Former US president John F. Kennedy’s saying: ‘ask not what your country can do for you but rather what you can do for your country’, rings true of Rev Dr John Gatu’s life. He has served in various leadership roles both locally and globally, especially in ecclesiastical organisations, and a rich legacy is there to show for it. His has given selfless service to the church and nation, changing many lives and leaving many people challenged in different ways. He talks to ESTHER KIRAGU about his impressive service to God and man.
At 91 years, Reverend Dr John Gatu has truly lived a full life. His authoritative, resounding voice does not betray his age. His memory proves to be as good as new as he takes me on a trip down memory lane.
Gatu grew up in a Christian home and plunged into the pastoral world in early 1950s after attending St Paul’s United Theological Seminary, now St Paul’s University.
His walk in the faith can best be described as an audacious path. “At the age of 16, I left home without my parents’ knowledge and headed to Nairobi where I joined the Kings African Rifles and ended up serving in World War II in Kenya and Ethiopia,” he recounts.
He rose up the ranks from a signals officer to instructor before being promoted to a company sergeant major; the second highest rank that could be accorded to an African at the time.
For his great service in the British army, he was among the few Africans selected to attend the victory parade in London; a celebration of the British Commonwealth Empire and its allies held after the defeat of the Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II.
It was at the army that young Gatu began asking himself a lot of questions pertaining to the Christian faith his parents professed and which they had introduced him to from an early age.
Unable to find the answers he was seeking, he concluded that Christianity was a white man’s tool of enslaving Africans. As a result, he rebelled by doing things that he had undertaken not to engage in earlier as a Christian such as consuming alcohol, arguing that he was now free to do as he pleased.
Later in the late 1940s, he would partake the Mau Mau oath and join in the Kenyan struggle for independence.
A calling to ministry…
While off duty having returned home after seven years of service in the British army, he tried his hands at several jobs in Nairobi but felt inclined to get closer to his rural home.
When he learnt of a job opening for a clerk doubling up as a supervisor of the mission schools superintendent at a local church near his home, he applied and got the job in 1950.
“I wanted to be closer home in order to participate in local politics but my life took a course of its own. My new job entailed interacting with other churches. During this time, there was a wave of revival in East Africa emphasising on the real experience of the saving power of Christ and daily submission to Him, rather than an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues and supernatural healing.
The movement was most famous for its revival hymn – Tukutendereza Yesu – for those who shared a common spiritual experience all over East Africa. This led me to give my life to Christ and heed the call to serve as a church minister,” he narrates.
His early ministry life began at Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Kiamathare Parish in Kiambu County where he was ordained minister in 1956.
At the time, the local PCEA church was much dependent on financial assistance from the mother churches abroad, a gesture Gatu was opposed to. And it is this that triggered him to teach the congregation on the need to be self-sustaining.
“I began organising weekend courses with some church elders on how to run the church without waiting for aid. At about that time, the PCEA church wanted to send someone to Scotland to observe and learn how the churches were run and I ended up being picked,” says the man who became the first Presbyterian minister from Kenya to be trained in Scotland where he also served as a church minister.
Going against the norm…
Gatu is possibly famously known for issuing a moratorium on foreign missionaries and funding while serving as the then General Secretary of the PCEA church and the presiding minister of PCEA St Andrews Church in Nairobi, marking the symbolic end of the colonial mission paradigm. At the time, his sentiments seemed to rub some people the wrong way.
However, in 1976 when the PCEA church was celebrating 70 years, they produced a Kikuyu book dubbed Thii-i meaning ‘go’ in reference to the local church going to look for people where they were and not to wait for aid from the white man.
Gatu explains, “I was resolute that the aid given to local churches from overseas made people lazy and dependent and rather than sit and wait for aid, we should find local solutions and if the aid comes, it will be to boost already existing effort. This birthed the JITEGEMEA movement, which means self-reliance. Within no time, the local churches were financing their development ideas and running the church.”
Further, the PCEA church founded a Presbyterian Foundation where every congregation was to contribute a given amount of money monthly towards the fund and if there were churches that needed help, then the fund would assist.
Not one to follow the norm, during his daughter’s wedding, which he presided over at St Andrews Church in Nairobi in 1972, Rev Gatu insisted that the bride must be presented to the altar by both parents and not just the father, as was the tradition.
His son-in-law was so moved by the gesture that he suggested they consider having his parents also accompany him to the altar. This tradition was adopted widely thereafter and still goes on to date.
In yet another classic departure from tradition at the same wedding, guests were served with a goat roasted over a charcoal grill instead of the usual wedding cake to reflect an African perspective.
Gatu explains this gesture was a depiction of his wish to be able to practice his faith in the context of cultural identity, a concept he expounds in a book he authored – Joyfully Christian, Truly African.
“To me there is no clash between my Christian faith and my culture as each serves its role and edifies the other. I believe in the need to uphold traditional cultures as long as they are appropriate and valuable,” says the man who has also authored a book in Kikuyu language titled He Gutu Nguhe Kanua (Listen to Me I Tell You Something) as well as various Kikuyu poems.
Offering service to all…
Gatu has notably served in the ecumenical sector including being vice-president and chairman of the general committee of the All Africa Conference of Churches, vice-chairman of the World Council of Churches Commissions on Faith and Order and a member of the executive committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches among many others.
At one time as chair of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), he demonstrated the spirit of a true servant leader when he and other religious leaders approached the then national leadership under Jomo Kenyatta’s government to tackle the issue of oathing, which was seen to propagate tribalism in the country.
He emphasises that a true national leader must transcend tribal and ethnic barriers to serve all, a belief shown in all his undertakings.
He was among those who contributed in the birthing of South Sudan by helping to craft the Sudan Peace Agreement, as well as brokering reconciliation between the church, the army, the community and the rebel movement. This resulted in formation of the South Sudan government by the late John Garang.
Gatu also played a role in reconciling church leaders and the community in Kenya during the 2007/2008 post-election violence after convening a body made of senior retired and serving clergy to form the Senior Clergy Consultative Forum (SCGF) to support the church and its leadership in Kenya and to advocate for peace, justice and healing to the church and country.
This led to peace workshops especially in areas that were worst hit by the violence.
He has also served as the chair of the Bible Society of Kenya, the Ufungamano Christian Student Leadership Centre, St Paul’s United Theological College and Christian Help Association of Kenya Mission among other local ecumenical bodies.
Love for family…
Gatu was married for 62 years to Rahabu Wangari wa Gatu who passed away in 2006 after battling cancer for a while.
He talks of her in high esteem. “She was my best friend and life companion,” he says, adding that although losing his wife was a very difficult experience for him, being surrounded by his family helped ease the pain.
Gatu and his late wife were blessed with three children. He lost a son to a grisly road accident a few years ago. He has many grandchildren and great grandchildren whom he loves and enjoys spending time with.
“My encouragement to others is to make good use of whatever God has put in you no matter how little you think it is. No service is too small to make an impact,” he says in conclusion.