Straight Outta Kenya

This weekend, I rented two movies in an effort to catch up before the Academy Awards. Both were true stories, and both were acted and directed beautifully. One was about an insurance attorney who bravely defended a Russian spy during the Cold War and negotiated the trade of a Russian spy for an American spy, who was also imprisoned. The line that stuck out to me most in Bridge of Spies was one that was repeated throughout the movie in conversations between Tom Hanks’ character and the international criminal he was defending. At different climactic moments, Hanks’ character would look at his Russian client and say, “Aren’t you worried?” and the Russian man would cooly reply, “Would it help?”

The other movie I watched was a true story about a group of young men from the Compton area of Los Angeles, California. Born into poverty and living in the midst of gang violence, they honed their talents as hip hop and rap artists and became one of the most renowned rap groups of all time – N.W.A. The movie marked the chaotic and violent beginnings of the careers of Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and others. Guns were used more than words, and women were tossed around like dice. Within a few short years of hitting his prime, Eazy E contracted the HIV virus and died, leaving his friends to grieve in anger.

Both of these films launched a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions in me. My mental wheels have been spinning like crazy over the weekend, and I have had meaningful conversations based on both films. On Sunday, I engaged in a conversation about poverty with the women in the 33rd Street Jail after hearing a sermon about financial devotion to the Lord. The sermon was wonderful, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to listen from the perspective of someone who was born into, and lives in, chronic and extreme poverty. Most of my friends in the jail are incarcerated for charges of drug dealing and prostitution. None of them woke up one day and said, “I want to be a prostitute” or “I want to be a dope pusher”. They made decisions, albeit dangerous ones, out of a need to survive, to put food on the table, to care for their children, and to not die on the streets.

I told the girls that while I have, at times, lived with very little – renting a room from an older couple, not knowing when or how I would be able to go to the grocery store or put gas in the car – I had no idea what it was like to be born into poverty and have to make survival-level decisions on a minute-by-minute basis. This launched a heated discussion in Dorm H of the Orange County Female Detention Center about whether poverty is a circumstance or a choice, which led to a heated discussion about unwanted pregnancy, which led to a racist comment, which led to an incredibly raw definition of the word “trust”.

Having left that setting, I drove across town to hear the Nairobi Chapel Choir from Kenya lead my church in a night of worship. The leader singer and worship pastor has quite a story of his own. Born into a fatherless family, his mother moved from Kenya to England to work so that she could send money back to her three boys. The two eldest boys wanted the money for themselves, so they attempted to kill their 6 year old brother – this worship pastor – by hanging him over a bridge. The boy survived, but he lived on the streets of Nairobi, dependent upon himself to make it through another day.

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Nikko Orchieng with the Nairobi Chapel Choir

Hearing this story, I couldn’t help but see this worship pastor’s posture against that of the men in Straight Outta Compton, or my friends in jail, or the Russian spy. When our circumstances are life threatening, what makes one person respond one way over another? What lands some of us in jail, and others on stage?

I don’t have these answers to all of these questions, but I can tell you this weekend has left me with far more questions than answers. My church is currently engaged in a six-week sermon series about Money, Sex, and Power. The three things I don’t want to let God have control over in my life. He can have everything else, but I want to keep those three for my own, do do with as I wish. Why are money, sex, and power so big yet so dangerous for most of us? And, in the words of the Russian spy so many years ago, would it help to worry about them as much as most of us do?

I am interested to see where these questions and conversations take me, especially over the next few weeks. I consider it no small privilege that I get to have honest conversations with men and women from so many different walks of life. I just hope we all keep talking…

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