Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 21, 2013
Saturday traffic in Nairobi is usually terrible, and this day was no exception. The main road was essentially a parking lot, and Scott Gilpin was running late. He just needed to pop into the mall to pick up some computer equipment and meet a friend for lunch at the Art Café. He had been coming to Nairobi for years and knew his way around. He told his driver to let him out, that he knew a shortcut.
Cutting across the campus of the Oshwal Indian Cultural Center, which abuts the mall parking lot, he was 100 yards from the entrance when he noticed something was wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
“I was educated in part at a military academy,” Gilpin said. “I know the sound of hand grenades. I know the sound of AK-47s.”
From the length of a football field, the Westgate Mall fell under siege before Gilpin’s eyes.
Gilpin is executive director for fund development for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. He’d traveled to Nairobi for a historic first meeting of presidents of African Methodist colleges and universities.
The Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry were collaborating on a project that would provide e-readers to seminarians in countries where getting the theological materials they need is difficult, if not impossible.
“E-readers can download a complete theological library,” Gilpin said. “For the first time, they have everything they need — four versions of the Bible instead of photocopied pieces of one Bible.”
The higher education board organized a meeting with the African college and university presidents, which began in Nairobi and moved to Meru at the Kenya Methodist University campus. They invited Gilpin and fellow staff member Steve Bryant, who oversees Discipleship Resources International, to help teach the presidents about development and fundraising using the e-reader project.
When the meeting wrapped up on Friday, Sept. 20, Gilpin traveled back to Nairobi. Thirteen years before, he had helped to start a ministry in nearby Kikuyu with an Anglican priest. Gilpin, an avid fly fisherman, organized a ministry of flytiers to try to help create jobs. His plan was to stay behind and work for two days with the ministry.
He was scheduled to meet the leader of that ministry at Westgate Mall. He needed to pick up a wireless keyboard and mouse for a computer he’d had delivered to the ministry.
“My friend’s car broke down, and he was delayed. I was to be there at 11, and we were to meet at the Art Café, which is a favorite of mine,” Gilpin said.
The driver couldn’t get near the mall because of heavy traffic, so Gilpin hopped out of the car and experienced the last routine moment of his trip.
“I saw the first people killed, saw the first indiscriminate spray of small-arms fire across the parking lot,” Gilpin said. “You could hear bullets flying overhead and smacking into cars around you. The horror of seeing people killed.
“A mother and two children ran toward me. I had just come through a great shortcut, so I knew the way to go. Along the way, we picked up three Hindu men who had family in the mall. One was holding his cell phone and crying. His phone had just rung; it was his daughter’s number, but it wasn’t she on the phone. It was a man in the mall who said he had picked up the phone and was calling for help — and then the phone went dead.
“After maybe 35 minutes,” Gilpin continued, “the seven of us walked back out of the lot when the fire outside the mall calmed down and I felt it was safe enough to help get them to the Oshwal Center, so that’s what we did. We just walked out.”
The Oshwal Center became a central point for security and safety, providing aid to the wounded. While the siege went on for several days, the Indian community offered food, care and a place for the Kenyan Red Cross, military and police.
You might argue that Gilpin is a hero, but he’ll argue right back. Vehemently. “I’m a witness and a survivor, and that’s it.”
He prefers to reflect on what happened next.
‘God be with you’
“That feeling after the attack of anger, shock about the lack of emotion in killing another person. … My feeling was wanting to do something in response to the attacks and not have that as the defining memory of the wonderful work we did the week before.”
On Sunday, Sept. 22, the day after the attack, Gilpin went to a Kenyan Red Cross site set up in downtown Nairobi and realized the Kenyan people had turned out in great numbers in response, “like we did after 9/11.” He also realized the Red Cross was overwhelmed. The line to give blood was so long, he went to a local hospital to donate instead, and still waited two-and-a-half hours before he could give.
“I realized that the Red Cross needed assistance,” Gilpin said, “if I could give some, as a catharsis to what I’d seen and, like everybody else, wanting to do something. They said, ‘By all means.’”
They sent Gilpin to Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, where they had another donation site.
“I worked as a common laborer,” Gilpin said. “I carried cases of sodas and cookies, bandages; delivered food to the nurses, doctors, volunteers. The lines snaked through the park, city blocks long. For many, the only thing they had to give was their blood, and they were taking off work to do it, not getting paid, sacrificing to respond.”
When Gilpin signed up with the Red Cross, he was supposed to leave the country on Monday, Sept. 23, but because of reports of planned attacks on U.S. citizens in Nairobi, there was concern that travel in and out of the airport was not ideal. Gilpin felt it was not wise to leave, and he also felt called back to the Red Cross. He contacted his colleagues at the Board of Discipleship to alert them to his change of plans.
“Their main concern was for my safety,” he said, “but they were nothing but supportive about my decision. Once we looked at the situation and decided I would cancel my Monday flight and stay, Karen Greenwaldt, my general secretary, said, ‘God be with you,’ and blessed my work. For my agency to let me stay four more days and do that work, I can’t even estimate what that means to my psyche.”
‘This is not my religion’
Once back at the Red Cross site, Gilpin became all too aware how much he stuck out, as likely the only white U.S. citizen in a sea of Kenyan workers. But he also realized he wasn’t the only minority: Kenya is a majority Christian nation. The terrorists who seized the mall were Muslim, and he recognized Muslim volunteers were working at the site.
“There had to have been fear that there would be retribution, and in spite of it, these people rose to the occasion, which made them truly brave,” Gilpin said. “I’m just there; they’re really stepping up, and they can’t come home. They’re there. I get to come home to my wife and my home and my work and safety; that’s almost unbelievable for them.
Gilpin said it truly struck him when he ran into a Muslim Red Cross volunteer.
“I felt I had to talk to him, and I’m sure he wondered what I was thinking,” Gilpin said. “When I walked up and touched his elbow, he flinched, but I said, ‘I just want to say hello and thank you for your service, and I’m sure this is difficult for you as well.’ That started a conversation that included some of the sweetest words that he could say to me. ‘I’m here for my fellow countrymen,’ he said. ‘What’s happening here in the name of Islam is not the Islam I know; it’s not my religion. It’s not what I or my friends practice or what my community is about.’
“There were many opportunities for that. There were several Muslim women working there, and every time we met, there were great smiles, and they assured me they were in partnership in grieving and trying to find an answer to this.
“All these Muslims, Hindus and Christians were gathered there at the park, due to a wonderfully strong commitment to their country, their community and to God. What a catharsis, a healing. As I would walk around, people would ask, ‘Where are you from? Why are you here, and why are you staying?’ And that I could tell them I work with The United Methodist Church and the Board of Discipleship was a real opportunity to represent the work we do.”
Throughout his four days working at that Red Cross site, Gilpin had numerous conversations in the same vein. He shared his relationship and role with United Methodism; Muslims working by his side said these acts don’t resemble their personal faith. The United Methodist Church places a premium on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and Gilpin, unplanned, was having lots of that dialogue.
It all culminated in his last night in Nairobi, Wednesday, Sept. 25. He’s chronicled his experiences on Facebook, but he shared them with United Methodist News Service as well:
“At the airport Wednesday night, I was sitting in the hallway and saw a group of Americans. You can always tell Americans by their tennis shoes. One of them has an Auburn T-shirt, and I say, ‘Are you kidding? I’m from Birmingham.’ They were there for other mission work outside Nairobi, and we talked about the coincidence.
“Down a few seats from me is a young, married Muslim woman. After they leave, she scoots over and asks, very quietly, ‘May I talk to you for a moment? I couldn’t help but overhear you. I want you to understand’ — and tears start rolling down her face — ‘that what happened here is not my religion.’ She said the same thing the young man said on my first day with the Red Cross. She thanked me for my service, and we ended up talking for a long time. I asked her if she’d experienced any attitudes or retaliation for what’s happened. I asked her about what it’s like to be Muslim in a predominantly Christian country that is now on the frontline for the battle between extremists of Islam and Christianity, in a sense. It was a very open, sweet conversation.
“What a grand way to end this experience,” Gilpin said. “I’m so very thankful that God provided this opportunity to serve my church, stay those extra days … to do anything but run at the first opportunity.”
Westgate Nairobi days, Red Cross days
Since he’s been home, Gilpin has what he calls “Westgate Nairobi days,” and thanks God that those are tempered by “Red Cross days.”
Scott Gilpin talks about his experience
“We literally walked out.”
“I want you to understand that happened … is not my religion.”
Despite what he’s been through — or perhaps because of it — he looks forward to his next trip to Africa. The new association of African colleges and universities that formed at this first historic meeting, overshadowed by the siege, has asked him to be their development consultant.
“To be back in Africa and be part of that, the quicker the better,” he said.
“The United Methodist Church in Africa is so dynamic and growing so quickly, but they need healthy assistance and the right kind of support. To be part of that is such a blessing.”
Mercifully, those “Westgate Nairobi days” are fading. “I’m doing better every day,” Gilpin said. “My visions are not quite what they were a few weeks ago.”
When Gilpin reflects upon all he experienced in those few fateful days in Nairobi, he often lands upon what he calls a point of blessing.
“The three Hindu men with me in the parking lot, we prayed together. So here’s this United Methodist and these Hindus, and we’re praying to our spiritual leaders together as the shooting’s going on. To get to cry together and have genuine feeling … there was a shared experience you can’t replicate in any other way.
“Did those three guys take away a message from Methodism? I don’t know. But we all appreciated being spiritual together. Maybe because of that, they might have a deeper appreciation for Christians, if not United Methodists.
“I’m so thankful to God for the opportunity, and I’m so glad I had the chance to rise to it. It just makes me hungry to go back. What’s next?”
*Butler is editor of young adult content for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].