During the funeral service of Billy Graham, the American televangelist, his son Nelson described him with these words: “My father was F.A.T.; he was faithful, available and teachable.”
There is no better way to describe Archbishop John Njenga, who died on Sunday.
I was introduced to him by Bishop David Kamau of the Nairobi Archdiocese shortly after Njenga retired from active service as the archbishop of Mombasa.
Archbishop Njenga wanted to write his memoirs and needed an expert to help. When I met him, I told him the ground rules of an honest biography. I remained sceptical even as I posed this personal question to him. “Are you ready to have your avowed critics interviewed on your life and times?” His response took me by surprise. “I have nothing to hide about myself!”
He gave orders and they were obeyed unconditionally. Such is the Church’s way and he was its faithful servant. Many were the times I would remind him that scholarship had a stubborn tendency to question what appeared to be immune to questions. Yet I was greatly humbled by his sense of openness to alternative views, even those that directly trashed his own.
Throughout my encounter with him, he exhibited rare brilliance that did not surprise me. He was a top brain in his heyday, having been admitted to the prestigious Mang’u High School. His contemporaries were independence politicians Titus Mbathi, Lawrence Sagini and Tom Mboya.
He presided over the weddings of some of the prominent Kenyans in the 1960s such as Mboya, Wangari Maathai, and Peter Gichumbi, among others. He was the only Kikuyu priest allowed in the precincts of the Holy Family Basilica during Mboya’s funeral Mass in 1969.
And although he scored highly and was admitted to Makerere University to study medicine, he opted to study for priesthood at the lowly Kibosho Seminary, Tanzania, something that disappointed his family.
Njenga eschewed ignorance. He told me that he worried of the priest who was a captive of ignorance. Such characters, he said, ‘harmed the church in many untold ways.’
A humorous episode aptly captured in his biography was an encounter with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. He had invited the first President to preside over a harambee to build a church. Suddenly the President motioned Njenga, and pointing his finger to where a group of nuns sat, told him, “Njenga you mean to tell me you will never marry one of those beautiful girls?” everyone burst out laughing, Kenyatta included.
Njenga was also a teacher at heart and taught by example.
LOVE FOR PEOPLE
At the heart of his ministry was the love of the people and the Holy Eucharist, both of which inspired the title to his biography: Love and Service to the People of God.
During the 1982 attempted coup, he was the Bishop of Eldoret Diocese and was about to say Mass when his congregants ran to him and begged him to retreat to his house because the government had been toppled. He told them he was safer in God’s house and went ahead with the Mass!
That Njenga was a development-driven cleric is not in doubt. When he first arrived at the Eldoret Diocese, which covered Eldoret, Kitale, parts of Kakamega and Pokot, he was struck by the absence of schools and hospitals. He decided that his first duty would be to build schools and health centres.
Today, many schools and health centres in Eldoret, Kitale and Pokot, bear his imprint.
OPEN DOOR POLICY
How Bishop Njenga Girls in Lukuyani, Kakamega County got its name is an interesting story worth mentioning. Upon completing its construction, Njenga gave it to the community to run. The community decided to name the school after him.
His open door policy for his residence baffled me. Once I asked him why he chose to live with priests and not in the comfort of privacy. His answer was: “I see myself as a priest whose main duty is to build communities of faith and love. How for heaven’s sake, would I lead a contradictory life by isolating myself from my fellow priests, together with whom I am supposed to make real this Christian ideal?”
It is on record that he was the first bishop in Kenya to promote the laity in key decision-making roles in the church. Mr Elias Odongo is the first layman in Catholic-Kenya whom Njenga appointed as Education Secretary. And this was in the 1970s.
Upon retirement, Njenga set up a foundation dedicated to educating children from poor families from the proceeds of the sale of his biography.
The only time he got mad was when someone lied to him or failed to forgive another. He had a cosmopolitan outlook of life. Amid peals of laughter, he told me that he preferred employing Muslims in the finance office than Christians because the former were honest!
The writer is the author of Love and Service to the People of God: Biography of Archbishop John Njenga