Kenyan faithful warm to message of "healing nun"


THE faithful started arriving from early morning, the women with babies tied to their backs, the men carrying jerrycans of water to slake thirsts on the dusty walk up to the shrine.

Overcrowded buses snaked through coffee and tea plantations, climbing to over 9,000 feet in the Kenyan highlands. But most of the pilgrims journeyed on foot, bringing with them their sick babies, injured relatives and barefoot children.

The draw was the appearance of Sister Briege McKenna, the Irish nun said to have powers to heal the sick. In a country where hope is in short supply more than 5,000 people turned out on Saturday for Sister McKenna's appearance. This was just the first of 12 dates in her "renewal crusade" tour of Kenya.

Subukia, four miles west of Nairobi, is the venue, with a newly established Marian shrine which nestles in a natural amphitheatre among the high hills. It is managed by a Kiltegan missionary from Co Westmeath, Father Johnny Jones. The local Catholic diocese hopes it will eventually become a sort of African Lourdes or Knock.

The huge crowd could be taken as a sign of the Catholic Church's popularity in Kenya, where it claims seven million members. But equally it shows how the church is being forced to respond in new ways to competition from small evangelical churches.

Newer Protestant sects have enjoyed considerable success in attracting members, often with extravagant promises of salvation and material betterment. The Catholic Church's promise of better things in the next life is losing its appeal in a world where the poor are becoming poorer.

Sister McKenna's performances are presided over by a local bishop, but her healing claims make many in the mainstream church uneasy. Yet her style goes down well with the African congregation, who cheer and clap and ululate at each new tale.

She tells the story of a young child in the Philippines who had a fall and lost consciousness after bleeding heavily. The teacher brought the child to Sister McKenna's meeting and placed her in front of the altar.

The assembled crowd soon forgot its own concerns and joined in praying for the child "and as they prayed, the child regained consciousness and sat up. Her cuts disappeared and the blood on the teacher's hands vanished," the Florida based nun claims.

Evangelism of a different type was in evidence throughout Nairobi yesterday. Dozens of sects gather at traffic roundabouts each Sunday, preferring to conduct their services in the open air. Their bright costumes and vigorous singing and dancing make for a welcome distraction from the capital's traffic jams.

In all, there are 800 different Christian churches in Kenya, and competition between them is rife. Well known American television evangelists such as the Rev Billy Graham and Dr Morris Ceiullol visit frequently. The German' preacher the Rev Reinhard Bonnke is said to be a good friend of President Daniel arap Moi.

Although Kenya has not seen the kind of conflict that marks relations between the Catholic Church and some Protestant faiths in South America, tensions are rising.

These are given additional colour by political influences. Moi is a member of a Baptist sect, the Africa Interior Church, which tends to take a pro government line. In contrast, Catholic clergymen have been outspoken in their criticism of official corruption and maladministration.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Brother Larry Timmons, who confronted four local officials with allegations of corruption only days before he was killed by one of them in as yet unexplained circumstances.

After South Africa, Kenya has the highest number of Irish missionaries, with about 500 working in all parts of the country. Their support for the poor frequently leads to conflicts with the authorities, who have been quick to expel turbulent Irish priests.

Men like the Right Rev John Mahon, another Kiltegan missionary who is Bishop of Lodwar, have been credited with saving thousands of parishioners' lives. Bishop Mahon, who has spent almost 40 years in Africa, sent out SOS signals to the aid agencies from his impoverished northwestern district in each of the last three years, warning that famine was imminent.

At the time, the government was doing all it could to deny there was any shortage of food in the area. However, President Moi finally acknowledged the crisis last week and declared a state of emergency to deal with the "newly discovered famine".

With an election due shortly the political temperature in Kenya is rising. Further confrontation between the church and the authorities seems inevitable.