Category: Alumni Spotlight

Surviving and Thriving in the Unexpected

This blog post is written by Central alum Wilson T. Gathungu as part of the “Thriving in the Unexpected” blog series. 

The norm of every ambitious person in a progressive society is to aim for the sun but if he gets to the moon, this is also good enough. My journey hitherto has been marked by surprises and setbacks so much that I have become accustomed to them. Like that ambitious person, I aimed to reclaim my education to become a professor of theology. But I found myself wading in unfamiliar waters and somehow managed to get the best out of the unexpected.

Born Thiongo Gathungu AKA, Wilson, a name I chose when I was baptized in 1970, I was the last born in a family of four boys and one girl. My childhood wish was to become a judge or an attorney when I grew up, but my dreams were thwarted by predicaments that the family encountered long before I was born. While being the last born in a family in most cases means to be loved, to be adored and to be cared for with extra attention, the opposite was true for me.

When I completed the primary education and I was ready to pursue high school education, it was impossible because my mother who was widowed in 1952 during the Mau Mau rebellion that agitated for Kenya’s independence from British colonialists could not afford to educate two boys in high school at the same time due to financial constraints. My brother, who is my senior was in third year in high school and my mother was struggling to keep him in school all the time. I witnessed my brother being sent home for school fees more than three times in a semester.  I kind of became emotionally prepared for the worst after witnessing the financial struggle in the family and I knew with hindsight that my dreams of pursuing education were impossible; and it came to pass.

I could not get a high school education. Instead, I left the Kairo Village bowed with shame and humiliation at the age of seventeen to cater for myself in Kenya’s capital City of Nairobi. After much struggle and denial of the fact that my dreams were shattered, my encounter with Jesus Christ happened on 4th of July 1979.

My encounter with Christ was not without effect! It became the turning point of my life, and it changed my life forever! I believed all was not lost and I lived that in that hope. I became a Presbyterian Church youth leader at Riruta Satellite Church in 1980s and in 1998, I was ordained as a Presbyterian Church Elder in Nairobi Presbytery. By then I had become a husband and a father of three and a qualified automotive technician although it was not by choice.

Twenty-two years later, a conversation between myself and a friend who was pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas opened for me a fortuitous trip to the United States of America on 27th March 2001. After landing in the land of plenty looking for greener pastures to support my family back home, I found something else that could satisfy the vacuum left by misfortune of poverty in the family.  I found education! I learnt that one could reclaim education through the GED program and I quickly jumped into it and enrolled. In taking the courses that are equivalent to high school diploma, I got my Kansas State High School Diploma in less than one year and I applied at the University of Kansas and admitted in 2002 as a freshman.

I graduated in 2005 with an associate degree in liberal arts from Johnson County Community College and in 2007, I graduated from Park University with bachelor’s in business administration. After much reflection and soul searching on my journey at that point, I was overwhelmed by God’s love and like King David, I asked myself, “with what shall I give thanks to the Lord? David answered himself and said, “I will lift the cup of salvation and give praise to his Holy Name! I echoed David’s statement and went further to vow to become a professor of theology and an ordained minister. I was admitted at Central Baptist theological Seminary in fall of 2008 in a master of divinity program.

By the Fall of 2010, I had taken most courses pertaining to the master of divinity program and I was looking forward to graduation in Spring of 2012 and then to getting into ordained ministry and continue in a doctoral program in theology. Among those courses was Christian Ethics course taught by Dr. Tarris Rosell which had a segment of “Justice and Peace-Making”.

In the Justice and Peace-Making assignment, I wrote about the historical injustices meted out to Kenyans under British colonialism in 1950s. I also wrote on Neo-colonialism that precipitated tribal clashes in Kenya since 1992 after the introduction of multiparty democracy.  The conflicts emanated from historical land injustices which were ratified in the 1961 Lancaster Conference in the United Kingdom (UK) that gave Kenya a biased Pre-Independence conditions.  I highlighted the suffering that Kenyans had gone through under colonialism as well as the regimes that ruled Kenya after independence in 1963.

After submitting my paper to my professor Dr. Rosell, he said the paper should not be left in the classroom as an academic paper and suggested that it should be applied practically to help the communities which had been embroiled in intractable conflict for more than twenty years. The general elections of 2007-2008 alone for example, resulted deaths of more than 1,200 persons and more than 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kenya.

Consequently, Kenya Peace Initiative (KPI) was mooted. We discussed all logistics of Kenya Peace Initiative Project (KPI) which had many hurdles, but we managed to overcome most them and we applied faith on those which were still standing on the way. KPI was approved and funded as academic research coursework by the Central Seminary Board and it subsequently became my capstone research course.

Before I flew back to Kenya to commence the research, I was introduced to Daniel Buttry, a Global Peace-building Consultant for Baptist International Ministries, by Dr. Rosell. Our lunch meeting took place at a restaurant along Metcalf Street in Kansas City, KS in August 2010. We laid down a tentative program for the research and they prayed for me and for the mission which was ahead of me.  On 4th of October 2010, I flew back to Kenya to conduct research.

In what my professor used to call, “feeding two dogs with one bone”, I applied the research work to help communities with conflict transformation seminars which equipped them with peace-building skills and I also fulfilled the capstone research requirement for my Master’s Degree at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

As the wheel of life kept turning, the worst came when I went to the US embassy in Kenya to renew my visa to return to the US so that I could finish my master’s degree and to graduate. I was denied the visa. It was a big shock after a big accomplishment. I didn’t know what to do next. All my dreams and hopes were shattered. Stress and confusion weighed on me. CBTS administration tried to intervene but there was no way. I was bereft and completely stuck.

I remembered all the scriptural promises and quoted them for hope and encouragement. Below are a few verses that I was claiming and that I hanged on to as I traversed in a journey that was not in the initial plan.

  • All weapons forged against you will prevail- Isaiah54:17
  • I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you and a future- Jeremiah 29: 11.
  • And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose- Romans 8:28
  • God will not allow temptations beyond your endurance,
    God will make a way,
    For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses- Hebrews 4:15 etc.

But in the midst of trials and tribulations, God’s providence was manifested even in the darkest hour.  God is the Lord at the top of mountains as well as in deepest valleys. In the dark night of the soul, the coldest hours are closest to dawn, and dawn is the most anticipated moment in the long wait. I waited for days, and months and for years.   I slowly started to learn how to survive in the unexpected area.

I looked for every silver lining in the dark cloud of life and believed in God and in myself even when all signs of progress were negative. With all the experience from the research and my interaction with people who had borne the blunt of life as refugees in their own country, the IDPs, I encouraged myself and like Moses I prayed to God to help me to work with what I had.  I took a positive view of life, and I realized that I had so many gifts that could be used to help other people. I started focusing on my strengths instead of focusing on my weakness. When faced with dilemmas and drawbacks we tend to forget what we possess, our capabilities and our abilities. We see failure, shame and guilt and become vulnerable to self-pity.

In November 2010, I convened a steering committee in Molo with a goal of forming community-based Conflict Transformation Forums. I formed 14 village peace forums. In January 2011, I wrote to Dr. Rosell and informed him about my progress in research and proposed for a peace conference in June the same year. The conference ran for one week June 5, to June 12. Dr. Rosell, Dr. Ruth Rosell, their adult children, together with Dr. Daniel Buttry and Sharon Buttry, attended and facilitated the conference.

After the conference, Molo residents urged me to continue with peace-building seminars especially targeting the youth who were being misused by politicians to cause chaos. I obliged and registered as a Non-Governmental Organization known as Peace, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation Initiative (PRARI) on July 6, 2011. From 2011 to date, PRARI has trained and equipped more than 6,000 community leaders with peace-building skills. PRARI has resettled several internally displaced families.

In last year’s general elections in Kenya, PRARI partnered with International Ministries and trained forty-one peace agents ahead of the general elections and also organized a peace convention at Molo stadium in order to mitigate election violence one week before the elections. You can learn more about PRARI in this documentary or at our website.

  In 2012 PRARI took three orphans from NDEFFO in Molo and provided them with shelter and a place to call home at my rural house that my late mother (R.I.P) and myself constructed in 1986. With support from Dr. Rosell’s family, the shelter was transformed into Mustard Seed Orphans’ shelter where the orphans aged 4, 6 and 7 years old studied from primary school to high school. Two have already graduated from high school and they are waiting to join college in the fall this year. The youngest is in third year in high school.

PRARI conducted dozens of conflict transformation seminars in Kenya. And last but not the least, PRARI has built a facility called Shalom Parlour where organizations can hold peace-building seminars with very low cost.

Even before the completion of the project, Shalom Parlour hosted a Global Education Training Initiative (G.E.T.I) consortium in March 2023 which was facilitated by Dr. Aaron Tyler, a professor of International Relations at the St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas who is doing a research in peace and social justice with a goal of formulating an academic curriculum that can help global peace builders in their work.

Mahatama Ghadi’s profound saying became so real for me. “I thought life was joy, but I didn’t find joy in life. I thought life was service and I tried service and out service I found joy!”

In 2013, I organized a continental Training of Conflict Transformation Trainers (TCTT) which was facilitated by Daniel and Sharon Buttry. The seminar was attended by participants from 12 countries, and it was the first TCTT in Africa. Just before the commencement date, I called Daniel and suggested that we need to create a Pan African Peace Network when we meet. The idea was supported, and we started discussing the formation of Pan African Peace Network- PAPNET. We launched PAPNet at the TCTT and formed committee members from all countries that were represented. PAPNET has impacted hundreds of upcoming young peace builders across the African continent.

I started to appreciate the education which I reclaimed after thirty-two years of dropping from primary school. I started to appreciate the fact that I had communication and management skills from my business administration degree. I appreciated that I could now communicate fluently and express my thoughts orally and literally.  I appreciated that I had the peace building skills from the research and from mentoring I got from Daniel Buttry and that I could use it to solve conflicts.  I appreciated that I had the sword of the Spirit and the Word which I learned in my youth that I could use to win souls for Christ. I appreciated that I had the gospel of peace in the ministry of reconciliation which I could use to foster peace in the world.  I appreciated that even though I did not get an academic PhD, I had an experiential PHD which is, Prayer, Hard-work and Discipline. And that is what is important!

How I found myself surviving in the unexpected can be a long story. I can equivocally say I have thrived in the unexpected and rays of hope are radiating from all horizons. Having survived the unexpected, I have no doubt that I will also thrive and get hold of all that was lost. My survival is characterized by drawbacks and enlightenment as well. The concept of Moral imagination has been my driving force when I find myself in unfamiliar and unexpected areas of my imagination.

In his book, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace, Paul Lederach describes the moral imagination as the capacity to recognize the turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. The moral imagination motive has always helped me to build another castle when the original castle is unexpectedly struck down by storms. The enlightenment moments often happens at the tailed end of each project when we get positive results that transform communities positively beyond our expectations.   How the moral imagination concept helped me navigate in the unexpected is well summarized by Dr. Rosell together with Dr. Daniel Buttry in their ‘ReadTheSpirit blog’.

“Wilson’s quest for peace and justice can be summarized in what Paul Lederach called moral imagination (The Moral Imagination, Oxford, 2010). Lederach believed that nothing is an end unto itself, and that out of something good might come something else that is even better than originally imagined. So it was for Wilson back in 2001 upon his arrival in the U.S. He went looking for old friends and greener pastures, and found unimaginable educational opportunity. A return trip to Kenya for purposes of family care and field study also resulted in the birth of PRARI with ultimate benefit to many families of Kenya”.

In May 2013, I graduated with Master of Art in Theological Studies (MATS) but again I could not attend the graduation. Instead, the graduation was brought to me at the TCTT by Daniel and Sharon Buttry which was done at the end of training. The late Dr. Henry Mugabe (R.I.P) of Zimbabwe Theological Seminary preached at the graduation in a very powerful sermon which compared my journey to Paul’s shipwreck in Rome voyage where everyone in the ship swam to safety on planks but the whole ship was destroyed.

The sermon resonated very well with my journey. I lost almost everything in pursuit of education and ministry. Nothing was spared! Career hopes were crushed. Family union was dimmed. Ministry dream was postponed.  But by the grace of God, I was able to swim to the shores full of faith and hope that anchored me above every storm and every peril of dark forces. And that is what God does to everyone who pursues peace and justice because our God has called us to live in peace and harmony.

No statement can be better to close out with than Terry Rosell’s and Dan Buttry’s closing summary in the ReadTheSpirit blog. “Work remains to be done. Wilson Thiongo Gathungu is ready and able, and prayerfully persistent in the ways of peace.”

PRARI’s mission is to transform the world into a peaceful place where people from diverse ethnic backgrounds can coexist in peace and harmony as if they were sharing the cool breeze of Eden. Partners are welcome and appreciated.

Amani Milele—Peace Forever!

 Wilson T. Gathungu

Peace, Reconciliation And Rehabilitation Initiative (PRARI)-Executive Director

Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS)- Central Baptist Theological Seminary 2013
Peace and Justice Award: Central Baptist Theological Seminary. 2013

Graduate Certificate in Conflict Transformation: St. Mary’s University, TX –2014

Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration: Park University, MO. 2007

Associate Degree in Liberal Arts: Johnson County Community College, KS. 2005

Kansas State High School Diploma: Lawrence Adult Learning Center, 2002

Kenya Certificate of Primary education. Kairo Primary School. 1972