A generosity of inclusion: Interview with Colin Smith

Colin Smith, CMS
Mutual learning: mission partner Colin at a seminar in Nairobi. Photo: Andrew Baughen

Colin Smith, CMS Dean of Mission Education, talks to Helen Harwood about life in Kenya, mission, calling and life back at CMS in Oxford.

HH: You joined the staff of CMS in February of this year having spent the last 14 years as a CMS mission partner in Nairobi, Kenya. Can you tell us about the small Anglican church in Kibera where you worked and your role as director of the Carlile College’s Centre for Urban Mission.

CS: I guess you sometimes sense you are not in the right place. That was my experience after a couple of years in Nairobi. I could see that the Anglican Church was not connecting well with the large majority of the population who lived in slums and I could see that I was in the wrong place to understand why or do anything about it. At the time I was licensed to the cathedral and working in the diocesan office, in the city centre. It is a long story from there but important steps along the way involved getting transferred to a church in Kibera, St Jerome, and moving part of a theological college into an iron sheet shack about 50 yards away from the church. Those physical relocations were perhaps the easier part. At a personal level, it is the relocation of the heart and mind that needs a constant revisiting.

Over the years that followed the Centre for Urban Mission, as it became known, moved from being a relocated classroom of a theological college to becoming a training centre engaged with about 150 churches around the city. We moved into working with churches in areas of economic empowerment, youth work, practical discipleship and small scale development, and worked with churches in reducing the vulnerability of households affected by HIV and AIDS. Many of the new initiatives came through former students who simply needed the space and encouragement to run with their passions and convictions.

Kibera skyline: the informal settlement in Nairobi where Colin was based.
Kibera skyline: the informal settlement in Nairobi where Colin was based.

Being part of St Jerome gave me a real sense of connection to one particular part of Kibera and a sort of rootedness in a community. In many respects I was the outsider, the only person in the congregation who was neither Kenyan nor a resident of Kibera. Yet there was a generosity of inclusion there, not only to me, which isn’t always the hallmark of the church.

Digging a bit deeper into what makes you you, I know you and your wife are both ordained and you have a history in social work and as a CMS volunteer in India in the early 1980s. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey into church and mission work from secular social work?

I guess my first reflection on the question was that I never thought of social work as secular (although it does contain some of the most secular people I have met!). In the early 80s I went to India as a CMS volunteer, thinking I would be involved in social work. Through miscommunication the teaching hospital I went to thought I had been to a theological college. Somehow in the muddle that followed I ended up in the chaplain’s department of the hospital working with medical students. It is difficult to do justice to the impact those two years had on my life. It was in India that I sensed a vocation to ordination but was convinced that it was to the Church of North India. I applied to a theological college in Pune and told CMS my decision. They told me to come back and see my bishop! It was a hard decision at the time and the selection process was a bit of a culture shock after India. However, l ended up at Trinity Bristol where I met Anita, recently back from Kenya and on a similar journey. If I have learnt anything about guidance it is that it is most clear in retrospect!

Wow, God certainly moves in mysterious ways. A very exciting route to take and now you are here with us at CMS. Can you say something about your role?

It is great to be in the mission education team. I think my role is still evolving. A key part is around how we begin to integrate our mission partner training with our Pioneer programme. It is also about supporting mission partners in their ongoing learning. It is an interesting time to be in CMS and to be part of the conversations around our understanding of mission in a rapidly changing world.

What are you most looking forward to exploring in the near future here at CMS?

We are doing lots of thinking around integration at the moment, particularly looking at how mission partner training and Pioneer training can better connect with each other. I am excited about the possibilities around that. I am also really looking forward to our forMission training in January. We will be spending a week in Southall, based at St John’s and staying with Asian families. I am really looking forward it (and not just for the food – although that is a bit of a draw!).

How can we pray for you?

I think in any new job where there is the potential for a role to evolve the key thing is that it evolves in a way that is strategic and valuable – not simply busy. We are gradually settling into life in Banbury where Anita is a vicar. It is still quite a transition for all of us – so prayers for that.

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