Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall writes about visiting Kenya and the “Epiphany experience” of being confronted by one’s own advantages.

Four women and one man pose together in a Nairobi street. All are well dressed and workers for refugee assistance program.
Dedicated workers at the Urban Refugee Assistance Programme in Nairobi, Kenya.
Credit: Paul Douglas Walfall
Published On: January 10, 2020

Privilege is not only about racism! While we usually associate the phrase “check your privilege” in discussions about racism, the phrase has much wider implications. Ever so often we may need to check our privilege, to do that type of self-examination to see what advantages we may have which other members of society may not have. For example, when I am able to walk through snow and ice and through a front door on my own, do I remember the difficulty that someone with a disability may have to maneuver the same route? How can I use my “privilege” to advocate for those who may not have the same privilege? Likewise, when I hear of those in my community who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, how do I use my “privilege” to help?

During my visit to Kenya, I had the privilege to visit with the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), an ecumenical partner of The United Church of Canada. The NCCK, in conjunction with the United Nations Human Rights Commission, operates the Urban Refugee Assistance Programme in Kenya. The program is located in a part of Nairobi called Huruma, which is an economically depressed area in Nairobi. On the journey there I passed on the outskirts of Dandora, the largest waste dump in Nairobi. The next day I visited Dandora.

Kenya has had an influx of refugees from neighboring countries over the years. Primary health care is free to all persons living in Kenya but anything beyond that will cost the patient. The Urban Refugee Assistance Programme seeks to offer payment to some, and I must emphasize some, refugees who require health care beyond basic needs. Persons who have had to flee their countries, because of violence, hatred, or economic reasons, with limited resources would not be able to pay for the medical care required for chronic or emergency illnesses. Unfortunately, the financial resources of this program are not sufficient to meet the needs of all who need secondary or tertiary medical care. Consequently, priorities are set, with high priority given to persons facing life or death situations, persons living with mental illnesses, or otherwise requiring emergency medical care. Other persons are placed on a waiting list and are offered care as funds become available. In the past years aid funds have been cut and so difficult decisions have had to be made on a day-to-day basis.

Refugees are among the vulnerable in the society. Yet, within this group there are those who are particularly most vulnerable. These would include pregnant women, children, sex workers, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The LGBTQ+ refugees came primarily from Uganda where there has been government sanctioned oppression. They come to another country which is not accepting of LGBTQ+ rights, but is not openly oppressive. It continues to be a wonder to me how the limited resources of this program seems to stretch to meet the varied needs which call upon it.

During my visit I had the opportunity to meet and speak with some of the refugees – men, women, and children. In one case I met a mother of four children who had fled to Kenya because of ongoing violence in her homeland. Bluntly, put she fled to save her life and that of her children. Unfortunately, while at the refugee camp her son contracted a skin infection. This infection has left scars on his head and he has lost one of his eyes. The effects of the disease can still be seen as he has a rash all over his body.

I have been saying that I was left feeling numb from that visit. But that is only part of the truth. While I was there, I was also felt a sense of being privileged. It was a new sensation for me; I had never before in my life ever felt I was privileged. This feeling unsettled me deeply. Why was it that now I had to “check my privilege”? I was soon to discover that this experience should not have been strange to me. I had never looked on my “privileges” before, but here I was now being confronted by them. The experience proved to be cathartic. 

When we speak of “privilege” we are looking at the set of advantages that we have, and what others do not have. To speak about privilege is not saying that you are a better person or that you are a wealthier person or anything like that. In my own case I realized that I was standing there – a permanent resident of Canada. I am employed and, so far, I do not have any diseases that have adversely affected me. I was not better than the people I was visiting, but yet I could not deny that I had some advantages that these people did not have. I was left in that uncomfortable place of asking how do my privileges help those who do not enjoy the same? Do I ignore them, and say aid funds will help them? Or do I at least raise my voice to help those who do not have a voice. It was a “Good Samaritan moment.” Do I pass by on the other side or do I take note of the need and do something to help?

When you are able to see the advantages you have in society and are willing to use them for the sake of those who do not have the same advantages, then I believe it is an Epiphany experience; it is a revelation of what God is calling us to do in the world. In that moment, like the Magi, we discover God’s presence among the vulnerable and we offer what we can do in response. When we are able to do this I believe we will not only be observing Epiphany, we will be living it.

When you realize your privilege what will you do? Will you do something or pass by on the other side?

—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister of the Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith in the Northern Spirit Regional Council. He travelled to Kenya in October 2019 to attend the All Africa Conference of Churches symposium on “Misleading Theologies,” and to visit United Church of Canada partners in the region.