Rev John Gatu will remain a towering figure as a churchman whose impact was felt not only in Kenya but also on the African continent and beyond. During his tenure as head of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), he multi-tasked and served on continental and global boards including the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the Alliance of Reformed Churches in Africa (ARCA), the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
In Kenya, he will be remembered because of his confrontation with the Jomo Kenyatta government regarding the oathings of 1969. This was one of the most critical moments of truth speaking to power in the history of this country. Within the PCEA, his call to end the flow of missionary personnel and funds to Africa in the moratorium debate will remain etched in the memories of many.
Thus, besides providing leadership in the areas of church and politics, church and its funding, Rev Gatu leaves a legacy in the realm of church and culture. Both in action and his writings, he provides food for thought on the way Christianity clothed in Western culture was proclaimed to indigenous African peoples. How should such a Christianity operate in contemporary Africa?
Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gatu is a champion for indigenous languages. For him true education must include command of the mother tongue without ignoring the wide horizons provided by proficiency in other languages. Rev Gatu celebrates his roots by composing excellent poetry in Gikuyu, collected in the publication He Gatu, Nguhe Kanua (Lend me your ear, I have something to tell you).
Then he proceeds to celebrate what he has received, the Christian message, while remaining truly indigenous in his book Joyfully Christian, Truly African.
There is no doubt that Gatu values the deposit of African culture. This is significant because many early Christian missionaries despised African traditions as evil, primitive and pagan.
One of the most eloquent protests to this attitude is Okot ‘p Bitek’s Song of Lawino. Gatu, too, disagrees with the wholesale condemnation of indigenous cultures. In his recent autobiography Fan into Flame, he explains why he suggested the use of local foodstuffs, maize flour and traditional brew, in celebrating the Christian eucharist in Africa, instead of the European bread and wine.
During his graduation at Princeton University, he insisted on wearing a colobus monkey skin instead of the traditional university gown.
Many will remember Gatu attired in a similar way when he appeared in public to preach or lead prayers at national functions.
But Rev Gatu is not just a champion for indigenous cultures and practices. He is a critical judge of their value and relevance. There are some practices he opposed vigorously because he believed they were retrogressive and harmful. One such tradition is female circumcision, commonly known as female genital mutilation.
His contribution to the fight against female circumcision is huge and has not been sufficiently appreciated.
Kenya owes the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM), which later became the PCEA, a great debt of gratitude for its opposition to female genital mutilation. Much credit has rightly been given to the Rev Dr J W Arthur for his strong stand against the practice in the 1920s and 1930s.
Though Dr Arthur achieved some victory in the early battle, he did not win the war. The practice continued in several parts of the country, especially around Mt Kenya. One of the Christian leaders that continued the fight in the 1950s and 60s was Rev Gatu. The battlefield where he led his forces was in his own Kiambu county backyard.
Various Christian denominations adopted differing attitudes to female circumcision. The Independent Church, with the politician Waira Kamau as one of its most influential members, condoned the practice. Roman Catholic Church leaders believed that this deeply-ingrained practice would gradually be eradicated through education and thus avoided a confrontational stance.
But the PCEA, with Church ministers John Gatu, Wanyoike wa Kamawe and Mwangi wa Chauri, went full blast against female circumcision, like Dr Arthur had done before them. The cumulative result was significant decline of the practice, not only among PCEA followers but also among other Church communities as well. The impact of Rev Gatu’s ministry has transcended the confines of the PCEA.
Though they constitute over half Church membership, women have a disproportionately small role in ecclesial leadership. Rev Gatu was a pioneer in addressing this question of gender disparity. He argued that there was no theological reason against the ordination of women to church ministry. And he went ahead and ordained the first woman in the PCEA, Rev Jane Nyambura Njoroge, to the ministry on September 5, 1982.
For the Very Rev Dr John G. Gatu, Christ sometimes agrees with culture. Other times he opposes it. But he always seeks to transform it, elevating human beings to a higher level of existence.
Fr Njoroge is Catholic Chaplain at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where he is Professor of Development Studies and Ethics. Lnjoroge@ihrd.jkuat.ac.ke