ibet proudly stood at the gate of Kimbilio Hospice. The sash draped across his chest read “Here to serve.” The message was as out of place on his security guard uniform as the work Kibet and his colleagues do every day in our village.
Kibet knew well that by the time a patient arrived at the gate, they had walked a long and arduous road. Each guest came with a failing body and a unique story, with the pain and suffering and hopes and fears that go along with advanced disease.
A survivor himself, Kibet understood it was his job—his ministry—to warmly welcome and direct each family bringing their loved one into our care on the shore of the Kipkaren River in Western Kenya.
Combined with abject poverty, the vulnerability of being incurably sick causes people to be overlooked and undervalued. It was for such people that the hospice (kimbilio means “a place to run to” in Swahili) was created. Our desire from the start has been that we might be a community of compassion that reminds people of their worth.
It was a warm afternoon in December 2004 when I first met Kibet. He was asleep under the shade of a banana tree, covered by a heavy woolen blanket. His feet extended well beyond the length of the foam mattress on which he lay. His body had been ravaged by untreated disease, and little more than a skeletal frame remained.
A neighbor had asked me to check on the man with ugonjwa—“the sickness.” There was much stigma and fear attached to AIDS, and while everyone assumed that was the cause of Kibet’s condition, no one would say the word.
I was a 25-year-old nurse practitioner who had left my job at an HIV unit in Los Angeles four months earlier in order to work in Kenya. By that time in the United States, HIV was mostly treated as a chronic disease. In Kenya, we couldn’t even say the word out loud, let alone access testing or treatment.
It was the conviction that no one should die alone that led me to leave my home and family to move to Kenya. And yet, even when I was able to stay by the side of those who were terminally ill, I had to wrestle with a new conviction that began to emerge in me: no one should die of a preventable and treatable disease because of poverty, geography, or any other reason.
Surprised by my company, Kibet asked for a drink of water. I raised a metal cup to his lips as he gently sipped. In that moment, I predicted his story: I would make routine home visits to care for Kibet and his wife, Karemi. Within weeks, he would die—without a proper diagnosis and without the option of treatment. The community would gather for his burial, and the problem of AIDS would continue its destructive and unchallenged pattern.
I couldn’t see much further than the suffering and pain as I knelt in the red dirt beside Kibet’s dying body. Still, I trusted that God was there, loving both of us.
A few days later, we discovered an HIV testing and treatment center in a town only 10 miles away. It had recently opened, and when I took Kibet there, I simply thought it was a normal clinic.
As we stepped into a room filled with HIV test kits, nutritional support, and antiretroviral drugs, all I saw was hope. Tears filled my eyes as I realized the dreams I had been dreaming were smaller than God’s plans for Kibet, for Karemi, and for thousands of others in our community.
After a few months of taking his daily cocktail of dawa—his anti-HIV medications—Kibet, along with many others from our community, experienced what AIDS workers call the Lazarus Effect. People who had appeared to be dead were coming back to life.
It was not the medicine alone that changed lives. Working alongside a small but committed team of Kenyans who were passionate about the holistic care we provided to patients and their families, our community-based group program witnessed the power of love tearing down walls of fear and shame.
There was Betty, a single mom of two boys, who had grown terribly sick. In many ways, she had given up hope. She would tell the story of a night when she was lying alone in a little mud hut, weak and tired of the constant sickness afflicting her. The grass on the thatched roof was so sparse that she could see the stars.
That night, Betty cried out to a God she did not know, asking him either to take her life so she could rest or to restore her life, in which case she would live for him. Shortly after, a friend advised her to go for HIV testing, and she learned she was positive.
Upon meeting Betty, our team listened to her story and embraced her. Simple acts of love and acceptance introduced her to Jesus and, in dramatic ways, transformed her life. Although her physical suffering continued and her prayers for daily bread were literal, Betty’s faith and courage were multiplying.
Months later as we sat in her home, Betty and I talked about life and God. In a way I will never forget, Betty looked me in the eyes and leaned forward, as if to tell me a secret. “I think I am God’s favorite,” she said.
“Yes Betty, you most definitely are.”
Within five years of getting to know Kibet and Betty, a dream welled up within me to build a hospice where my team and I could serve patients from around Western Kenya who had advanced cancer or HIV/AIDS. In 2009, we founded Living Room International. Soon after, we built Kimbilio Hospice, a 24-bed inpatient facility where we would serve adults as well as children.
Unintentionally yet remarkably, it was located directly across the path from Kibet’s home. He now mans the hospice gate, living proof of the possibility of life on the other side.
Karemi would tell you she believes the vision of Living Room began when we met her husband under the shade of their tree. It all started with simple acts of mercy—one life at a time.
Richard Foster writes: “Our God is not made of stone. His heart is the most sensitive and tender of all. No act goes unnoticed, no matter how insignificant or small. A cup of cold water is enough to put tears in the eyes of God.”
What started with Kibet has grown into a life-giving and transformative refuge for thousands throughout Kenya. Each day, our team asks the guiding question: What does it look like to love in this situation?
We believe that anything done with love is holy to God. And then, imperfectly but wholeheartedly, in Jesus’ name, we love and serve—over and over again.
Cover Photograph by Living Room International
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