With no date set for the reopening of religious buildings, an innovative priest takes his own brand of musical services to apartment complexes
The children are hanging on the porch railings on Sunday morning, the parents holding the collar of their coats to keep them from falling. In the parking lot below, a group of four will test microphones and practice harmonies.
A moment later, the group goes into an optimistic chorus, filling the Mirema apartment complex in Nairobi with music: “I am happy today, very happy. In the name of Jesus, I am happy.”
Reverend Paul Machira, a tall, slender mast of a man with gray hair, takes an energetic leap, encouraging worshipers on the veranda to come together in prayer. Sporty green jumpsuit embroidered with the nickname Uncle Paul, 43, travels through apartment complexes in Nairobi, bringing his balcony services and Sunday school to families since the Covid-19 pandemic closed the places of worship in Kenya in March 22.
Machira has worked at the 103-year-old Anglican Cathedral of All Saints in Nairobi since 2013. He followed in the footsteps of his father, also an Anglican priest. Machira says he is dedicated to taking the word of God to children and considers himself a “child pastor”.
“I always grew up wanting to be the guy who makes children very, very happy. For them to really appreciate the church, ”said Machira.
At Mirema Apartments, Machira and her band, which includes a knocked out female vocalist, an electric guitarist and a keyboard player, take cheerful church music to a quiet neighborhood. Combining dance moves with their music, the band encourages children and their parents to spend the hour dancing and praying together. When Machira realizes that a crowd has gathered on the balcony of the building next door, he switches to a “360 service” to include these neighbors.
The porch church started when a Sunday school teacher from the cathedral provided a service for the children on their porches to entertain them while they were trapped at home. The service was a success, and the teacher asked Machira to help spread this mtaani – “in the neighborhood” in Swahili – Sunday school. While the Cathedral of All Saints provides online services for young people, Machira says that the mtaani helps him reach more of them.
“This Sunday school mtaani allows us to minister children who don’t necessarily go to church,” said Machira. “And children who don’t necessarily have access to the internet.”
Shortly after the announcement of its first Covid-19 case in mid-March, Kenya closed schools. “You will find children confined to their homes from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep,” said Machira, who has three children. “It has been a difficult time.”
The night curfew and the ban on traveling from country to country have slowed Kenya’s economy, and many of Machira’s parishioners are suffering economically.
“Some members of our congregation have lost an income,” said Machira. “Some were removed from their workplaces. Others are in the business. Business is not doing as well as it did before Covid. “
Alexander Odhiambo, a resident of Mirema Apartments, has a two-year-old daughter, Helen, and a baby on the way. While on the porch, he dances with Helen. Founder of Solutech Ltd, which provides customized software solutions, Odhiambo has seen its customers cut its sales team and even shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was stressful,” said Odhiambo. “We [in a moment] even consider having cuts, reducing our wages, so that we can at least survive for a longer period. And … you don’t even know how long it will last. Who else is going to call you [to say]: ‘This thing is now affecting us. We want to reduce the amount we pay you. “
Machira’s services are for guests only. He says the group had to skip services because some of the neighbors were opposed to the “loud” ones in their complex. Odhiambo decided to be Machira’s “host” on his block, but only after ensuring that all his neighbors were comfortable with the service.
“It eased the tension,” said Odhiambo. “Even adults really enjoy it with their children. Just going out with the family for communion. “
Machira’s group was hired for up to four services the previous day. This popularity means that sometimes they need to split in two, renting a van and additional music equipment to cover more ground. Machira and his colleagues provide the services free of charge, but this costs them in renting fuel and equipment.
About 84% of Kenyans are Christians, and the closure of churches in a highly religious country has been controversial. Kenya has almost 5,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with increasing numbers, but as restaurants and other services began to reopen slowly, some activists and religious leaders in Kenya pressured the government to allow places of worship to resume services. CitizenGO Africa, an ultra-conservative defense organization, has created a petition addressed to the ministries of health and the interior of Kenya.
“The government needs to trust the church to be smart enough to implement the necessary measures and obey the guidelines, as they restore the most necessary worship in the country,” says the petition, which has so far had 29,000 signatures.
The government has assembled a committee of religious leaders to develop guidelines to help all types of houses of worship reopen safely in the midst of the pandemic, but a date for reopening has not yet been set.
While Machira misses the human interaction of his normal congregations and wants “churches never closed”, he acknowledged, “Covid’s threat is real”. The senior pastor of All Saints has had the virus and believes it would be irresponsible to reopen the church until the pandemic subsides.