Fr John Webootsa is not your average priest. After spending the morning with him in St John’s Sports Society in one of Nairobi’s biggest slums, we couldn’t help but be in complete awe of his values, vision and ministry.
The St John’s Sports Society (SSS) is located in the heart of Korogocho slum, home to 120,000 people. Fr John says: “The aim is to improve the lives of the people. People in the slums think they are worse than everyone else. But we are upgrading them so they know that they aren’t.”
The society, which began in 1994, has seven sports clubs including football, netball, boxing, weightlifting, taekwondo, karate and handball. There is also a classical music group, drama group and a library and community centre on site. And don’t forget the school giving education to 850 children from the slum. This gives you some indication of the breadth of activities going on in SSS.
The classical music group is the newest initiative. It’s called Ghetto class and 30 children meet every week to play instruments under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Fr John explained to us the children used to fight with each other but this group has taught discipline and teamwork – two themes which underpin work at SSS. The group only borrows instruments and needs more funding to buy them. Despite this they have performed concerts with great success.
The society has captains for each club. Their role is diverse. There is an element of coaching but equally important is pastoral care and support. There are times when the team and the captain sit together to share experiences and problems, showing that SSS is more than just sport.
Claude Otieno is handball captain. He is a teacher by profession – all captains have jobs as well as the work they do in SSS – and he is driven by seeing young people move forward.
As captains there are twice yearly formation days to meet together and share, reflect and put forward proposals of how the SSS can develop.
Alex is Captain of the gym. He loves sports and is keen to help others to improve their lives through the discipline. Members pay 1,000KSH per month – this compares to the going rate externally of 3,000KSH per month.
The football captain is Peter Odhiambo. He’s 23-years-old and is a big Manchester United fan. His favourite player is Paul Scholes. I showed Peter that there’s only one team in England worth supporting!
There are 30 members of the club with some younger boys waiting to join (members must be 16-years-old). Some have joined Kenyan clubs including Tusker and Mathare Utd in the Kenyan Premier League. They often play tournaments at weekends and SSS provide transport and food. The team trains Tuesday to Friday for weekend matches.
To give you some context life in Korogocho is very difficult. Security in the slum is not good. Fr John said he has been attacked five times in four years including having a gun pointed to his head.
Fr John is motivated from this to stay here and work hard to bring hope to people in the slum. Fr John is driven by prayer and has been strengthened in his prayer life since working at SSS. He said: “I don’t want to see what I am seeing. Children out of school, people living in garbage. It’s not fair. Who’s going to sort this out if I leave?”
The Motto of SSS shines through how the society works. “Together we can.” In Swahili this is “Pamoja Tunaweza”.
Fr John said: “We are part of a family. We are in solidarity. The biggest profit for us is in solidarity. Teamwork is the best. It takes time but it is the best way. We shall support each other whether we succeed or not.”
The society has produced great talent. The netball club have won trophies. Many players have been selected to represent Kenya at national level in Karate, Taekwondo and netball. There are two coaches from SSS who are now coaching at national level. This is inspiring for others in the slums to use their God given talents, learn discipline and make the most of their skills.
Community outreach is also on the agenda. An open day for families is planned for this year as a way of sharing and celebrating to foster community togetherness. There is also a special celebration at Pentecost with a Mass, meal and sports games with all the community taking part.
Everyone at SSS was delighted to receive posters made by primary school children in Blackpool. Fr John said: “This reminds us that this world is a family. “We appreciate this very much; a spirit of solidarity serves the world.”
Fr John is truly a prophet of our times. He is a great man who is reaching out and serving the needs of the community. He’s not afraid to speak out against injustice and is responding to God’s call to do His work.
We came away from SSS feeling so inspired by the work there. It’s not just sport. You simply can’t understate the impact of this from pastoral care, community outreach to peace building. It’s all here!