of a man they’d never met but had heard about through their prof’s updates on the Africa daughter.
Prayer is an everyday marvel, underused and mysterious to me, but it humbles and astounds me to think that God allows us to enter into what he is doing, connect us not only with one another but also weaving us into his greater work of redemption. This is too deep for me to understand but a grace to be allowed to catch a glimpse of.
After several other cases and more drama than Law & Order, Joseph and his co-accused were brought out to the docket. Joseph was acquitted of all charges and sent back to remand to be discharged. Solemnly, his wife stood, walked out of the courtroom, and gave me the biggest I’ve ever received, and I’m a hugger, so that says a lot. She called everyone she new, and I called my office, my mom, and my Dad. The sense of joy on the other end of the phone as 20 Kenyans let up cries of joy is something I never want to forget. I called my Dad when I was sitting next to Joseph’s wife on the phone, and he said “Wow! It’s so exciting to hear how excited your whole office is in this!” No, no that’s just one woman celebrating freedom with her lungs and her life. She asked me if I could call John, the legal fellow who had spent long nights in the office drafting case files and letters for Joseph’s case. He left the previous July, 9 months before, but not without impact; Joseph’s baby’s middle name is John after the lawyer who loved his family. Joseph’s wife said that her husband would love more than anything to see John when he stepped out of the gates of remand and to say thank you to him.
We returned to the office where half the staff and stayed over an hour and a half late just to see Joseph’s wife and celebrate with her. From there, calls were made to ensure Joseph would be discharged, and Joseph’s lawyer, wife, and our casework manager and I proceeded to the prison to pick him up in a rainstorm and take him to a gas station for chicken burgers, his first meal as a free man. As the rain roared down and crashed on the pavement outside the open door, Joseph talked about his challenges in prison, how they slept and ate and how he encountered God in a way he never had before. His wife shared about how her son asked her to save the bread at breakfast that morning so that daddy would have something to eat when he was freed. We dropped them off outside their neighborhood, and Joseph was reunited with his children. Together, the family came to IJM Kenya’s office the next week to meet all the staff, and we had a celebration lunch several weeks later to debrief their case, thank the Lord, and give Joseph and his family a chance to share.
While Joseph was innocent and his incarceration should never have happened, God was present. In the complexity of injustice’s chaos, he remained good, and he does still. I don’t think that the injustice of Joseph’s illegal detention had to occur in order for a certain good to be shown, but I do believe that our God is infinitely good and incredibly able, capable of being seen even in darkness. His strength was shown in Joseph’s wife’s loyalty to her husband as she supported him through his incarceration and now through his rehabilitation. His love was shown in the support of thousands of people around the world, individuals who had never met Joseph but who longed for his release. Support is defined as “to bear or hold up, serve as a foundation for, to sustain or withstand without giving way, to maintain by supplying with things necessary to existence.” At IJM Kenya, we were dependent on Christ to support and sustain us, to give us wisdom in our world and to give us peace at night when our work seemed overwhelming. It was a gift of the Lord to not only be able to support Joseph and his family but to see how God was moving, to experience joy as we saw the hand of God moving every day, from Joseph’s release through all the days prior when he remained in remand.
Joy is seeing the work and the presence of God in our lives here and now and gratefully celebrating the privilege of joining in with our whole selves.
The Joy of Lord comes down as we see that even in conflict, torment and injustice He is present and He upholds us. Holy is Our God! Wonderful is He! We look to Christ on the cross with the knowledge that he went to His death “for the joy set before Him,” to participate in the redemption of God for all things. Somehow, shrouded in mystery, He not only made the sacrifice of giving his life for each of ours- a gift in and of itself- but his act of submission was also an act of trust that the Father was present, was at work even in something as dark as a death deemed disgraceful by the Romans. Even as all things are being redeemed, he invites us to participate in their redemption, in praise and in prayer, in anguish and ecstasy, whether we understand or are overwhelmed remembering as Psalm 22:24 accounts “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”
Thank you for supporting me, for supporting IJM Kenya, and for supporting Joseph and others like him who remain in remand in Nairobi longing for freedom still. Thank you as a church, a community, and as individuals for raising me up and challenging me to see the presence of God in my life and for making him known through yours.