Today's NYTimes has a stunning portrait of a Roman Catholic priest--Fr. Chrispin Oneko--from Kenya now serving in Kentucky. It's really inspiring to hear what some priests (Roman or otherwise) do in their parishes with simple love. But what really got my attention is when he had to reach out to his congregation after a traumatic incident back home:
One morning in January, Father Oneko received a phone call from his family in Kenya, where a disputed presidential election had just set off a wave of intertribal anger and violence.
A mob had set fire to his parents’ house because they had given shelter to a family of a rival tribe the mob was chasing. Father Oneko’s 32-year-old brother, Vincent Oloo, arrived in time to help their elderly parents escape the burning house. But the mob turned on Father Oneko’s brother, shooting him dead. He left a wife and three children.
“My parents were just crying and crying,” Father Oneko said. “My father is crying and saying, ‘Now I’m losing all the children, who will bury me?’ ”
Father Oneko phoned his friend the Rev. John Thomas and then Mrs. Lake, his faithful volunteer administrator. She was stunned at the news, and for half an hour listened to and consoled her priest — a sudden role reversal. Father Oneko was troubled to hear his mother wailing on the phone and to know that he could not go to Kenya to perform the funeral. His parents insisted it was too dangerous for him to come.
Mrs. Lake called three of the church’s Silver Angels, a club of elders. They phoned more church members, and in two hours 60 people had assembled at a special noon Mass in memory of Father Oneko’s brother.
At the end of the Mass, they lined up in the center aisle as if for communion, and Father Oneko stood at the front receiving their embraces one by one.
He was overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy. Children in the parish school in Hopkinsville made him cards; one showed his brother with a halo, in the clouds. The bishop and priests of the diocese e-mailed and phoned their condolences. St. Michael’s and the parish in Hopkinsville took up a special collection for his family that totaled $5,600.
“It seems the whole church is praying with me,” Father Oneko said a few days later, as he read through the children’s cards. “You feel like you’re not a foreigner, just a part of the family. It makes me know how much I am to them.” (source)
This kind of touching story shows how trauma and grief can create opportunities for new kinds of healing and relationship in communities that are open to transformation. This kind of thing bonds a congregation to their pastor in a deep, deep way. Worth noting, the obvious mutual bond between priest and parish did not result in growth in numbers. When he was transferred to another post after four years, attendance was still hovering around the same numbers it had before he came. Another reason why ministry should not be judged according to Average Sunday Attendance!