The Church Built For One

The Church Built for One

A church is not always what people may tell you it is. It can be many things, places, people, and moments. It doesn’t have to be a multitude, certainly not an enormous building, and it doesn’t even need a sound. Sometimes church is just a quiet place for a highest calling and purpose to simply… be. In any case, it’s sacred. And it welcomes you if you let it.

Perched alone against the rock and red African earth, it gazed out over the Great Rift Valley with no end in sight. It was simple and beautiful, and most of all quiet. No one often sat in it. No one often sang in it. And the doors were never closed. Yet God was there, enjoying his church and anyone who would come to visit. 

There was a time in my life when I was able to spend time once a week in this marvelous church built for one. On those days, when the sun rose again after a long week of navigating every kind of eventful conflict and conversation imaginable, it was a chance to be still and listen. It was an open the windows and welcome the sun kind of morning. It was a pause and watch the lilac-breasted roller perch on the clothes line kind of morning. These were the mornings once a week when I could be alone and focus on things that were much bigger than myself. It was both freeing and focusing at the same time.

So I would do my best to take in the start of dawn, but soon thereafter set out for a familiar respite. After about a 30-45 minute ride out to the escarpment, which is a 2,000 foot descent, and then a quick winding tour down part of its precarious road, I’d arrive at my destination. With its dust-covered stone and red clay roof, the charming little church was always waiting with doors open.

The structure itself was built by a crew of long-suffering Italians in 1942. There were supposedly 37,000 of them who were taken prisoners by the British amidst the African theatre of World War II. Kept down in the valley, in a town called Mai Mahiu (which means ‘hot water’), they were forced to build the long winding road from the highlands down into the valley. Nearly at the base, but high enough for better perspective, they built this church in excess of their charge. It was a “yes-and” to the mission. 

Inside, facing a 1943 painting (signed by R. Pittore) of Christ’s birth, there sit 4 small pews.  Each seats three patrons, perhaps Kenyan, Italian – or for that matter, me – sized patrons. Thus a full congregation of twelve at most could come at one time to seek an audience with God. But as evidenced by the compact design, this church isn’t about community and congregation. It’s about perspective. It’s about focus. It’s about looking up from toil and a physical longing for home, reckoning with a God who has yet to reveal the path ahead. 

Standing in its doorway, turning back out to the vast beyond, you are welcomed into the wonder that is the Great Rift Valley. 

No one told them to build the church. They were meant to build the road. But that wasn’t enough. They added purpose to the task, a task that was the epitome of utilitarian. It needed a higher calling. And thus, they built a church, inscribed in latin and modestly decorated to exalt with the little that was available. They weren’t in Florence, but they still gave it what majesty they could.

Why is it only a church for one? It was a place for these men to be one with God. One with their faraway home. Or one with themselves apart from the 37,000. But no matter who was there in any given moment, it was still the home of one spirit.

Being one – one with, or by one’s own self – is utterly important many times throughout life. Once a day or at least once a week if you can help it. You may not believe in the God of the Torah, Koran, or Bible; but for what it’s worth, I often think that’s what God meant when he said on the seventh day of all days he rested. It might have meant he went to be alone – and it was good.

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Reflection

As a leader, you must find time and space to be alone. Not too often, lest you lose the faith of your people. But not never, lest you lose yourself. And this isn’t just about ‘me time’ and recharging. It’s not just about well being. This is about being aware and mindful of a purpose that outstretches the bounds of your outlook calendar and scorecard. It’s focusing on the internal why.

  • What is your time to reflect, collect, or simply be?
  • Is there a ‘so what’ you remind yourself of, or one that you fear you’ve lost somewhere back on the journey?
  • How often do you seek your own counsel? It may not always be right, but have you truly sought it to start?

Find your church. Or build it. It’s waiting for you.

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Note: I had the privilege of writing this sitting in the little church described, nearly twenty years since I first sat in it. Perhaps familiarity is another attribute.

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