It was political strife in Kenya that brought the new minister at St. James Anglican Church to the priesthood and ultimately to Smithers.
Following the 2007 presidential election in the East African country, followers of the challenger Raila Odinga, accused President Mwai Kibaki of electoral manipulation leading to two months of violence that killed 1,500 people, mostly along tribal lines, and displaced half a million.
During the aftermath, Wilfred Alero was a volunteer for the Kenyan Red Cross Society distributing humanitarian aid in the form of clothing and food.
Fr. Wilfred, or just Wilfred, as he is known to his parishioners at St. James, remembers it as being a disturbing period.
“It was so hostile that sometimes you would go to a place and they say, ‘OK, the Red Cross Society’s a very good organization, people are really helping us, but can you tell us your tribe’ and if you happen to be from a different tribe from the one you’re trying to help, then it becomes a problem and they might take your life,” he said.
He almost did lose his life on one occasion had it not been for the actions of a driver who quickly brought around the car and whisked the volunteers away to safety.
Wilfred said he has had a lifelong passion for helping people, but felt like what he was doing with the Red Cross was not enough.
“I asked to God, how far can I go with this outreach program, I help people here and I don’t feel like I’m getting rewarded enough by human beings, show me the way,” he said.
“That is when I began to have these deep thoughts about serving in the lay ministries. If I go there and my whole life is there, at the end of the day, I depend on God to pay me for it. When you are a volunteer and you’re helping, what you are giving is not enough and human beings cannot appreciate it enough, so it’s only God. I looked at it that way and that is how I got deep into full-time lay ministry, which demands that you leave everything that you used to do for a living and begin living by the proceeds of God’s work.”
Wilfred grew up in a rural area of Kenya initially on the family farm. When he was seven years old, the family moved to a tea plantation. Eventually fearing the loss of their land, his father moved back to the farm with two of his siblings while his mother stayed on at the estate with Wilfred and the fourth child.
Wilfred said it was a good arrangement.
“We would occasionally reunite as a family during holidays and during my mother’s annual leave time, so that way we grew up,” he said.
He finished elementary school at Changoi Primary School within walking distance of the plantation, but when he reached high school age the nearest institution was 20 kilometres away in a town called Kericho. His mother rented him a house so he could attend.
After finishing high school in 2003, Wilfred hustled to find work in Kericho, but eventually had to move to a bigger town called Oyugis, 80 kilometres to the east. In 2004, he taught primary and secondary school in Oyugis.
From 2005 to 2008 he started surviving on his artistic talent, painting portraits and signs, carving rubber stamps and also house painting to make ends meet, first in Oyugi and then Nakuru, another town 190 kilometres to the west.
It was during that period that Wilfred started volunteering with the Anglican Church holding various positions such as secretary, choir secretary, youth secretary and youth educational coordinator.
In 2006, he started working for the Red Cross doing community-based first aid and acting as an HIV/Aids youth peer coordinator.
Following his 2008 revelation about entering the lay ministry, Wilfred decided his path was leading to the ordained ministry. He enrolled in the Bishop Okullu College of Theology and Development at Great Lakes University of Kisumu, a town on the shore of the famous Lake Victoria, which straddles the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian borders.
It was there he would make the connection that eventually brought him to Smithers.
Rev. Judith Oatway was a visiting lecturer at the university when Wilfred was there.
“She had passion in art and the unit she was teaching us was about the nativity and articulating the gospel in art,” Wilfred explained.
“It went bigger than I expected because at some point we borrowed a kind of art that was the altar piece done in Spain so many years ago, over a hundred years ago, and then we brought this, it was a painting of Jesus at the centre and then at the right and at the left disciples and angels and we were provoked to think about what was in the picture. So we did it and I think my lecturer was impressed and she decided to move to another level with me.”
They took the project out into the village of Sikri, a farming community near Kisumu ravaged by HIV-AIDS.
There, the women and men created the Sikri Altarpiece, 13 panels in paint, thread, yarn and beads telling the story of their village through the narrative of the gospel.
“They were a group of very inventive women and men and as they were doing it they were finding passion in it and at the end of the day some of these works were published and others were even brought to Canada,” Wilfred said.
In fact, Oatway’s touring of the Sikri Altarpiece to churches in Canada raised enough money to build a school back in Kenya.
It led to a second project, the Keiskamma Altarpiece, created by 130 people living along the Keiskamma River in South Africa, an area also devastated by HIV-AIDS.
“From that I developed this passion to continue and I developed more interest in realizing that I could go beyond my country,” Wilfred said. “We went to South Africa then we went to Botswana, then we also went to Uganda and Tanzania, just to do the same thing.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Theology, Wilfred was ordained and from 2012 to 2019 served as deacon, priest and curate for a number of parishes in the Diocese of Southern Nyanza, Kenya.
When Oatway alerted Wilfred about the job in Smithers, he decided to apply and was ultimately selected from among numerous candidates. He said he sometimes still can’t believe it was he who was chosen and sometimes feels very special, but ultimately he places the decision in the hands of God.
“I’m one among the few from Africa who brought their missions abroad, their pastoral missions,” he said. “The fact that it is that pastoral mission, the voice of God sending me here, because when I saw this advertisement here and I looked at their profile I said ‘these people want what I have’.
“One, they wanted a minister who can create space for everybody to participate in building the body of Christ. This is my quality because in the art project [it was] that communal thing and not me alone. I told people if you are good in knitting do it, if you are good in painting do it, if you’re good in sketching… bring it all together and it will form one piece.
“They also wanted someone who will be creative enough and who will be humble enough to work with them. From what I’ve heard from many people, I think I have that quality to serve, not to minister with authority from above. You build people from down as you go up together.”
The Right Reverend David Lehmann, Bishop of the Diocese of Caledonia, is very pleased with the choice of the hiring committee.
“Fr. Wilfred came highly recommended from his references and a few other people,” Lehmann said. “He has many skills as a pastor and as an artist. His enthusiasm and passion, with a clear sense of mission, made him stand out as a candidate. The selection committee had excellent candidates to choose from, and in many ways, Fr. Wilfred was the best of the best.”
He added the congregation is also pleased.
“Fr. Wilfred brings many great gifts to the parish and the parish is enjoying his ministry. I was able to witness this last Sunday (March 8) when I was in town for the day.
The bishop also had great praise for the Bulkley Valley parish.
“I believe that they are deeply blessed with many good committed people,” he said. “St. James is a wonderful community. They serve the community of Smithers with the Soup Kitchen and Thrift Shop, which warms my heart. Both of these ministries speak of a concern for social justice and environmental stewardship. They engage in prayer, Bible study, and faith formation. My hope is that more people will join them in their wonderful ministries.”
Welcome to Canada
Wilfred arrived in Smithers in August with his wife Diana and three sons, John (11), Mark (5) and Jesseh (3).
He said they were welcomed with open arms.
Of course, the big adjustment for people coming to Canada from equatorial countries is the cold.
“This is my very first exposure to this extreme cold,” Wilfred said. “We have never known anything below 5 (degrees C).”
Wilfred said when the temperatures hit the minus-30s, he was talking to friends back in Kenya, who said it was also cold there. He looked up his hometown on Google and discovered the temperature was 26.
The kids like it, though.
“They found fun in it,” he said. “They always want to go out to play and build snowmen.”
The bigger adjustment may be the cultural one. He thinks things are going pretty well, but noted the congregation here is more reserved and structured.
“It’s working, though sometimes I’m still struggling and wondering ‘am I really there?’[I] come from a very vibrant worship context where worship is very elaborate with a lot of freedom and all that, but sometimes here, I feel like you have to restrict your sermons within so [many] minutes, a service should not exceed so long,” he said.
The aging demographic is also a big change for him. He wants to bring more youth in, but sees that it may take a lot of patience.
“That is my biggest challenge so far, bringing young people here to worship, it’s not easy, and that is what I’m really struggling to do,” he explained. “I’m struggling because this is a different culture than mine. I knew the buttons to press back home, but those buttons do not apply here and I have to make a step and wait and see and that way hope that maybe one day [numbers] will go up.”
He also worries about the community at large.
“I’m still struggling in as much as people are very nice, and we have so many churches in this town, about 12 different churches, that takes almost everybody in, but I’m still concerned about the spirituality and the faith of those people who don’t go to church,” he said.
In one case, he said, he approached someone about it and was told their spirituality was a private matter.
“I’m struggling with this because it’s like someone telling you ‘I’m a preacher, but I’m a private preacher’,” he said. “Preaching is a public thing and spirituality should also be a public thing because Jesus taught that we should preach the gospel not only with our words… but also by demonstration of our life, that care, and all that. It brings people to the body of Christ, so it’s not a private thing.
“I’m also concerned about people who have declared themselves atheists. I struggle with that, but I’m really praying and trying so much to reach out to them.”
Those struggles aside, he said he feels very fortunate to be in Smithers.
“I want to thank God for this community because they gave me a warm welcome, they’re very loving and caring,” he said.