The sound of that booming baritone voice was unmistakable. Whether at the pulpit at St. Andrew’s Church or in the privacy of his study table at home, the Rev. John Gatu was always engaging and passionate, whatever the subject matter.
Born in 1925 in Kambui, Kiambu District, to devout Christian parents the young Gatu received his early education at Kambui Mission School where he learned about discipline and Christian values.
Eager to learn more about the outside world, he ran away from home after completing his primary education in 1940, landing in a relative’s home in Nairobi. His non-conformist character had already began to show.
By a stroke of luck he was recruited into the British Army in February 1941 giving him a chance to travel to Ethiopia and Somalia during World War 11 in the Signals Corps as a Wireless Operator.
The highlight of his career in the army was when he, along with other Kenyans, was invited to participate in the Victory Parade in London in June 1946. This exposure gave Gatu a very different world view, which would prove invaluable later in his life of ministry.
After being discharged from the army, Gatu felt a great need to search for purpose in his life. Disillusioned with life in Nairobi he returned to his rural home in February 1950 and was lucky to secure a clerical job at Kambui Mission.
The job had nothing to do with his Christian faith, but was merely to provide him with a salary and allow him to be close to his young family. Little did he know that this job would be the turning point in his life.
Around this period there was a new wave of political awakening sweeping across Central Province. With his army background, Gatu needed no persuasion to realise it was time to fight for his country and readily took the Mau Mau oath dedicating himself to the freedom struggle. He was so committed that he soon graduated to an “oath administrator”.
It quickly occurred to him that he was a leading a dual and contradictory life, serving in the Church during the day and administering oaths at night, a practice that was strongly condemned by the very Church he was working for.
At the same time, the spirit of Christian revival, which had started in Uganda and Rwanda, was spreading to Central Kenya. Being “born again through the blood of Jesus Christ” was at the core of the popular movement.
The revival movement emphasised the personal nature of Christians’ relationship with Jesus Christ without having to pass through the White man or any other intermediary.
Accepting that there was a serious internal conflict tormenting his soul and realising that perhaps his association with the church had a deeper meaning, he bought himself a copy of the Bible.
Later in October 1950, reading a passage from James 1:22-23, he realised that although since childhood he had been taught the word of God, he had put himself in such filthiness and wickedness that he needed to wash away all of that in order to save his soul (Fan into Flame; Rev John Gatu).
Gatu gave his life to Jesus Christ on 21 October 1950. The following year, he went into training for ministry at Divinity School Limuru (now St. Paul’s University).
He was posted to Kiamathare Parish near Kambui on completion of training in 1955. Later, he would be awarded a Master’s Degree in Theology and a Doctorate in Ministry from Princeton Theological College in New Jersey.
The achievements of The Very Reverend Dr John Gatu are too many to list in the scope of this article, but to name just a few, he served as the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Secretary- General from 1964-1979, PCEA General Assembly Moderator from 1979-1985, founder member of the World Council of Churches, founder member All African Conference of Churches, founder member National Council of Churches of Kenya, brokered peace between North and South Sudan.
The Rev Gatu believed that the Church was the moral and spiritual compass of the nation and did not hesitate to point out when the government was going astray such as the oathing rituals under President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969 or detention without trial under the Moi regime in the 1980’s.
He was vocal in the church when the leadership strayed from biblical teachings such as the saga of so-called satanic symbols at St. Andrews in 2004.
He will be remembered for his ecumenical work particularly his call in the early 1970s, for a Moratorium on Missionaries and foreign funding to churches in the developing world, which is largely responsible for today’s self-sustaining African church.
The Rev Gatu was a gifted author and poet having written several books with the latest one being his autobiography “Fan into Flame” published in December 2016. He kept meticulous notes and has been at the forefront at advocating for a PCEA museum to host all the precious historical records of the church and by extension of the country.
He has been an invaluable guide and source of information for my articles. I am deeply indebted for his advice and encouragement.
The Rev John Gatu has been a true and humble servant of God; a man for all seasons.