The pounding on my bedroom door woke me up. But for a while, in that dreamy state, I was not sure whether it was a dream or the reality. But then my mother called out my name, and I was suddenly fully alert.
“Mwenda, ukira (wake up)”
There was some urgency in her voice that made me get up. But then again, the very fact that she woke me up was unusual. See, when I am at home, I am usually on holiday and so I sleep late (perhaps reading, perhaps watching anything worthwhile on TV) and wake up late. My mother usually doesn’t bother waking me up.
It was the morning of 26th, the day after Christmas. I got up and opened the door. My mom was standing there, looking distraught.
“Nikurathukire,” she said quietly, meaning things had gone wrong. I instantly knew what she meant. Her sister was dead. The previous day, on Christmas day, we had gone to visit her in hospital, right after the Church service. She was in a pretty bad shape and did not recognize any of us. In fact, even though her eyes were open, there was no indication that she could see any of us. She was just staring blankly in the air.
While we were there, the pastor of my mother’s church came. He is an elderly gentleman, a retired police inspector with a kind smile. His name is Dexter Ireri. He prayed with my aunt, then held a brief conversation with the family members before pulling me aside. He gave me an update of my cousin’s affairs related to her registration for KCSE. She is the daughter of my late aunt, and had been staying in Uganda with her mother until a couple of years ago. We need to get her documents equated by KNEC which is quite some process involving running after the Uganda National Examinations Board. After giving me the update, the pastor rushed to the children’s wing attend to his grandnephew whom he had left under the care of doctors and nurses. Chogoria Hospital is a Mission hospital and so not affected by the doctors’ strike.
Anyway, we took breakfast silently that morning of 26th, showered and left for my grandma’s home. On the way, my mum made a call to the pastor to alert him that my aunt had passed on. That evening, Pastor Ireri gave the plastic seats and cups from the church to be used by mourners at my grandma’s home. He then cancelled the Monday evening prayers at the church so that the members could join other mourners at our home. And they did come, led by himself.
There was a question of who would preside the burial. My aunt was a nominal Christian, and so did not attend church in Kampala. But since her arrival in the village several months prior, Pastor Ireri had been visiting regularly to comfort and pray. They had become friends, especially because they knew each other when she was a child, and Mrs Ireri taught her and her younger sisters in primary school (she taught me just before she retired, and was easily my favourite teacher). Plus Pastor Ireri is family. His grandfather married the sister of the elder brother of my great grandfather’s first wife. Or something like that. But my aunt hadn’t made it to church because she could not sit up during an entire service due to the nature of her illness. So in a sense, Pastor Ireri had a right to preside over her burial. But the community church in my village is the Presbyterian Church. Pastor Ireri’s church, and most of the other Pentecostal churches, are located at the market center. In the heart of the village, the Presbyterian Church reigns. It does all the community work, to the extent that the church and the village are almost synonymous. And that is the church my grandmother attends.
But the church also has some internal politics, especially with regard to the burial of a person who is not a member. And membership means you have attended catechism classes, gotten baptized and have been given a membership number. Okay, the church does baptizes infants, in which case the parents have to be members and attend the catechism classes on behalf of the infant before he/she can be baptized. Membership is taken so seriously that offering is given in envelopes marked with those numbers, so that the deacons know what you have offered and record it in their books. And after baptism you are given a Holy Communion card. Every time you take Holy Communion you are supposed to hand the card over to be signed by the Reverend. So I am not sure whether I am still a member. I was brought up in the church and attended catechism classes and was baptized in 2007. I wasn’t baptized as an infant because at the time my parents were Catholic. But when I was about 7 years old, my mum became a Pentecostal but I followed my grandma to the Presbyterian Church. I was allocated a number (30, Lower Kimuchia) but I refused to use the number to offer, instead choosing to drop my offering directly into the offering basket. I also never submitted my Holy Communion card for signing after communion. I found both processes ridiculous. When I came to Nairobi, instead of going to St. Andrews like a good boy, I went to KAG Parklands. So you see, my record with the good old church is seriously wanting. But I digress.
Pastor Ireri was allowed to take over the funeral programme by my family, but he politely declined.
“I know PCEA may want to take over, and I do not want tug of war or conflict of any kind. That is Mum’s church, let her contact them. If they decline to do it, I will do it. If they do it, then I will participate from the background. What matters is that our sister is laid to rest, regardless of who presides over the funeral” he said, and my respect for him soared. PCEA did take over, and the process went very well, and we buried her on Saturday 31st.
But what is most striking about Pastor Ireri is his disregard for titles and spiritual hierarchy. Most men of the cloth wear an air of superiority. In fact, most of us Pentecostals want to appear spiritual. And we hold in awe anybody we deem to be spiritually superior, even as we secretly (or maybe not so secretly) wish to get to their “level”. We concoct words like Man of God, Supersonic Man of God, Mtumishi et cetera, all to massage our vanity. And spiritual superiority is often measured in ridiculous parameters like volume of prayer, length of prayer in public (or if in private, our proclamation of how long we pray in private), publicly speaking in tongues, acrobatics during prayer and the ability to perform miracles, real or staged. If you can twist your face into various inanimate forms and shapes while praying, then more power to you. We are often puffed up in pride if we can do all these, and this pride is thinly veiled in talk of humility.
So it is very refreshing to see a clergy man of a Pentecostal church, and a former policeman at that, who does not seek to intimidate everyone around him with Christianese.
“For some reason, people think being called “Apostle” is more prestigious than “Pastor”. I really don’t care what you call me. You can just call me Ireri if you wish. It is my name and doesn’t affect what I do,” he told me that evening as I saw him off. I believed him, because I have discussed scripture with him previously, and he doesn’t wear the arrogant “I am a Pastor so I know attitude” but is always ready to listen to alternative viewpoints with an open mind.
I am of the view that the administrative authority of pastors should be respected. They are mandated to ensure that church programmes are effectively run. But nothing in scripture suggests that pastors are spiritually superior to the congregation. The New Testament talks about everyone being a part of the body of Christ, and no part is superior to the other. There is absolutely no hierarchy except for the headship of Christ. So our pursuit of the anointing that will make us superior to other Christians is nothing but vanity and pride. Every gift given by the Holy Spirit is supposed to benefit His people, not to be used for our selfish gain and publicity.
And pastors are human, just like everyone else. They are therefore subject to human vices like pride. And nothing fuels pride more than power. So the concentration of administrative and perceived spiritual power on a single individual often leads to disaster. History is littered with rogue Popes from centuries gone by. And today’s pastors are headed in that direction, and at a very swift pace.
Which is why I admire pastors like Dexter Ireri. Clergymen who genuinely love people and want to be by their side in times of both joy and peril. To offer words of comfort. To listen. To rebuke. To pray. To encourage. And sometimes just to be there. They are not perfect, but it is easy to point out their errors to them because they are right there with you. And more often than not, they own up to their mistakes with grace. Those are the real pastors. Not the corporate executive who only interacts with the congregation as he/she issues spiritual edicts from the pulpit and thereafter as they perform magical theatrics before they are whisked away by an army of bodyguards, chauffeurs and personal assistants.