They came through the narrow and muddy streets in the rain long before dawn, intent on seeing Pope Francis as he came to their church in the Kenyan slum of Kangemi.
The first people arrived more than two hours before dawn, with the church of St Joseph the Worker already packed before sunlight crept over the crowded tin roofs of the shanty town, home to more than 100,000 people on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi.
Fourteen-year old Kelvin Mutwiri, who lives among the rubbish, came with a drawing of the pope in white and gold as a gift for the 78-year-old pontiff.
“Pope Francis I don’t want to be a street boy, pray for me,” read a set of prayers, beautifully drawn and framed by a group of a dozen children, who were rescued and supported by the church. “Pope Francis, pray for me, I am sick,” read another.
People sang, some danced inside the crowded church, with the doors at the back left open to allow those who couldn’t fit inside to at least catch a glimpse of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Although the street directly leading to the church was clear apart from school children, thousands thronged the surrounding streets.
“They prepared for this mass, they wrote messages and prayers,” said Catholic priest Father Vittorio, who runs a programme supporting the street children.
Mutwiri’s gift, he explained, was made during a project in which painting is used as a tool to help rehabilitate the youngsters.
“We try to offer them some help — we have a school of painting so they can start to connect with themselves,” Vittorio said.
“We start directing them for rehabilitation. They’re being reintegrated. They feel the dignity of being a person again. Before they were rejected, now they participate in the life of others again.”
– ‘God hasn’t forgotten you’ –
Former street boy James, now 36, grew up on the streets of the tough Mathere slum in another area of Nairobi, and was also helped by Vittorio.
“I came to see the Holy Father, to take his blessing, I hope maybe to see him and talk to him,” said James.
“The Father (Vittorio) knew me for a long time. He told me: ‘Don’t go to the street’. It changed my life,” he told AFP, saying the priest had introduced him to the Bible.
“He gave me the words of God.”
As the Argentine pope began to speak in Spanish, a hush fell across the church.
“I am here because I want you to know that I am not indifferent to your joys and hopes, your troubles and your sorrows,” he told them.
“I want you to know that the Lord never forgets you. The path of Jesus began on the peripheries, it goes from the poor and with the poor, towards others.”
For many, simply being there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s a great honour to be here, I’ve been a Catholic all my life. I’ve been baptised in this church and I’ve made my first communion and confirmation here. I’m very excited,” said Margaret Mwaniki, a resident of the slum who came with her husband and three sons.
“It’s good for us. His current message of peace and empowerment of young people is the message that we need.”
Photo Credits : AFP