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On the weekend, I travelled by train through what is reputed to be the biggest slum in the world, the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. It stretches for many miles, and houses literally millions of people in tin sheds forced so closely together that I wonder where the rain is able to run off the rusty rooves. Much of it is without toilets, apart from the 'flying toilets' which litter the borders of Kibera. These are plastic bags, which are used to collect faeces and then thrown almost anywhere when others are not looking. So the horrors of plastic bags which are threatening the environment in Kenya are now being further complicated by contents which make any efforts to retrieve them almost unthinkable.

Kibera started as a refugee camp for the Sudanese. But when the U.N. constructed Kakuma Refugee Camp, hundreds of miles closer to the Sudanese border, the area was inundated by hundreds of thousands of poor Kenyans hoping to find employment in Nairobi.

As I looked out the window of the train, tears came to my eyes. Not far from the slum we passed farmland, complete with water holes holding enough water to see farmers through the drought which we are now experiencing. Why couldn't some far-thinking organisation (or even a keen individual) take even one tiny piece of that slum and turn it into at least sturdy, dry high-rise accommodation, with a system for collecting rainwater, and toilets for the tenants. Such a project would certainly give immeasurable spiritual and psychological reward. If two million people can squeeze into such a small area in tiny shanties, then high-rise accommodation would leave room for proper roads and footpaths that do not turn to mud every time it rains; and it might even allow for an occasional tree or a tiny bit of grass.

I know that high-rise apartments are not the most ideal form of housing, but at least that was my thought with regard to some form of improvement.

And then I thought about my life. I questioned whether I would be able to live long enough to do anything here. Could I look at Kibera and not at least try? I thought about how I have spent my life up to this point, and I was struck with the strongest regret I have ever felt in my 61 years on earth. For the most part, I have had few regrets about things that I have done. I have tried to live my life with thoughts about eternity, and about God. But an awful lot of that has led me to literally spend decades beating my head against a brick wall with regard to evangelical churchgoers. I wonder now whether God is going to be very impressed with any of that. Far better if I could have shown him even one acre of Kibera reclaimed and regenerated as proof of my faith in him and my love for others. And I have no doubts that I could have achieved that many times over if I had just walked away from the hypocrisy in the churches decades ago. All it would take is a decision to act now and then keep on acting.

Then I came home to receive a copy of a letter written on February 18th, by the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches, to the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, being held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this week. It seemed to express so eloquently what I was feeling.

Mind you, I still have reservations about how far these people are willing to go to put legs to their prayers. It is so easy to apologise for something that we really think 'others' (and in particular, the opposition political parties) are most guilty of; but true repentance will lead all those people represented by the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches to do as John the Baptist asked those claiming to be sorry for their sins to do in his day: 'Let those who have two give to those who have none.' And how much more significant if you have tens or hundreds or even thousands of times more than others. How many of us have two toilets while others have none, or two cars, or two bedrooms? Yes, there is so much that we could be doing right now, if we would stop waiting for some super-power to do it for us.

Nevertheless, an admission of guilt certainly is the first step. We look forward to joining hands with any who are prepared to leave all that and come to live and work with us amongst the poor of Kenya. May God forgive us for taking so long to get here.

Love and blessings,


From the US Conference for the World Council of Churches to the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Porto Alegre, Brazil Saturday, 18 February, 2006

As leaders from the World Council of Churches member communions in the United States we greet the delegates to the 9th Assembly with joy and gratitude for your partnership in the Gospel in the years since we were assembled in Harare. During those years you have been constant in your love for us. We remember in particular the ways you embraced us with compassion in the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina just months ago. Your pastoral words, your gifts, and your prayers sustained us, reminding us that we were not alone but were joined in the Body of Christ to a community of deep encouragement and consolation. Even now you have welcomed us at this Assembly with rich hospitality. Know that we are profoundly grateful.

Yet we acknowledge as well that we are citizens of a nation that has done much in these years to endanger the human family and to abuse the creation. Following the terrorist attacks you sent “living letters” inviting us into a deeper solidarity with those who suffer daily from violence around the world. But our country responded by seeking to reclaim a privileged and secure place in the world, raining down terror on the truly vulnerable among our global neighbors. Our leaders turned a deaf ear to the voices of church leaders throughout our nation and the world, entering into imperial projects that seek to dominate and control for the sake of our own national interests. Nations have been demonized and God has been enlisted in national agendas that are nothing short of idolatrous. We lament with special anguish the war in Iraq, launched in deception and violating global norms of justice and human rights. We mourn all who have died or been injured in this war; we acknowledge with shame abuses carried out in our name; we confess that we have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from this path of preemptive war. Lord, have mercy.

The rivers, oceans, lakes, rainforests, and wetlands that sustain us, even the air we breathe continue to be violated, and global warming goes unchecked while we allow God’s creation to veer toward destruction. Yet our own country refuses to acknowledge its complicity and rejects multilateral agreements aimed at reversing disastrous trends. We consume without replenishing; we grasp finite resources as if they are private possessions; our uncontrolled appetites devour more and more of the earth’s gifts. We confess that we have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to call our nation to global responsibility for the creation, that we ourselves are complicit in a culture of consumption that diminishes the earth. Christ, have mercy.

The vast majority of the peoples of the earth live in crushing poverty. The starvation, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the treatable diseases that go untreated indict us, revealing the grim features of global economic injustice we have too often failed to acknowledge or confront. Our nation enjoys enormous wealth, yet we cling to our possessions rather than share. We have failed to embody the covenant of life to which our God calls us; hurricane Katrina revealed to the world those left behind in our own nation by the rupture of our social contract. As a nation we have refused to confront the racism that exists in our own communities and the racism that infects our policies around the world. We confess that we have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to call our nation to seek just economic structures so that sharing by all will mean scarcity for none. In the face of the earth’s poverty, our wealth condemns us. Lord, have mercy.

Sisters and brothers in the ecumenical community, we come to you in this Assembly grateful for hospitality we don’t deserve, for companionship we haven’t earned, for an embrace we don’t merit. In the hope that is promised in Christ and thankful for people of faith in our own country who have sustained our yearning for peace, we come to you seeking to be partners in the search for unity and justice. From a place seduced by the lure of empire we come to you in penitence, eager for grace, grace sufficient to transform spirits grown weary from the violence, degradation, and poverty our nation has sown, grace sufficient to transform spirits grown heavy with guilt, grace sufficient to transform the world.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Amen.
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