Yesterday, Dr. James Njeng’ere took a car ride to heaven. I met Dr. James twenty years ago. At the time, I was an iconoclastic Christian with blue hair and a big beard struggling to understand why God let me have cancer and why the church seemed so hypocritical (later I discovered my own hypocrisy, but that’s another story).
Dr. James was my science teacher, and I gravitated to his faith and character. My senior year, the most popular teacher at our school had a moral failure. He was arrested. I struggled with the situation: the man deserved punishment, and my heart ached for him. His decisions cost him his career and marriage, and he was facing incarceration. Yet Jesus had not stopped loving him. The school advised students and faculty not to contact him. I confided in Dr. James my desire to reach out, and he suggested we go together to meet the disgraced teacher. We told him Jesus loved him, we loved him, and the forgiveness of God isn’t something we can earn. Mercy and grace are freely offered through Christ. By visiting this man, I risked being expelled. Dr. James risked more. He risked his job, perhaps even his visa. Doing the right thing was more important to him than his own employment. He was steadfast in his convictions and exemplified my own father’s mantra: “It’s always right to do the right thing.” The grace of Jesus Christ radiated from Dr. James.
We kept in touch as I started college. Dr. James frequently talked about us visiting his home country, Kenya. Dr. James operated on his own schedule. In the Spring of my sophomore year, he asked me to get a passport. I did. At the beginning of Summer, I received a call. Dr. James cheerfully announced, “Ethan, in one week we are going to Kenya. I have your ticket.”
And so we went. At a security checkpoint in Dubai, I was allowed to pass while he was stopped. We had the same number of carry-on bags, but they claimed he had too many. I listened from a distance. Eventually, I walked over and asked, “Is there a problem?”
The official responded, “Oh, he's with you?” They then allowed him to pass, in what we could only conclude was a demonstration of racism.
Dr. James let them have it. The situation was escalating. So I said, “Dr. James, we have to go. We don't want to go to jail for this,” I began walking, and he begrudgingly followed.
Dr. James resolutely stood for what is right. While I was concerned about the ramifications of arguing with an official in a foreign country, I also respected his courage and zeal. The world is unjust. God used Dr. James to open my eyes to racism and inequality while simultaneously pointing to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed, one day injustice will end. Jesus will make everything right. Our hope is in Him, and our hope is well-founded.
When we arrived in Kenya, one hundred people were waiting for us. They danced, sang, and shouted while holding up signs. Some of them were family, and others were people Dr. James had blessed. During my short time in Kenya, I heard many testimonies about how God had used Dr. James to change lives. At the same time, God was using Dr. James to change my life. As we sat on a bus in Nairobi, I saw a child begging. He was clearly starving. I wept. Dr. James put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Ethan, do not be sad. Be motivated.”
God used these words to call me to missions. He changed the trajectory of my entire life because one man from Kenya decided to love a young man with blue hair as a son.
Before moving to Louisiana to get his PhD in Botany, Dr. James worked in the park system in Kenya. He wanted me to experience the biodiversity of Kenya, so he took me to Masai Mara. On that trip, I saw him pray, sing praises to the Lord, and read the Bible each morning. One day, he told me a story about the Masai. “You see Ethan, the Masai are not afraid of the elephants. They will even hunt them with spears. They will first make the elephant angry and the elephant will charge, and as the elephant jumps on them, they will hold their spears steady and kill him.”
Confused, I asked, “Dr. James, do you mean lions?”
“No, no. Ethan, I know what I am talking about,” he doubled down before pausing for a moment. “You are right Ethan; I mean lions. No man could lift an elephant with a spear.”
We laughed so hard. His favorite animal was the dik-dik. He loved the dik-dik because they were entirely monogamous. If their partners die, they do not mate again. He stood in awe of creation; God alone could make animals with higher moral standards than humans. To be fair, dik-diks also aggressively chase away their young before they are a year old, and this behavior is universally frowned upon by humans.
My family loved Dr. James. When he came to visit, my grandfather treated him like a king. I can’t recall him treating anyone else in the same manner. He would stand up from his recliner and grab both hands to shake them vigorously. It was like a happiness competition in which everyone won.
Before we moved to Cambodia, Dr. James came to Rochester to meet our children. We got to visit with his daughter and her family, who live in Toronto. Dr. James held “Prophet Isaiah”, watched LSU play football with “King Josiah” (now an honorary LSU fan), and taught “Queen Esther” to sing Jesus Loves Me in KiSwahili (see picture below). I am thankful he was able to stay with us and my children were able to meet the man God used so profoundly in my life.
Dr. James was a man of faith, joy, and wisdom. We will not meet again in the land of the living, but throughout eternity we will sing God’s praises together. Dr. James loved the Gospel. He would want me to end with these truths: repent, and follow Jesus. No man can have two masters. You cannot serve God and money, or even God and yourself. Choose to follow Jesus today. Then, as Dr. James heard yesterday, you also will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! …come and share your Master’s happiness (Matt 25:21)!”