How did a man with a name like ‘Sammy’ end up being the Provost of All Saints Cathedral? Not a Hosea, Nehemiah, or even a Moses.
There was never any big revelation, remarkable moments, or even unique talents in Sammy Wainaina’s childhood that would have suggested that he would become a man of the cloth. Well, apart from him baptising his friends with soil.
But here he is, standing tall at the pulpit and on our screens on Sundays, pontificating. Sammy, a son of peasants, was chosen.
For the last 25 years, he has served as vicar, archdeacon, assistant provost and currently the Provost of All Saints Cathedral, a position he has held since 2013. He is not your run-of-the-mill provost though; he is opinionated and goes against the grain if he has to.
He is not afraid to show his strength and conviction in the word or his human hand and vulnerability as a man who constantly seeks grace and humility to serve and sometimes fails. He also has very nice un-provost-like hair. A newscaster’s hair.
JACKSON BIKO met him at All Saints Cathedral, in his warm, charming office buried under a slanting wooden ceiling.
No ridiculously loud carpet, no testaments of looming crosses on the wall, just unremarkable small desk, photos of him shaking hands with notable figures from the clergy and the public, and simple framed photos of his family that he serves with “duty, commitment, and love.” The provost doesn’t lead from opulence but from the richness of his spirit.
I honestly didn’t expect a man of the cloth to have such beautiful hair. What do you do to your hair? It looks bouncy.
[Laughs loudly] What a nice way to start an interview. This hair is from my mother who has very curly hair. Of the ten children in our family, only two of us — myself and our last-born sister Susan — have this hair. Growing up I was called ‘waria’. People from Garissa think I’m from Garissa.
One recently asked me to investigate my lineage. [Chuckles]. You don’t go asking your mother who your father is, do you? Lucky for me, I look like my father.
During Covid, I fell sick and while at home recovering I grew my hair and my children said, ‘dad, why haven’t you ever kept your hair, you look nice!’ So I kept it.
Tell me what you remember about your childhood.
I grew up in Nakuru, in a rural area. There was freedom, we slid in mud when it rained. My parents were peasant farmers. My mom was the most educated of the two; she reached Class 3. My dad never stepped into any class. So a fairly illiterate peasant family.
How did you end up here? Are you surprised at being here?
I also sometimes don’t understand how I got here. Growing up some people would say things like ‘Sammy ako na kitu ndani yake.’ I didn’t see it or feel it. My mother tells me of seeing the vicar in our Anglican Church baptising children and me gathering children later and baptising them with soil.
I was a rebellious teenager but I loved school. She says I always liked religious matters. My mom was tough, you had to be to control ten children. She was also very encouraging.
Is God a man or a woman?
I don’t think God has gender. We have assigned gender to God. We are created in God’s image, the Bible is clear but we also create God in our image. The Bible, which was very patriarchal in its writing, uses a lot of He, or the word Father.
But at the same time, if you look at the Bible keenly, it has the She language, the Mother language. I think it’s in Isaiah where it says, ‘As the mother chicken broods over the chicks, so does God brood over us.’
But for us to be able to understand God, we can only see Him through our lenses. In theology, we study feminism which doesn’t mean necessarily the gender rights movement. It means helping people to understand the Bible in its entirety rather than just looking at it from our limitations. So God is God. He’s a Spirit.
Would you say that the Bible, given its patriarchal nature, might slowly be losing its space in a more progressive world right now, where gender equality rules? Would you also say the Bible is being questioned more now than ever in that regard and if so, what does that mean generally for Christianity and the Word?
First of all, the Bible is God’s word. The moment you remove that fact, then it becomes like any other book. But it was written in a certain context. The reason why we study the Bible is to interpret it in its original context but relate it with our modern progressive context.
It’s like an avocado. The flesh can change, but the core, which is the seed, remains. Certain things are core in the Bible that doesn’t matter the flesh around it. And flesh is culture. God is the seed and He is love. You know that cannot change even if you are in the progressive or the conservative context. That’s a central anchor of the Bible.
Why does the Bible record bad things that happened? It is to help human beings learn. The Bible is not a storybook per se, but it’s a book full of stories.
I can imagine that because of your position in society, people put you on a pedestal and it’s very easy for them to have unrealistic expectations of you. Do you ever feel the pressure to live in virtue?
I refused that kind of life because it was not realistic. I’m a normal human being. I don’t want to be treated in any special way. If you see me on that pulpit in a white robe people might think I must have slept in heaven and landed that morning. [Laughs]. I’m human.
Do you know I dread preaching? My wife can tell you how sometimes I am unable to sleep on Saturday nights even with all the preparations I put in and my academic ability.
I’m a public speaker but sometimes when the hymn to welcome the preacher comes on I tell the Lord, ‘I wish it wasn’t me going up there.’ I have always felt a sense of unworthiness. I don’t mean I’m not important. I’m important in God’s eyes and people’s eyes but inside me is a feeling of, ‘I’m not worthy to stand before people.’
It’s not something I have put in myself. It’s like a conviction of the Holy Spirit. ‘That you’re not good, I make you good.’ You can see that kneeler over there where my jacket hangs?
I come very early here when I’m preaching and I kneel there. I ask God just to have mercy on me. Why should I be used? I ask Him. He can use anyone else.
But when I step on that pulpit, it stops being me and it becomes God’s business to use me.
Does it get easier to come up to the pulpit?
It’s the hardest thing. The journey between my seat and the pulpit is the longest. My knees grow weak. I sweat. If I had an opportunity I would run away from this responsibility.
Preaching is not public speaking, it’s representing the divine word to people and relating it to their own lives, yet I don’t live with them. I have to depend on the Holy Spirit.
You know the story of the general returning to ancient Rome as his procession went through the streets after the war. There was always that slave whose job was to remind him that his triumph would not last forever. “Memento mori,” the slave would whisper in his ear, ‘remember you will die.’ Who is that slave that whispers in your ear that you aren’t god when people jostle to kiss your ring?
I never allow things to get into my head. I have never thought of myself that highly. I seek to be as human as possible. Be very conscious of the fact that you’re super even though some might idolise you.
If there’s anything that I seek is humility. People tell me that I’m humble but I’ve never accepted that I am humble. The moment I accept it, I have lost it. All these are very intentional. You have to keep seeking humility, every day.
But the ‘slave’ for me is my wife, Beatrice, who this December marks 25 years in our marriage. She tells me the truth always because she sees me as Sammy. My wife can sometimes, in a very soft manner, tell me something that pinches my heart very deeply. She’s my anchor.
Do you as a provost also fight the normal fights people fight in marriage? Oh, you came home late etc. Do you go home late, Provost?
[Laughs] I don’t go home late unless I’m working. But remember I’m a husband like any other husband and Beatrice is a wife like any other. We have normal fights, however, our conflict levels are very low. I live a free, open life. I want that public person to be the same guy they see at home.
I’m sorry I have to ask you this question, Provost. But a very well-spoken man like you, a man in power, guiding millions of people in faith every Sunday, a man with such good hair, I’m sure you get some female congregants making overtures at you. How do you handle that kind of female attention?
[Laughs] This is not unique to priests but to every male of certain character and gifts. I think you should be able to evaluate yourself and recognise the dangers around you.
Be aware of these dangers and have a keen eye on them. Sometimes I curtail them by having a decent, polite but firm conversation with someone I feel might be getting the wrong idea.
Also, I everybody knows I’m in love with my wife. I want people to know I am happy at home by how I treat my wife. I’m also committed to my children. When I’m free at 4.30 pm at the end of the day I go pick up my daughter and go home. I don’t have or allow for excesses in my life.
Which period of your life was your faith the lowest?
Post-election violence of 2008. I happened to have been in the UK with my family visiting. I was the vicar of Kericho then. My family was supposed to fly back on January 4, 2008, but that’s when Kenya was in serious conflict. Kericho was burning.
I was told that a mob came looking for me at the vicary three times to harm my family, to harm me. There is no time I have never been frightened like that. I had been there for five years, served the people with diligence, and invested heavily. I built a school at Holy Trinity Kericho.
I put every effort to ensure that I grew that place in terms of spiritual growth but also investments. I was loved by people. I served communities without ever thinking about their ethnicity.
Why would people want to harm me or my family? I wondered; you mean these people that I used to serve were not genuine? Would I ever trust again? That was very hurting.
The church and politics are undeniable bedfellows. How do you navigate this?
The Bible is a political Book and Jesus was a political leader. So whenever I hear the argument that clergy should not be in politics I ask, ‘which book do we read?’ Jesus was a revolutionary leader. Therefore politics is part of us.
But this is the way we do politics. Number one, as we interpret the scripture, we apply the scripture to different contexts, and politics is one of the contexts. The fact that I’m defending Jesus, the fact that I’m defending the Bible, why am I not defending Islam? Why am I not defending Hinduism?
You can see it’s already a political stand. It’s a political statement to be a Christian. When I drive around and there’s a pothole or bad road, it affects me as a person. I should be able to talk about it in the pulpit because it does not only affect me, it affects us. Politics is about people and about governing those people.
This is a personal question about the idea of heaven. Have you considered that perhaps heaven could be right here with us? That your child kissing you on the cheek or waking up with a woman you love is heaven. That heaven is moments and we shouldn’t wait for this bigger idea of heaven?
Let me put it this way. After all these years of being a Christian, if I was told there is no heaven, I would not be disappointed. I lived in Heaven. Why do I say that? Heaven, first and foremost, is not a location. Neither is hell. It’s a state. You can live in hell right here on earth. And there are people whose lives are hell.
Hell means absence from God and heaven is God’s presence in your life. I have lived a peaceful life. To me, that is a state of heaven.
However, looking at the scripture, because the basis of my argument about heaven would be scripture, there’s a heaven.
If you were very unhappy in your marriage, would you consider divorce?
I have never thought about that. But here is my stand on divorce, which is what I think you are asking. There are certain things I have seen in marriages that would make me decide not to be in such a marriage. For example, domestic violence.
I wouldn’t stand for violence because it destroys you whether you’re the perpetrator or the victim. And it destroys the people around you, like your children. Nobody should be in a violent marriage.
There are some conflicts that I have seen amongst married couples and I have told them to consider separation. If you go to my Facebook page there’s a post that I wrote telling people, ‘if you are in an abusive marriage, you’re going to die, we’re going to do a nice funeral service for you in the cathedral, but you will have been dead.’
I said, ‘do not be in such a marriage in the name of ‘until death does us part.’