The Death and Life of Philida Nyangwara Obondi

Philida Nyangwara Obondi, a Bethlehem Home elder who had been with the group from the beginning in 2001, died on October 25, 2012.  Philida had esophageal cancer which was not diagnosed until the week before she died from uncontrolled bleeding.  She was born in 1946, married in 1959, and was preceded in death by her husband and all eight of her children.  The S2B team remembers Philida with love, and her Bethlehem Home community has sustained a great loss.  Philida was one of the original elders to care for a milk goat when they were first donated by S2B a few years ago.  One of the BH orphans, Brian, helped Philida to feed and milk the goat, and he grew strong from the addition of this nutrient to his meager diet.  Pastor Habil’s idea of arranging the elders and orphans into small, permanent groups to care for the goats was successful, and the groups quickly blossomed into vital, caring relationships that provided the stability of a family for the adults and children alike.  Brian has experienced breathtaking losses in his early life, and only the support of the wider community in which he lives could carry him through this new grief.  At the funeral, Pastor Habil had Brian stand and be recognized by the congregation while receiving the pledge of their support.  With this reassurance, Brian joined Mary Omunde, another long-time BH elder, in taking care of the goat, and another loving relationship was forged.

Below is the message from Dr. Lisa Baker that was read to the community at the funeral.


My dear sisters and brothers,

When I see you each year, it is always a joyful occasion.   As shown so beautifully in the colorful Kenyan fabric that you wear, however, it is both the dark threads and the light ones that give character to the fabric of our lives.  I am so thankful for the privilege of knowing you well enough to share this time of grief with you as we remember our sister Philida.  I wish that I could be there with you, but my heart is there, and I will see you soon.

53I am teaching university students right now, and we are completing our term.   Yesterday in class I told them about Philida, her death, and her life.   The students and I had had many weeks of a demanding class in which we had talked about science, technology, and math.  But the class would not have been complete had I not told Philida’s story.  My students, as you know from the ones you have met, are tenderhearted.   When I tell them about your community or when they come to visit you, it is always a struggle for them to make sense of your immense suffering.  Yesterday the students and I talked about the many people in the world who see suffering and death as the enemy, and they try to defeat the pain at all costs.  But there are also people like Philida who take suffering into their hearts and let it be their teacher.   Philida had to experience the pain of losing every single one of her eight children and was utterly alone and had nothing.  But by the time I met her, she was a joyful, rich person, though not in money or possessions.  She had become a part of a new family, Bethlehem Home. 

The great sacrifices and gifts of Pastor Habil and the leaders of Bethlehem Home made the world a hopeful place again.  However, even they could not protect Philida entirely from constant pain and need.  Philida continued to suffer from not having enough food to eat, from seeing her neighbors and friends die, and from seeing her country torn apart in murder and destruction close to her home a few years ago.  The astounding thing is that Philida, in laboring together with God, redeemed her pain and let it carve out more room in her heart for love.  She did not respond in bitterness or hardness.  She knew that we live in a broken world, but that God is faithful to walk through the pain with us and teach us in the midst of it.  Paul said, “For I have learned, in whatever state I am in, to be content.”  That is Philida.

Philida’s story reminds me of Hagar.  Hagar was the slave of Abraham’s wife.  She was used by Abraham to produce a child, and then she was subjected to the murderous contempt of Sarah and the weakness of Abraham.  This couple, to whom God had revealed himself in spectacular ways, abandoned Hagar.  Abraham took her and their own child to the desert and left them there to die.  But that was not the end of the story.  God spoke to Hagar—this invisible woman who was a slave, a foreigner, a woman, an outcast—and also the child of God.  God brought comfort, but also challenge.  She was told to go back to the very people who had cast her out to die with her son.  God did not take her out of her suffering, but was there with her in the desert and walked with her back into the unimaginable pain from which she had come.    Hagar understood the good news—the gospel.  She said to this God whom she now knew, “You are the God who sees me.” 

Though there were many blows that life dealt to her, Philida did not live her life as a victim.  Until the very end of her life, she was giving back to those who had given to her.  She did the tasks that were given to her, and she did them with grace.  During the last part of her life, her task was to take care of a milk goat, and to give its milk to a boy dsc_0946named Brian.  She did that life-giving job with faithfulness and joy, and Brian learned that, even though his parents were gone, there was a woman who chose to care for him and feed him love and milk.  Now Brian will learn once again that good things are taken away and that we live in a broken world.  But he has also seen a model of how to live life with joy and gratefulness.  What could be a more important legacy for a person to leave when they die?  She was the hands and feet of Christ to Brian and to the all of the brothers and sisters in this community. 

Philida is now in God’s kingdom.  But Philida was in God’s kingdom while she was here with us also.  It is in God that we live, and move, and have our being.  Paul said, “Whether I live, I live unto the Lord, or whether I die, I die unto the Lord.  So whether I live or whether I die, it is unto the Lord.”  We who are left behind live by faith and not by sight.  But Philida now knows the fullness of God, even as she is known by Him now in all of her own fullness.  She would want us to dance.

Thanks be to God.

Mama Lisa  

November 2, 2012