Jon and I met in 1998 and were married in June 1999. He was working in I.T. and I was a full time youth pastor. One of the things that attracted us was our shared willingness to go overseas, although neither of us imagined it would be in the near future.
One month after our wedding Jon was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) which is a progressive neurological disease without a cure. After brain scans and lumbar punctures, it was confirmed. In the early stages it is relapsing/remitting so there were times he was completely fine. However, facing it forced us to realise that none of us know what the future holds or how long we have. It made us ask, “what are we living for? What really matters?”
Six months later the company Jon worked for relocated, so he took redundancy. Working in I.T. had satisfied his head but not his heart so he used a few months to explore what else he might do. During this period he did some voluntary work editing videos for a small local charity. I also had links to this charity through my youth work as they were very involved in short-term mission trips, and I referred lots of gap-year students to them. After a while, the charity discovered we were married and that they knew both of us. They asked us to go to Kenya and spend six months out there. Their flagship work was in Kibera, and they were considering moving from short-term mission to longer term work but didn’t want to duplicate what was already happening. We didn’t have kids and it seemed like an adventure, so we said yes! After a month living with Kenyan hosts and taking Kiswahili classes, we started an audit of what was happening in Kibera under certain headings (HIV, vocational training, food and nutrition etc). Our guide was a man named John Kariuki. We’d expected to struggle or perhaps be frightened in Kibera, but it was nothing like that. Instead, we felt an odd sense of “belonging”. Of course, we were so different and so was the life we’d been born into – and yet it felt like our hearts were strangely comfortable being there.
During the next five months we covered every area of Kibera – some we perhaps shouldn’t have – one day a lad took us through the “rat runs” and we crossed the river, stepping over a dead man with a knife in his head. We also read a lot to understand the context and got help from a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. We truly got to see the big picture and learned a great deal.
Three days before we had to leave, Kariuki mentioned to us that there were children not being reached by any of the big relief organizations which tended to base themselves around the edges of Kibera, where the roads and phone connections were. We were surprised he hadn’t mentioned this before, but we were wazungu and perhaps he’d been waiting to see our hearts and know whether he could trust us. By this point we had a full report written, finished, and ready to take back to the UK charity. We fitted in a quick visit to Mashimoni and saw that indeed, people in the heart of the slum, already more disadvantaged than those at the edges, were being missed. It touched our hearts and we wrote a proposal for work there, including it in the report. Saying goodbye to Kariuki was harder than we expected. We had both grown to love him and he had been so faithful to us. We’d also met the Pastor of Kariuki’s church at the time, Shadrack Mulinge, and his wife Eunice. All three were actually going through a very difficult situation and we watched them respond in prayer and not in retaliation. They were good people.
Returning to the UK, we went to hand over the report. But at exactly that point, the director of the charity who had commissioned it stepped down due to personal circumstances. The new director was appointed but didn’t read the report, as he had no interest in Kenya and was intending to take things in a different direction. So, there we were, with six months of very current detailed research and knowing all sorts of children were not getting help, but having no outlet for this information. We felt somehow responsible – we had been changed by what we’d seen. We decided to approach some mission organizations who had experience in development work in East Africa. They graciously listened but we hit endless bureaucratic red tape. They didn’t know us, we didn’t know them, and they hadn’t commissioned the report. Some were interested in recruiting us as missionaries but once they knew about Jon’s MS, it was clear that wouldn’t proceed. It was a dead end.
After a while we decided to fund a trip back to Kenya and approach some of the organizations we had met whilst there before. This was far more effective, people were interested in any up-to-date research on the slum and heard what we were saying. However, Kenya was still under President Moi at this time, street children had reached epidemic proportions, and every programme was maxed out. There was literally no capacity in terms of funding or people to stretch to any further work. Whilst there we met with a small international NGO who worked nearby in Kibera. They told us they couldn’t take it on, but if we were to come and do it ourselves, they would cover us in terms of shipping, help with work permits, lend us their social workers to help us start. We literally knew nothing about any of this and had not once been considering that it might be us, only thinking that we could send some support from the UK.
The same week, we met Bishop Daniel Ogutu. He had run Christian educational and vocational work in Mathare for some years and trained Pastor Shadrack. He talked to us and suggested that our heart and ideas for what needed to happen were very similar to what he was doing. “Why don’t you build a team and do it on this side of town?” he said. My NGO can give you the umbrella cover you need to start work like that here in Kenya.
Within a few days, an indigenous NGO and an international NGO had offered us their advice and support. Both had suggested perhaps we should come. It was astonishing.
We prayed about it and felt excitement. It wasn’t so much a compulsion that we must do this, more like God was saying: “If you would like it, there’s an opportunity here. And I’m removing every obstacle in the way.”
Jon responded far quicker than I did. We were both excited, daunted, feeling totally unqualified and many other emotions, but for me the cost felt so big. I’d not imagined leaving my home country for good. I had imagined having children and being near my Mum and my sister. Kariuki, Pastor and Eunice were around whilst all this was happening. Their hearts were so much for the children & families who were suffering. And suddenly it became clear. We’d recalled how we’d watched them respond with such integrity to persecution on our previous trip. God had already put a team together for us. There was already relationship and there was mutual trust. We reached a place of peace and wrote a message home to our parents telling them we’d be moving to Kenya. I can only imagine they weren’t very happy about that.
Returning to the UK we were convinced that if we were going to do this unexpected crazy thing then we must do it properly, so that it could stand firm and not fall apart after a year or so. We approached people in churches we were connected with to pray for us. They were all incredibly concerned about Jon’s MS and the wisdom of us doing this, in fact many actively advised us not to. I was late 20’s and Jon 31, we must have seemed idealistic not realistic. Yet inside we both had a conviction that we hadn’t been looking for this, that God was going ahead, and we could trust Him. We wrote to those who had been wedding guests and told them we were giving up our jobs to go to a slum in Africa and please would they consider supporting us financially. I found this painfully difficult, it’s about the most shameful thing you could do in British culture (give up work and ask for money) and risked many relationships. We started the process of registering a UK charity, finding trustees, writing a constitution etc. This was something we’d never done, and we were repeatedly warned how lengthy and difficult it was, often taking years. We submitted it in Nov 2001, and it was approved first time round January 2002. Everyone was amazed. We held a launch party for what had then been named “Turning Point” in Feb 2002. I was newly pregnant with our first child Hannah. It was a fantastic evening, but many Christians around us remained very concerned – they wanted it all to work out but going to an African slum with a new baby and Jon with MS? Was this really wise?
– Jo Parsons – Founder, Turning Point Trust