June 24, 2018
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What Kenya’s Westgate mall terrorist attack can teach us in Maine

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By The Rev. Joseph F. Cistone, Special to the BDN

The morning of Saturday, Sept. 22 began beautifully for the delegation of IPM Board Members and friends at Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Our three vans circled the far reaches of the lake and marveled at the extraordinary megafauna replete in one of Kenya’s most accessible and awe-inspiring parks.

We stopped at a well-worn roadside restaurant outside Naivasha for lunch on our way back to Nairobi. A group of Indian girls on a sports outing from one of the capital’s premier schools greeted many of us with the smiles one comes to expect from the young when travelling as a wazungu (white person) in East Africa.

As we dug into our local delicacies, including my personal favorite moki mo — a corn, peas, potato, and pumpkin leaf concoction — a member of our delegation called my attention to the flat screen hovering next to a broken fan in the corner ceiling. The ticker-tape read, “Nairobi Mall Under Siege.” I responded in my typical, somewhat jaded manner, announcing that this was likely yet another CNN exaggeration, a robbery, no doubt, at a wealthy mall we were not about to visit. If truth be told, I was already a bit nervous, well-aware of the longstanding threats of Al-Shabaab to attack Kenya and the very nature of the mall in question: Israeli-owned and easily susceptible to attack.

We altered our travel plans to account for the huge traffic implication of the attack, returned IPM’s cohort safely to their Guest House, and I went directly to my in-laws to uncover what one can from today’s readily accessible 24-hour news cycle. The news, as we all now know, was horrific. Al Shabaab had wreaked their retribution and the Kenyan security forces were woefully unprepared. Over time, with British, Israeli and U.S. support, the Kenyans were able to “re-take” a devastated mall, but not before the horrific loss of innocent life that is the sin qua non of global terror.

As I contemplated my planned departure from Kenya the following evening, I couldn’t help but think of what the mission of IPM has to say in the face of such suffering. How can an organization stand for justice, peace and hope in a world filled with such madness? And how would I, an adopted Kenyan through friends and family, respond?

Founded in 1974, IPM believes that when we cross boundaries of faith, culture, and economic circumstance to humbly enter in partnership with our brothers and sisters around the world, we gain more than we can ever hope to give from our material abundance. Kenyan police rescuing white, “western,” children from certain death is one bald example of this truth. The citizens and residents of Kenya coming together to donate blood and lend a shoulder to cry on is a more poignant example for those of us who know that in our hearts each of us — black or white, Christian or Muslim, Kenyan or expatriate — desire the same things: to love and learn without prejudice; access to adequate health care, housing, and nutrition; and hope for a better future for our children.

Those who gathered at the Westgate mall that fateful morning certainly sought the same. Whether a Ghanaian poet, a U.S. family, or a Kenyan employee, each was there seeking, somehow, some version of the same. I don’t have the answers to how we stem the hatred that feeds the growth of hate groups like Al Shabaab with their distorted vision of Islam. I do know that the kind of intentional, interfaith and intercultural work that IPM does is one small part of the answer. And, that we cannot be afraid. If we succumb to fear and hate, then the terrorists have indeed won and we have lost the essence of our truest selves.

In memory of all those who have so senselessly lost their lives under the guise of religion — in Africa most recently, but across the world in the past few years and throughout history — I can promise that IPM and other like-minded organizations will continue seeking to bring justice where injustice is the norm, hope when so many see no option apart from terror, and peace in the face of hate that is not born of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or Islam but as misappropriation of the essential truth of love that lies at the heart of all our paths to the Divine.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Cistone is the chief executive officer of the Bar Harbor-based International Partners in Mission ( www.ipmconnect.org). IPM works across borders of faith, culture, and economic circumstance with children, women, and youth to create partnerships that build justice, peace and hope.

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