Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Anglican archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit speaks in Nairobi on May 19, 2016. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya – When forest rangers arrived at Mau Forest Complex in June to evict thousands of illegal settlers, frightened villagers started moving out.

Villagers sought refuge at churches, schools and trading centers as smoke billowed from their homes, which were razed in the exercise. Churches, schools and crops have been burned in a clearing process that government officials say will save the main water supply.  

Amid the mass clearing, clerics have been pulled into the controversy. Some religious leaders support the evictions, saying they are key to protecting the forest complex as a God-given heritage and an essential ecosystem. Other leaders are opposed, saying the evictions are inhumane.

More than 40,000 farmers and herders have been targeted in the mass eviction. They have been occupying 146,000 hectares (about 360,000 acres) of the 400,000-hectare (988,000-acre) forest land in a section known as Maasai Mau. They had bought pieces of land in what some church leaders describe as politically driven purchases aimed at influencing voting patterns in the region.

Some have lived in the forest for more than 30 years. But with visible massive destruction of the forest and river sources, the government is now forcing residents to move. Concerns include how removal of trees and brush has exacerbated erosion, increased soil in riverbeds and put them at risk of running dry. Communities downstream depend on the rivers to supply drinking water, including for livestock and wildlife living in refuge parks.

In the eviction process, large-scale tea farms have also been shut. Owners have been ordered to let the crop grow into bushes. Some 7,000 residents have been evicted this summer as the government reclaimed 12,000 hectares from them.

Jackson Ole Sapit, the Anglican archbishop of Kenya, told Religion News Service he supports the evictions. He said the forest is a holy ecosystem that must be saved at all costs.

“If we don’t preserve it now, we will soon see communities suffering serious water shortages, and even wildlife and livestock,” he said. “This is very urgent.”

According to Sapit, the forest is home to many rivers that serve important bodies of water,  including Lake Victoria, Lake Natron and the River Nile.

The forest “gives life to the Mara River, which is the lifeline of the wildebeests migration, one of the wonders of the world,” said Sapit, referring to the phenomenon in which 1.5 million wildebeests, zebra and antelope make a circular tour between the Serengeti game reserve and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in search of greener pastures. “Killing forest will kill the wildebeest migration.”

Others agree the government is taking necessary steps.

“I think the evictions are a win-win situation for Kenyans — including the settlers,” said the Rev. Charles Odira, a Catholic priest and a conservationist. “It may take time to restore the forest, but in the long run the action will prove very beneficial for the country.”

Kenya’s government has ruled out compensation for forest residents, saying that they settled there illegally. The residents have to look for alternative land to settle or return to their original homelands. Some have been surrendering land title deeds, which government officials claim are fake.

According to Hassan Ole Naado, deputy secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, most of the settlers are innocent citizens who were duped by racketeers to purchase the forest land.

“The racketeers used their influence and power to swindle these people. The authorities should pursue them (instead),” said Naado.

An aerial view of Mau Forest and neighbouring tea estates in western Kenya on Oct. 7, 2017. Photo by Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR/Creative Commons

While the evictions have widespread support in Kenya, some church leaders have raised a red flag. They say they are not opposed to the conservation of the water supply, but they argue the evictions are cruel.

Paul Leleito, a retired bishop of the African Gospel Church, said government authorities have failed to follow a steering commission’s recommendations to clear the area by marking the forest border, determining land ownership and using resources to support residents who are forced to leave.

“My concern is they have enforced the evictions without a proper prior warning,” said Leleito. “Many of those affected by eviction have no shelter and are living in the open where (they) suffer cold nights. Some of them are sick. Children are not going to school.”

Leleito urged the government to give evicted residents time to plan their departure.

“For now, the people should be allowed to harvest the crops they had planted in farms,” said Leleito. “This is not happening, and the crops are likely to go to waste.”

Meanwhile, clerics are warning politicians not to use the evictions to score political points, which they fear is dividing the local communities. Sapit suggested that the forest should be fenced in to prevent future encroachment or illegal settlement.

“We need to look at the greater good and encourage the government to protect the environment,” said Sapit.

The Mau Forest in western Kenya. Map courtesy Google Maps

Understanding Clergy Sexual Abuse

Understanding Clergy Sexual Abuse for Urban FaithWith the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse back in the headlines, we’re once again confronted with questions of power, dysfunction, and deception in the church. Here’s an inside view of why the matter continues to plague churches, and why our thinking about the issue needs to change.

The sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church simply will not go away. Even the Pope himself is not immune. Recent stories have focused on his alleged complicity in transferring a known pedophile in his diocese to another parish after he had been caught in sexual abuse. This happened around 1980 when the future Pope Benedict XVI (then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) served as archbishop in Munich.

That this happened then and that it continues to take place is not a surprise. Much has been written about troubling revelations and staggering numbers of clergy, Catholic and Protestant, who’ve been caught in the snare of sexual misconduct. Little has been written about why sex. Why not, for instance, kleptomania?

A few years ago I participated in a writer’s conference, sitting at a table to represent my publication, when a disproportionate number of aspiring authors who came for critique ended up being pastors’ wives with narratives and poems in hand, their faces wide with tragic optimism. As I read their stories I quickly laid aside the manuscripts and looked into their sad eyes. We ended up discussing not the writing but what had gone wrong in the church that these isolated women must resort to “fictional” narratives about sex and betrayal of clergy husbands. I too had been married to a pastor. I understood them.

One woman at the writer’s conference told me that the man who had been her senior pastor and personal friend had “impregnated a woman he was counseling.” She said, “If I weren’t married to someone I knew to be a man of God, I don’t think I could ever listen to another preacher again. God calls unusual people to ministry. I think you’ll find they usually have family issues.”


Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by since the nature of the problem is so deeply personal and compromising; those who confess usually do so at the point of being found out rather than volunteering a confession. I dare say that the gifted, devoted, and disciplined men and women who lead religious communities with humility and integrity greatly outrank the number of the fallen. That said, numbers of the fallen are greater than one might presume.

I have written extensively on the topic and cannot include all my research in this post. However, in the course of my work, I spent many hours with a former Catholic priest who had been caught in predatory sexual abuse of young men in his parish. He freely and openly told me his story. Below I render a small portion from an on-the-record interview that explains, twisted though it may be, why the clergy abuse issue is about sex and not kleptomania:

I perverted my own neediness into the delusion that I’m giving something incredibly special to these human beings. Some of the youth themselves felt that way at the time. It was the only kind of love they had ever received. The hardest part of their recovery has been their recognition that, as a man of God, my relationship with them ended up being a form of abuse.

A priest or minister is given constant adulation for the smallest things they do. The minister can easily take on a youthful charm and use it seductively. Even if the seduction is focused on an adult, the minister can be living in an adolescent kind of world. When you do that as a priest of God, you can do immense harm.

Struggles against lust of the flesh in the imaginations of the godly are not new to the landscape of church history. St. Francis of Assisi exhorted his brothers a few years prior to his death: “Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” His personal remedy for “impure desires” was to plunge himself into snow banks or freezing streams. (He guaranteed the results.)

Francis knew well the weakness of the flesh. He also knew the temptations of the office. He imposed rigorous disciplines on his brotherhood, understanding the need both for external constraint and internal resolve in order to battle and overcome fleshly forces that assault the spirit. He and his clerics faithfully recited liturgical readings at regular points of the day and night; he ordered them to confess and serve and discipline one another; to do penance and to absolve; and to work with one’s hands to avoid idleness.

We cannot all take the Franciscan vows. But one can, and indeed must, recognize that humans are weak. Men (and women) need constant reminding of that weakness, before God and one another, in order to stand strong against the “heady wine” of spiritual power they exercise over others’ souls. They ought not “to accept any office that may give rise to scandal or bring about the loss of one’s soul,” echoing Francis, who was not speaking in abstractions.

“Clergy sexual abuse,” says hospital chaplain Beth Darling, “comes down to being a matter about the role, nature, and purpose of the church in this world.” Maybe the church today has built itself around a model that is flawed, a model that foists upon mere men the burden of being the sole procurers of grace and bearers of God with no one to answer to. That burden can crush a man. Churches, large and small, Catholic and Protestant, are adept at creating “stories” around personalities and office, and at living those false stories regardless of shadows that may haunt the protagonist.

In all things we, as a believing people, must uphold the promise that God himself chose human flesh to bring amnesty to his fallen race and thus imbue it with beauty and dignity and purity. Despite our temptations and weaknesses, his Spirit empowers us to overcome.