Skip Navigation

Reflections on the Westgate Mall siege

Scott Gilpin stands with volunteers for the Kenya Blood Transfusion Service in the Red Cross area in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.

Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.

Scott Gilpin stands with volunteers for the Kenya Blood Transfusion Service in the Red Cross area in Uhuru Park, Nairobi.

 

October 24, 2013

 On Sept. 21, 2013, United Methodist Board of Discipleship staff member Scott Gilpin was headed to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. About 100 yards from the entrance, he saw the beginning of the siege that led to the deaths of as many as 100. Afterward, he stayed four more days to volunteer with a Kenyan Red Cross blood drive. These are reflections that he posted to his Facebook page.

5:30 in the morning came quickly. The haunting daybreak call to prayers from the Muslim temple a klick away is wafting through my open window at Methodist Guest House. I am exhausted, but push myself out of bed so I am ready and waiting when my driver arrives at 6:30 to take me to work. One hour of sleep and the emotional roller coaster is telling on me. As we wind our way to the temporary Kenya Red Cross site in a downtown park, Nairobi is already teeming.

The KRC team with whom I am working took blood from 2,400 people yesterday. The queue of hopeful, patient, almost reverently quiet donors labored its way through the park and stretched for blocks, everyone desirous of finding some way to help those who are suffering as a result of Saturday’s massacre at Westgate Mall. Patriotic and contemporary Christian music blares from large speakers surrounding the paved military parade ground upon which the KRC tents are standing.

Thousands came to give blood for various reasons. All wanted to save some lives as they were inundated with so many deaths. Many were making a statement to the terrorists of today and tomorrow that Kenyans may die, but they will not give in. Some probably felt guilty for being alive, while others around them were murdered and – maybe – some were ashamed of being joyful for their deliverance. No matter the reasons behind their motivations, all stood or sat for hours in the hot sun waiting for the opportunity to give their lifeblood. For many in queue, blood was the only contribution they could afford to give.

There is much to love about the Kenyan people. They smile quickly. They respond in kind to an inviting look or gracious word. They are joyful even when they have so little (by our cultural standards) for which to be so. They wear their Christianity on their sleeves and their faces. They respond warmly to a foreigner. I constantly receive thumbs-up signs, nods and smiles and many “Asante for being here with us.”

The parade ground, stands and tents are like disturbed anthills. Soldiers surround the site. Police walk through carrying AK-47s. Two hundred nurses, doctors and volunteers endeavor to take blood from the never-ending line, while also dealing with those who faint. Volunteers constantly hump boxes and cases of soft drinks (Do any of you remember Fanta Orange?), water, toasted cheese sandwiches for workers, bandages, tape and biscuits (cookies).

Throughout the twelve hours we worked, I did not witness one angry outburst or even an expression of frustration, except when some hopeful donors learned their blood would not be accepted. And, many of these people were having to leave work on a Monday without pay to give.

Well, that was yesterday. This morning, all is starting over. Soldiers greet me with stoic, professional faces as they pat me down at the entrance. I can see the wonder in their eyes. Who is this oddity and why is he joining us?

This morning, as thousands more donors begin to arrive at 9:00, the process of moving them through the steps is much better than the two days before. Kenyans are quick learners and keen on serving their mission well.

Prides of politicians with their accompanying press corps wade through the site all day. Photo ops abound due to stacks of boxes of material available for two minutes of their labor. I understand that their messages on TV, newspaper and radio are important for a city, state and country hungry for hope and leadership. I do wish dignitaries would spend a little more time with the people.  They are impressive, especially the tribal chief who arrives in full panoply and regalia.

All the blood this morning is keenly given to grateful KRC teams. Reports begin to circulate of the killing and capture of all of the terrorists while other certified reports tell of continued fighting at the Mall only a short distance away. No word about hostages is given; hope for them is prevalent. The insane murderers following a misunderstood or misrepresented God are not likely to allow any captives to live.

So, these dear people give all they can in the only way they can in response to true horror, and they do it with love, dignity and pride as Kenyans.

_________________

Habari ya leo? Chai?

What a pleasant, wonderful surprise to hear a kind voice offering me a most welcome, unexpected cup of hot tea. I look up into a smiling face of a Salvation Army volunteer.

Yes, I am fine. Hot tea would be most welcome! Asante sana!

It was the end of a long day humping boxes and supplies at the Kenya Red Cross blood donation site. The Westgate Mall siege is still going on a short distance away. I am dirty, exhausted, emotionally wrung out and this sweet, caring face has come from out of nowhere and is offering me a restorative.

Strength and morale return as I drink. I enjoy a fun conversation with Richard Bradbury, a Scot who is Project Officer for The Salvation Army Kenya East Territory. We celebrate our connection between Methodism and the founding of the Salvation Army.

I toast William Booth, who in 1852, began his ministry to win the lost multitudes of England to Christ. He walked the streets of London to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute.

So, even here on the Uhuru Parade Ground in Nairobi, Booth’s desire to provide for the immediate physical needs of those in stress is being met with such a gentle, caring presence.

As a very tired laborer far, far from home, I enthusiastically attest that the Salvation Army is a most effective ministry for the aching heart and the weary soul!

_____________________

It is so easy to hate.

This would be especially true for me after my experience last Saturday at Westgate Mall in Nairobi.  Dear God, has it only been a week?

My next close encounter with a Muslim was the day after Westgate. I chose to stay in Nairobi and for four days was given the healing gift of endeavoring shoulder-to-shoulder with Christian, Hindu and Muslim, with Somali and Kenyan at a temporary Red Cross outdoor blood collection site called Uhuru Park.

On my first day there, I encountered a young, bearded man wearing a taqiyah. A Red Cross volunteer, he was busy directing blood donors to their next station. I touched his elbow and, as he turned round, I saw immediate fear and question fill his eyes. You see, I am, after all, a rather large, white American man who was singular in that setting. I thanked him for his service and the most gentle, grateful soul resurfaced. In return, I received the kindest words one can imagine. I went out of my way to assure him often over the next few days.

This exchange was repeated time and again with many others. All involved in the collection of blood grieved and endeavored together. Over our shoulder was the column of smoke rising from the siege at the Mall a short distance away, a constant reminder that, as we toiled in relative safety surrounded by military police, others were dying. Countless times blood donors gave me a broad smile, a thumbs up, or stopped me to say how grateful they were for my being there and for my willingness to join in as a common laborer doing menial tasks.

My final surprise takeaway occurred late Wednesday night at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as I began my trip home to Birmingham. A group of Americans passed me, one wearing an Auburn University t-shirt. They were retuning to Phenix City, Alabama. We laughed and enjoyed meeting in that place. After they moved on, a young, married Muslim woman hesitatingly approached me, softly asking permission to speak. Her words were so amazingly sweet, comforting, and hopeful. She expressed her sorrow for what extremists were doing in the name of God. She described how all in her circle of family, friends and community felt about Westgate and such actions. She begged my forgiveness and cried. We talked and wept together for a long time, both reluctant to sever the kindnesses shown.

Isn’t it amazing to consider the atrocities committed against humanity throughout history in the name of God? Sadly, Muslim extremists do not own this distinction.

I fear that the only legacy left by the Westgate murderers is to cause many to think of the blood of innocents when they hear of Islam; to think only of persecution when they hear of Islam; to think only of hate, cruel “justice,” inequality and death, death, death to all unbelievers.

Please do not misunderstand me. Those worst of creatures on our earth – those common murderers – who massacred the innocents at Westgate Mall will surely be numbered in history among our world’s most despicable. I make no effort to know their names.

I understand that one’s terrorist is another’s brave revolutionary, but I abhor the idea that there are those who revere the Westgate terrorists (and all others of their ilk), and whose twisted minds believe killing unarmed women, men and children to be right and good in the eyes of God.

How grateful I am to take another memory away from last week’s horrors. Instead, I also carry a picture of love, caring, concern, common pain and united endeavor. My dear, long-departed Methodist minister father’s teachings about the value of every human life remain alive and well in me in spite of what I have seen or, maybe, because of what I have seen.

Help us, God, love Thee more and love one another more.

_____________________

It has been four weeks since I was caught in the massacre by terrorists at Westgate Mall in Nairobi and my subsequent service with Kenya Red Cross. In some respects, the weeks have flown past. In other ways, time has crawled. I pray that lessons learned from my experiences will continue to mature and coalesce. Found below are some of my initial takeaways.

Gratitude and prayer are the radical starting points.

I am thankful for the amazing opportunity to serve in Africa and endeavor for Jesus Christ. I am thankful for the prayers and support given me by so many in Kenya, around our world and at home. I am thankful for these rare experiences that have changed my life and challenged me to respond.

As Henri Nouwen writes in his A Spirituality of Fundraising (I am a fundraiser, after all.), “To pray is to desire to know more fully the truth that sets us free. We are free to remain secure in God’s love with our hearts set joyfully on the Kingdom.”

I worry so much and pray so seldom. Taking this lesson to heart, I pray mightily for the peace of understanding that reconciles witnessing such horror and the struggle with guilt for surviving when others did not.

God was present.

Many have asked me why God allowed Westgate to happen. The answer remains a mystery. My take is that, as a unique creation of God, we have free will. We have the choice to do good and evil, and we live in a wonderful and a broken world. Evil comes when God’s love is not present; the Westgate murderers lived in darkness.

I have no doubt that God was present for all who suffered at Westgate. Besides, suffering, violence and death are never the last word. As Christians, we believe in eternal life. Resurrection gives hope for those who were killed and hope we will be reunited with our loved ones.

Commonality of Man.

My late father, a United Methodist minister, taught me to value every life. His benedictions often ended with, “Help us love Thee more and love one another more.” How healing the experience was to work with the Kenya Red Cross at Uhuru Park during the Westgate Mall siege. In our collective grief and outrage, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Somali and Kenyan stood together. The tragedy unfolding before us stripped away differences in culture or religion and provided us the gift of a glimpse of how similar we are as children of God, of our common humanity. I saw how what divides us can be usurped by what brings us together.

Listen for God’s call. Respond.

Nouwen also wrote, “When we give ourselves to planting and nurturing love here on earth, our efforts will reach beyond our own chronological existence.” I am coming to realize that within our every appeal for assistance to God, an opportunity to serve others is provided. I am learning how to listen for those calls.

What compelled my little group from the Westgate Mall parking lot to pray? What did each of us take away from our experience together? At the very least, we parted with a greater understanding of shared suffering, mercy and grace. I wish to imagine that each of us harbors a new appreciation for those who are different, yet so very similar.

Resolve is the result.

In an effort to define a common enemy and offer rationale for their struggle, Islamic extremists distort the teachings of Islam. Now, more than ever, I am dedicated to helping deliver the message of God’s love. I have heard a clarion call as to how crucial is the E-readers for Seminarians in Africa project. I vividly understand how critical quality education is to the future of Kenya, Africa and the world. The terrorists’ worst only strengthened my resolve.

I end where I began. Prayer is the radical starting point.

Almighty God and Most Merciful Father,

Give me faith shining through my tears. Plant peace and hope within my heart. Provide me grace to forgive this hurt. Help me live my life worthily.

Direct us to do what is right for Jesus’ sake and the sake of peace and good conscience. Make us bold enough to confront the face of evil and of wrong. Give each of us the strength and courage to be leaders in a Church, nation and world hungry for hope and leadership.

Help us love Thee more and love one another more. Amen.