Feature

Spared for More Mission

Wycliffe Canada board member Steve Kabetu’s introduction to Bible translation field work was painful, debilitating—and life-threatening.

Soon to be a Wycliffe Canada board member, Steve Kabetu
had just attended a 2013 New Testament dedication ceremony for the Apurímac Quechua people of south-central Peru hours earlier.

Steve Kabetu explains in his Burlington, Ont. office that because of his upbringing and life experiences, he looks at the world upside down, like the map in the background. It is deliberately printed in a non-traditional projection with southern nations on the top.
(Photo: Natasha Ramirez)

Now Kabetu, who is also director of world missions for the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), was flat on his back in a rural mission hospital in the community of Curahuasi. As physicians and nurses hovered above him awaiting a surgery to remove his burst appendix, one doctor asked him if it would be okay if they prayed.

“Oh no, please do,” he responded while wondering, “Are they praying because they’ve never done this surgery before?”

The doctor told Kabetu that the hospital’s name in the local Quechua means, “In God we trust.” This comforted him as the anesthetic gently put him to sleep.

When Kabetu awoke he was told that the surgery was a life-saving procedure, but he would have to stay at the hospital for two weeks while the antibiotics cleaned the toxins out of his body. As Kabetu sat in his wheelchair recovering, he was resigned to the fact that his fast-paced life was halted. He had weeks to reflect on the impact of Wycliffe Canada-sponsored Bible translation work in Peru. He also had plenty of time to think about his own life and that of his grandfather.

Fate and Origins

"It is priceless to have a leader within one of our key denominational partners represented on the board
Roy Eyre, Wycliffe Canada president

Kabetu’s destiny—and the origins of his faith— can be traced back to his grandfather’s African childhood in the early 1900s and his habit of losing goats and sheep while herding.

When Kabetu’s grandfather was a child, the first missionary to their village was Harry Leakey. Hailing from Britain, Harry and his family settled into the pre-Kenyan village of Kabete with the southern Kikuyu people. The couple was able to stay in the region with the permission of the elders, and asked to set up a school where they could teach Kikuyu children how to read and write, and tell them about God and His Son Jesus.

One of the elders was Kabetu's great-grandfather, who offered to let his youngest son attend school, because he wasn't very good at herding. The son would become a Christian a few years later, in 1905, travelled to Great Britain to learn English. Eventually, he would help translate the Bible into the Kikuyu language.  

“When I look back at his life,” says Kabetu, reflecting in his Toronto office, “having had that experience definitely changed the way my father’s life was, and the way my life turned out.”

 Kabetu is surrounded by Wycliffe Canada board members at their 2014 spring meeting, held at Rivers Edge Camp and Conference Centre northwest of Calgary. Kabetu joined the board in the fall of 2013, bringing a unique perspective.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Overseas Education

When Kabetu was born, East Africa was a much different place than it was during his grandfather’s childhood. He was born in the mid-’60s at the tail-end of decades of conflict between the British and the region’s displaced people groups, who had been removed from their traditional land and put into reserves surrounded by barbed-wire.

After the region stabilized, Kabetu, who was the second oldest of six children, moved around a lot because of his father’s career.

The family lived a middle-class Kenyan life and Kabetu spent much of his childhood in his community, playing soccer and field hockey.

After graduating from high school, Kabetu was working on the family farm when his father told him that he and his mother wanted him to get an education. After researching different schools in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, Kabetu and his father chose York University in Toronto.

During Kabetu's first year at college in the late '80s, he experienced his first snowfall. He hurried outside, along with other foreign students to experience a strange new substance.

“We were outside and you know how the snow comes and it’s clean and fresh,” he explains. “We were outside just trying to touch it and hold it . . . the first thing I did when I had a pile of snow in my hand was taste it. I remember looking at all the other friends of ours who were doing the same thing and saying, ‘It doesn’t taste anything like we thought it would.’ ”

The cold weather caused culture shock for Kabetu, but he stuck with his program, hoping to return to Kenya to help develop the country after concluding his studies in economics.

However, when he finished, Kenya was unstable politically and he was advised by his father to postpone his return.

At York, Kabetu met his wife Patricia. After university, the couple moved into a new townhouse, while Kabetu got his feet wet in the workforce, first as a teaching assistant and then in developing economic profiles for various cities.

From Congregation to Denomination

Having moved into a new community, the newlyweds were looking for a church, and conveniently a house church was hosted on their block. The pastor of the church knocked on their door and invited them to attend, but Kabetu and Patricia weren’t sure what to think.

“We looked at each other [thinking], ‘What kind of church starts in a house basement?’ Now we were all of a sudden very suspicious. So, we spent six months avoiding our neighbours," explains a laughing Kabetu.

Nonetheless, the pastor was persistent and finally, they joined the Christian Reformed Church. They found that it was full of folks from all over the world, seeking Christ. It became their church home. Kabetu soon joined the leadership group, which was asked to attend a regional gathering of churches to learn about the CRC denomination and its ministries.

Two years later, he was nominated to the church’s board and began volunteering his time to develop a curriculum and workshops on how to talk about racial diversity. In time, his efforts turned into a full-time position and he became the co-ordinator for the office of race relations in Canada for the CRC. In 2012, he became the Canadian director of Christian Reformed World Missions.

Stepping Forward

If it had been up to Kabetu, he probably would still be in Kenya working on his family’s farm. If contentment equated to God’s will for his life, he wouldn’t have gone to university and he wouldn’t have accepted leadership roles with CRC.

After becoming the missions director of CRC, he saw that the denomination didn’t have Bible translation as a part of their missions plan and signed a partnership agreement with Wycliffe Canada.

Kabetu became a Wycliffe Canada board member in the fall of 2013, helping the board give vision to the organization and providing it the constituency accountability required by law in Canada for non-profit agencies.

Roy Eyre, president of Wycliffe Canada, was excited when Kabetu joined the board because of the work Kabetu’s grandfather did in translating the Bible for the Kikuyu. Soon, though, Eyre realized Kabetu’s contribution was much broader than his connection to his grandfather.

“During his years in Canada, he has managed to maintain the perspective of the minority language communities we serve, and he has brought that perspective to board discussions,” explains Eyre. “In addition, I've really come to value his contribution as a director of a partner organization. He understands my role and the challenges of leading an organization within our legal and cultural context.

“More than that, it is priceless to have a leader within one of our key denominational partners represented on the board. His participation binds the two organizations together in some key ways."

Kabetu brings a rare perspective on the Wycliffe board. It’s rooted in a faith that was planted in his grandfather by missionaries over a century ago and it’s a perspective that has been shaped by God’s remarkable path for his life—from a Kenyan reserve to Canada.

                                                                       •••••

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