What’s a pastor from Kenya, Africa, to do when he marries and moves to Finland, just 450 miles from the Arctic Circle? Why, continue preaching and teaching, of course – to the Finns, Kenyans, Poles and Latvians who enter the doors of St. Barnabas International Evangelical Lutheran Church in Helsinki.
Rev. Richard Otiso was born in Kenya in 1970 and after marrying his Finnish wife, immigrated to Finland in 2001. Throughout his 16 years as a Lutheran pastor, his most treasured possession has been his Small Catechism, translated by LHF into the Swahili (Kiswahili) language.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kisii in Western Kenya. I am the first born in a family of six. During my childhood, I attended primary school 5 kilometers (a little over 3 miles) away, and so every morning I ran to school barefooted, wearing short trousers and a short sleeved shirt. During lunch hour, I ran back to my home to get lunch bites and then ran back to school for afternoon session. Then later in the evening I walked home. All together each day, I ran a total of 20 km (12.4 miles), and sometimes rainy season was the hardest as we did not have money to buy clothing.
So what is life like for you today, as a pastor in Finland?
I work with all people. Here at St.Barnabas International Lutheran Parish, we do have people from East Africa, mostly from Kenya and Tanzania and then we have Finns, people from Poland, Latvia etc. It includes all people.
it is good to have a congregation such as ours, since some people are not comfortable with services held in the Finnish language. We are the only English-speaking Lutheran parish, and many Lutherans search for their own affiliations when they move here. Religion plays a big role when people move to foreign land. The stress and other challenges make Christian immigrants look for people of the same faith.
What is your advice to congregations seeking to start a relationship with immigrants in their community?
We live in an immigration era more than any other time in human history. In some cases, there are those who see immigrants as a threat, while we as Christians should see the situation as a golden chance to reach out to these immigrants.
It is very easy for Lutherans in the United States to reach out to immigrants, if only you take them as brothers and sisters and not as people who don’t know anything about the Christian faith. I have felt ashamed when sometimes I am treated here in Finland as a second-class Christian who does not know what it means to be a confessional Lutheran. As the Bible says; “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:28).
How did you hear about the Lutheran Heritage Foundation and the books we offer?
It was the year 1993 when Rev. Robert Preus visited Kenya. He was invited to be the guest speaker in Convention of Lutheran Church. I clearly recall that Dr. Robert spoke vividly about the Book of Concord, which moved many pastors to request for copies of their own. It is then that he asked Dr. Anssi Simojoki to start translation work with LHF. Although I was a lay person, Dr. Anssi took me to his translation unit and it is here that I learned so much about LHF.
It was that time that I got a chance to study at a Lutheran seminary in Tanzania and sadly, we did not have any Small Catechism. So Dr. Anssi worked hard with others to translate Luther’s Small Catechism, which was made available for our theological seminary — and as if that were not enough, the books were distributed for free!
Since that time, I have appreciated LHF materials more than any other person. It is one of the best mission organizations! May it be known to LHF donors that their money is well used, although they might not hear from every individual. But as for me as a pastor, I can’t thank them enough. May God repay every little effort and dollar that is placed into translations work.
How are books like Luther’s Small Catechism helpful in your ministry?
For the last 20 years, I have had my Kiswahili catechism with me wherever I go. It is my primary book in my teaching and even during my sermons. I use the catechism every day and the more I use the book, the more I thirst to learn more from it. It is the one book that I don’t want to depart from! You can deny me all things BUT leave me my Small Catechism. I have been teaching my friends to make the Small Catechism a must to have when going anywhere.
Tell us about some of the people you’re ministering to in Finland.
By God’s grace, there are several people who have come to like LHF materials translated in other languages, more especially the Kiswahili edition. Right now, I have a Christian who has moved from Seventh Day Adventist Church and likes the Small Catechism of its clarity on Baptism.
Another time, I was called upon to translate for a Congolese refugee in one of our Helsinki hospitals. When I arrived, I found over 10 people there, who asked me to help them come to our Church by teaching them Lutheranism. I was shocked since I was there only for translation work, and yet by God’s grace, it turned to be something else. I immediately asked LHF to send me the Kiswahili catechisms.
We have such a huge amount of immigrants who came to Finland in the past three months. It is said that Finland received over 33,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. So right now my wife and I have opened a door in our home for two people from Iraq who are interested in Christianity. They have come in time to time to talk about their challenges and how they want to change their religion. We are moving slowly, but we are sure that in the end, all will be fine.
You have a unique perspective on ministering to immigrants, since you are one yourself.
I am a very weak person. Being in a foreign land, there are a lot of limitations that makes work heavy and hard, and at times I miss local support here. I have lived in Finland for 15 years, and during that time God has been teaching me many and wonderful things, the first being that I can count on Him over my fellow human beings. God does not disappoint for HE is faithful and His promises are true in His Son, Jesus Christ. I have nothing to boast other than my weakness and the fact that Jesus loved me while I was a sinner, and that Salvation is His true gift to all who believe.
Only with your help can this important work continue. Prayerfully consider how you can help support LHF projects.