Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Small House with Many Rooms

Sheets of corrugated tin shield the sun’s gaze and soften the din of a thousand feet shuffling nearby. The tin is rusted through in places and juts into the red clay like shards of glass. Hedged together and held upright by a series of nails and punctured soda caps, it forms one of the walls that are home to most of Nairobi’s population.

Nairobi slums have some of the smallest houses in the world. Most measure less than 8 by 10 feet and could compete with an average parking space. Inside lives a nuclear family of four, an uncle and his brother’s children, or a grandmother caring for five orphans. With dirt or concrete floors and no windows or water, life here is tough. And space is tight.

Amber, Anne, and I are privileged to represent The Falls Church in Kenya and have had the joy of being invited into many homes in the slums. Once inside we are treated to tea or a traditional meal and offered a tour of the sitting room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen, and office. They’re all the same – the shared space of many rooms.

It’s an amazing contrast to our castles in Northern Virginia. Growing up in Falls Church, it was possible to share a home with everyone in a different room, rarely gathered and seldom seen. Closeness can be uncomfortable.

In Kenya, poverty forces most of the intimate living arrangements, but the culture also values closeness. Babies are cuddled constantly against their mother’s back, streets are packed with activity, and public vans burst with passengers. When I tell friends that I live alone, they can’t understand how anyone could do that. “It must be so boring.” Recently, two friends from Kawangware’s Gatina slum joined me for an overnight retreat. We stayed in what would be considered a normal middle class home in the U.S. After discussing sleeping arrangements, we all decided to stay together with sleeping bags and blankets in the smallest room. The rest of the house was just “too big.”

Being on the other side of the globe from home, I often wonder about this big world we live in and my space in it. Where is my space and what is it filled with? For now that space seems to be the urban slums of Nairobi, where there are many challenges as well as chances to grow. I thank God for lessons learned from faith-filled slum dwellers. Houses are small, but hearts are often too large for words. Inside there is room.

Open wide your hearts also. . . In my Father’s house there are many rooms.

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