Shannon Bernard of Morgantown, a teacher at Conestoga Christian School, made her first trip to Kenya in 2004. The Tri County Record published a trilogy of stories and photos documenting the Maasai culture and the work of Jan McCray Ministries that July. That was to be her last trip, but God had other plans.
Bernard’s mother, Jan McCray, is an international evangelist, author, lecturer and the founder of Jan McCray Ministries, a non-profit faith-based ministry.
This month, after nine long years, she returned to help dedicate the orphanage built by her mother’s ministry – House of Love in Leshuta, Kenya. It was built with love and money earned by McCray from her speaking honorariums, royalties from the sale of her three books and the generosity of many people who caught the fire and spirit of her cause.
The personification of her prayers and vision for her beloved Maasai people lives in this orphanage. She had first sketched it out one and a half years ago on a paper napkin over lunch.
Now in her late 70s, her body frail, it was an arduous journey to make from sunny Florida to the African bush country. She asked her daughter if she would help her and travel with her. Of course, Bernard wanted to help her mother fulfill her dream.
Peter Ole Cynty, who McCray has known since high school and who was educated at the Kenyan Highland Bible College, was named director of the orphanage. He, along with his wife, Tabitha, and five children, will live with the children and serve as their caretakers.
Most of Maasai land is communal. Cynty, himself a Maasai, was instrumental in working with the Local Land Council to get a grant of 12 acres. He oversaw the construction of H.O.L.
Bernard said, “The trip was long. We met in Newark, NJ after taking our separate trains. From there we flew to Zurich, Switzerland, and then on to Nairobi, Africa. We rested several nights due to mother’s health and then boarded a helicopter that flew us into the Bush country to the small village of Leshuta.”
She laughed, “Hundreds of people came running from everywhere. Many had never seen a white person before. They wanted to touch my skin to see if it would rub off. One thought I had drank too much milk.”
Some people say it takes a village. McCray says, “It takes but one!” Her faith and compassion for one Maasai widow she met 24 years ago on her first visit to Africa began the faith journey. She started to support just one and it grew and grew.
To understand the totality of this mission is to understand the Maasai culture. Diseases like Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS are commonplace. If a man gets sick and dies, the wives and children are left to struggle alone – women are forbidden to remarry. If a woman dies, the husband will abandon his daughter and keep only his sons to work with him.
The young girls are circumcised and married off at the early age of 12 to 14 to an older man of 40 or more years of age for a dowry of a goat or sack of flour. The circle of stark poverty continues with the family living in a manyatta, or circle of dung huts, where a fire pit burns continually for heat and to ward off wild animals.
Bernard said, “Our mission is really twofold. The orphanage can hold 30 children, but we also have a room to take in runaway girls who are fleeing from abuse and don’t want to be married at an early age to these older men. We give them a home to start a new life and get an education. This is truly a house of love.”
She spoke about the first six girls who had been taken into the orphanage; they were age two to 10. The littlest one was very timid and scared. She had been found rummaging for food in a nearby village. When the helicopter arrived the children were still dirty with only the clothes on their backs. They had no change of clothes, so their clothing could not be washed. McCray immediately asked someone to trek to the market to purchase a set of clothing for each girl.
Bernard and her mother had poked tootsie pops and mints into every empty space in their luggage they could find, much to the delight of the children. The children quickly learned how to get their treats.
Being both a mother and a teacher who loves children, McCray played, sang and danced with the girls. “This Little Light of Mine,” although sung in English, soon turned frowns into smiles.
McCray was so touched to see her daughter laughing and giggling with these sweet precious children. This was the picture she held in her mind as she left for home.
Bernard said, “Love transforms within a week by just loving them and taking care of them. They were accepting hugs and beaming. This was their safe place where they could be loved and trust the people around them.”
The seven hour dedication service was held on July 4. In a large field by the new structure, over 1,000 people came from all over, including dignitaries, pastors, choirs, and tribe people.
McCray said, “The Maasai love to meet, worship and receive help from God’s word and so they are never in a hurry. It’s wonderful!”
The opening prayer was given by Musa Kedienge, pastor from the Leshuta church, followed by comments and a welcome from Peter Cynty, who especially honored the bishop and dignitaries who were there.
The praise and worship included several Maasai choirs who sang and led the group in worship. They like to sing in rounds. The choir would sing a line and then the congregation would sing a different line.
Then, according to Jan McCray, “we enacted ‘The House of Love Formal Dedication.’ went back to the door of the House of Love.”
“I prayed for God’s deep, deep blessing, thanking Him for getting H.O.L. built, then I cut the ribbon on the door,” she said. “ people entered to see the inside of this facility – oh my goodness, I thought Shannon and I would get trampled,” she added with a smile.
They returned to the big field where most of those present stayed during the cutting of the ribbon.
The voices of seven choirs filled the air taking turns to praise the Lord.
The tribal people presented their offering at the altar. The poorest of the Maasai put a coin in – many had already given goats and potatoes for the dinner. One man drug a huge sack of flour up to the altar.
Jan McCray said, “Next I spoke and preached, thanking God for H.O.L. and encouraging people to pray, pray and pray some more for this place God has ordained. I preached from Matthew 18 Jesus’ love for children and how, if we love Him, we too should have them foremost in our hearts and minds. I also quoted from the book of James that says ‘true religion, undefiled, is helping widows and orphans in their distress.’ Amen to that!”
Nine preachers spoke, including the governor of Narok County and Bishop Robert Langat of the Africa Gospel Church in Kenya, who brought some dignitaries from Nairobi.
After the service, they fed around 700 people. The villagers donated goats and potatoes. McCray, who has a weak back, said she thanked Jesus for helping her through all the work, saying he “took us on angels’ wings.”
“I could not have gone without Shannon,” McCray said. “She was helper, inspiration, care-giver, precious daughter and lover of the Maasai. She did so so much. I stand amazed at her – she also helped Peter and me and others brainstorm ways of keeping H.O.L. going and making it self-sustaining someday soon, I hope.”
Their first step is to get a milking cow for the children. They need to raise $700 to buy one, and will be seeking donations at www.janmcrayministries.org.