Kenyan priest visible link of faith, friendship in Kitui partnership

| Susan Klemond | July 29, 2016 | 0 Comments
Father Robert Mutui of the Diocese of Kitui, Kenya, enjoys seeing Minnesota’s copious amounts of water, including the Mississippi River, which runs less than a mile from St. John the Baptist in Dayton. He said he wishes he could use “a giant pipe” to take some of the water from the river back to his country, which often experiences severe drought. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Father Robert Mutui of the Diocese of Kitui, Kenya, enjoys seeing Minnesota’s copious amounts of water, including the Mississippi River, which runs less than a mile from St. John the Baptist in Dayton. He said he wishes he could use “a giant pipe” to take some of the water from the river back to his country, which often experiences severe drought. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

During Father Robert Mutui’s short visits to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from his Kenyan diocese of Kitui, he’s learned how the two dioceses share faith, values and relationships. But now, nine months into a longer, two-year stay as part of a diocesan exchange, he’s still trying to figure out Minnesota weather.

“It was really cold [this past winter], but now I’m prepared,” he said. “I know what is coming . . . but with the winter so cold, now I can’t believe it can be this hot.”

Father Mutui, 53, arrived on his fourth visit to the Twin Cities in November. He is the first participant in a personnel exchange between Minnesotans and Kenyans in the nearly 12-year-old diocesan partnership involving growing friendships and correspondence, regular delegation visits, and developing water resources for the semi-arid area of Kitui.

“I am the guinea pig, the first to come out in that kind of an arrangement,” Father Mutui said with a laugh.

Since June, Father Mutui has served as parish administrator of St. John the Baptist in Dayton, where he is getting to know parishioners and appreciating the rural environment.

He also is working with partnership members, promoting water projects, and providing a cultural, spiritual and informational link to his African country.

Father Mutui is a visible expression of the archdiocese’s relationship with the African Church and brings knowledge of the partnership, said Mike Haasl, global solidarity coordinator at the Center for Mission, which serves the archdiocese, and a member of the partnership’s leadership team. “It’s learning deeper about culture, deeper about how they think, how the leadership there engages in a more public arena in Kenya,” he said.

Roughly one-fifth the size of Minnesota, the Diocese of Kitui sits about 100 miles east of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in eastern Africa. Catholics make up about 22 percent of the 1.3 million people who live in Kitui County, the province where the diocese is located.

Father Mutui grew up the youngest of six boys in the Kitui village of Museve. Like most Catholics in the rural diocese, his parents were farmers and raised corn, beans, bananas and oranges.

He attended minor seminary and, while serving at Mass, became interested in the priesthood. In the major seminary he discerned his vocation and was ordained a priest 28 years ago.

In the Kitui diocese, Father Mutui has served as parish priest, vocations director and vicar general. In the 1990s he studied pastoral ministry and chaplaincy in Ireland.

During his years as a priest, he’s seen the Catholic faith in Kitui spread. “There’s been tremendous growth in the faith and also in vocations to the priesthood and religious life,” he said.

In some Kitui villages, Sunday Mass is held in parishioners’ homes, he said, adding that “the Church in Kitui is a singing Church. . . . Worship is singing and drumming, and everybody sings.”

Father Mutui became involved with the partnership with the archdiocese in 2007.

“As far as I remember, we have stressed our meeting point as shared faith, friends and followers of Jesus Christ,” he said.

As part of the exchange, he was assigned by Archbishop Emeritus John Nienstedt who at the time was leading the archdiocese, to serve at the 400-family St. John the Baptist. The parish’s peaceful, friendly, rural character bears similarities to Kitui, Father Mutui said.

He’s been surprised by the amount of water in Minnesota as well as the vastness of the land and tall trees.

“I’m impressed by the farmers and by the corn,” Father Mutui said. “It reminds me of the maize, or corn, in Kitui. It’s so green here and it’s very healthy looking.”

Father Mutui isn’t yet licensed to drive in Minnesota, so parish volunteers provide rides, which has proven a benefit not only for him, but also for parishioners.

“He’s getting to know people, working with them and having a good time,” said Mary Murphy, 63, a parishioner and volunteer. “People are getting to know him personally.”

Father Mutui is fair and listens well, Murphy said.

“He seems to always listen to everything and will have some input into it, but he’s always kind and caring. He’s never condescending,” she said.

Haasl described Father Mutui as thoughtful, faithful to the Church and having a great sense of humor.

“He’s conscious of a lot of facets of the Church, the role of the sacramental aspect, and his concern is for the more marginalized,” he said.

Along with parish work, Father Mutui and Haasl have given talks together at area schools about the partnership’s water project. Minnesota members have contributed to the construction of five dams and the purchase of about 30 cement storage tanks for schools, Father Mutui said. In April, St. John the Baptist raised more than $2,000 for Kitui water projects.

Minnesota partnership leaders likely will send Church personnel to Kitui as part of the longterm exchange, Haasl said; it’s unclear whether that will include a priest.

The archdiocese and Kitui send delegations to each other’s countries on an alternating schedule as part of its mission promoting “the mutual sharing of our faith, our experience, our culture and our resources.” (See box for information about being part of the 2017 Minnesota delegation to Kitui.)

While in Minnesota, Father Mutui keeps in touch with the Kitui bishop, as well as his nieces and nephews. And he is planning a trip home in January — when, he said, the Kenyan weather forecast is likely to be “very warm and dry.”

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