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Priest's mission in Kenya went beyond church

John Kaiser was warned by other priests that his style in confronting the Moi government was too reckless. Kaiser knew he was in danger but kept speaking out -- until he could no longer do so.

February 08, 2009|Christopher Goffard

LOLGORIEN, KENYA — Wherever he went, the man of God carried his shotgun. Like its owner, the double-barreled 12-gauge was old and broken in places, dusty from miles of hard African road. He kept the splintered stock bound together with a length of black rubber, and he believed it might be his only protection, save for the good Lord and his American name, in a country that had never felt more dangerous.

By day he ventured deep into the savanna to visit the scattered churches of his vast parish. The shotgun rested on the seat of his Toyota pickup, beside his rosary beads and Mass kit. His faithful arrived from the hills, bright in their tribal wrappings, to hear him speak in Swahili of the risen Savior, to receive a wafer on the tongue.

His red-brick parish house sat at the edge of an immense valley rolling away toward the Serengeti Plain, and at night the shotgun stayed with him as he double-checked the locks and walked down the hallway toward his bare room. Stayed with him as he climbed into his narrow metal-frame bed and slept fitfully, hyenas cackling and whooping in the dark outside his window.

Stayed with him that morning in February 1999 when he fixed his Roman collar, climbed into his truck and drove for hours on bad roads that played havoc with his arthritic neck. Finally, he arrived at a plain-looking government building called Nakuru County Hall.

This was the setting for the Akiwumi Commission, a tribunal created to probe the causes of tribal clashes that had cost more than 1,000 lives across Kenya in recent years. Its real purpose, many suspected, was to conceal the government's central role in the violence.

He entered the crowded room, a broad-shouldered, long-limbed man with work-worn hands and thinning white hair. Three judges loomed from the bench in powdered wigs, a vestige of British colonial justice. He took a seat before a microphone at a scuffed table.

As he began to talk, his voice steady and composed, it was impossible to tell that he had been living in a state of terror for weeks, afraid that he'd never be allowed to speak, afraid that once he started, he'd never live to finish.

Nor would anyone have predicted that this obscure, deeply eccentric American churchman would become a national hero to Kenyans, his name a rallying cry.

Apart from his church and the tribes he had served during 35 years in a green, malarial patch of East Africa, few had heard of John Kaiser, a missionary and former U.S. Army paratrooper from Minnesota. He had not yet been delivered from his aching body and messy humanity to abstraction, a clean and perfect symbol.

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He arrived in Kenya in December 1964, stepping off a boat into the harsh equatorial sunlight with an Army duffel bag under his arm. His missionary society, the London-based Mill Hill order, needed priests in Africa. He was 32 and just ordained.

Assigned to the fertile highlands of western Kenya, he built churches across the countryside, quick, crude structures of red earth and river-bottom sand. A stout 6-foot-2, the priest went up ladders with pockets stuffed with bricks and pulled roof beams after him by rope.

He learned to carry a bar of brown soap to patch cracks in his truck's engine, and he sat on a crate when the front seat fell apart. He learned to carry holy water in a Coke bottle, and when he forgot the communion wafers, he used a chapati, a doughy flatbread, to transform into the Savior's body.

He baptized and buried, heard confession in the shade of eucalyptus trees, watched AIDS and malaria carry away thousands. He chopped firewood for widows, built rough-hewn schools, waded swollen streams to reach the faithful. He administered the sacraments to a dying 18-year-old girl, who received them serenely, and he wrote, "At such times, I would not trade being a priest for any position."

He hauled bodies to ancestral burial plots deep in the brush, and prayed them into the earth.

The country, with its fierce light and impenetrable dark, its jumbo maize rows and seasons of starvation, was big enough to contain his clashing selves: the priest and the paratrooper, the healer and the hunter, the collar and the gun, the man of obedience who chafed at authority.

There had always been two John Kaisers, at times coexisting uneasily. Growing up on a Minnesota dirt farm, he lavished as much attention on the rifle sights in his war drawings as on the sheep's wool in a schoolhouse nativity scene.

During a peacetime stint with the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, N.C., he was the gung-ho soldier who mastered bayonet thrusts, leapt into the skies from a Flying Boxcar and knelt in the chapel wondering if he could take a life.

He was the jocular bush missionary who pumped every hand he could find and who retreated for hours to the solitude of the savanna.

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