Phyllis Byrd’s passion for Kenya and its people takes her ministry far beyond her job description as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker.
It’s not that Byrd finds her work as the site coordinator for PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program lacking challenge and satisfaction. Byrd loves to see the volunteers serve others, mature in their faith, and develop a “we consciousness,” a sense of community and interdependence as they work with Kenyans. “That’s what the Young Adult Volunteer program is all about,” she says. “It builds a consciousness that we are in this together.”
It’s Byrd’s own sense of solidarity with the Kenyan people that moves her ministry beyond a neatly defined role. At no time was this more apparent than in late 2007 when a disputed election placed the country into chaos. It divided the nation and its Christian community along ethnic lines.
Byrd became alarmed as violent protests gripped Nairobi and communities across the country. “I felt a profound sense of I can’t sit by idle and watch,” says Byrd, who has worked in Kenya since 1990. “A friend from Sweden who lives in Kenya called me up and said ‘Phyllis, we must do something.’”
As an outsider to Kenya, Byrd acknowledges that she could see the situation with more objectivity than the typical Kenyan. She contacted the All Africa Conference of Churches, where she once worked, and asked its leaders to intervene. She suggested the conference invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate who helped his country dismantle its apartheid system, to Kenya to facilitate a reconciliation process. Byrd had become acquainted with Tutu when he was the president of the All Africa Conference of Churches.
Byrd arranged for Tutu to meet separately with the principal opposition leaders, Kenya’s president, the head of the former Electoral Commission, key church leaders, and Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. These meetings were the first step in a reconciliation process that involved the United Nations and the African Union. A coalition government was created that enabled the country to restore peace and move forward.
While Byrd has the ear of national leaders, her ministry also extends into the lives of everyday Kenyans. For example, she worked with Kenyan partners to coordinate a shoe distribution program for rural schoolchildren. New public health rules required children to wear shoes to school, but the typical rural family on an income of only $1 per day could not afford shoes. Byrd helped arrange funding for the program with the assistance of a pastor in the United States.
“Whatever we do, it should empower the communities to develop themselves in a dignified way,” Byrd says. “One of the ways this can happen is through the education of children living in the rural areas of the country.”
In her role as the Kenya YAV site coordinator, Byrd mentors up to 10 young people who spend a year in Kenya working in ministries such as teaching, community development, youth work, communications and reconciliation.
Word has spread in Kenya about the quality of the Young Adult Volunteers that the PC(USA) sends to the country. Byrd says she often fields requests from schools and other church-related organizations that would like the services of a YAV.
The YAV site in Kenya is among 6 international sites and 11 sites in the United States. Every year more than 70 young people serve in communities of need with the YAV program.
Byrd says her work with YAVs makes her optimistic about the contributions they will make in the Presbyterian Church and beyond. “I am excited about the caliber of young men and women that have taken part in the YAV program,” she says. “They have brought and will bring a new depth to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and thus the world, as they live out the true meaning of the church universal.”
The universal church, she explains, transcends the distinction between local and global. Byrd says she sees YAVs embody the truth of an African proverb, “I am because you are and because you are I am.” She says the proverb expresses the interconnectivity of the world. That connectivity, she observes, was taught by Jesus when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“This invites us to live a love-informed life that cares, shares, and seeks to know what is happening in the world around us,” Byrd says.
Editor’s Note: Watch a CNN interview with Shelvis Smith-Mather, who along with his wife, Nancy, worked in Kenya with the YAV program in 2008–2009 and were invited back for a second year of service.