Inspired by the example of Christians in Kenya, Steve Burgess spent a working life in service to the biblical call to “proclaim good news to the poor”. He retired at the end of September as CMS regional manager for Africa, nearly four decades after his journey with Church Mission Society began…
Steve’s first taste of Africa as a young man was doing voluntary work in Tanzania and Malawi during his holidays from the National College of Agricultural Engineering, and he volunteered in Kenya after finishing his degree.
Later he joined an Anglican diocesan team there, although he wasn’t a Christian at the time. Through working alongside Kenyan Christians and learning about Jesus through their actions as well as their words, Steve says, “eventually I just said yes to Jesus.”
Despite this, Steve was confident he wasn’t going to be a missionary. He returned home to the UK, where he met someone very interesting: an Australian named Cathy.
Called to proclaim the good news
Steve was seeking God’s will for his life.
“One day Isaiah 61 was read at a conference, and it spoke to me: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor…’ and I just said, ‘Well, God, how am I going to do that?’”
Steve felt God was calling him to continue working with people in Africa, and approached CMS. They told him to go and figure things out with Cathy first, so Steve went to Australia.
“When Cathy and I were thinking about getting married, I said, ‘Well, if you get married to me, we’re going to Africa.’ She said, ‘Okay.’” They got married, came back to the UK and applied to CMS together.
Jumping into mission together
When Cathy, Steve and their first child arrived in Kenya in 1987, the house they had been promised was just four posts in the ground.
When they moved into their half-finished house seven months later, the bath was still on the veranda, but Steve talks about it like it was the best days of his life. What really mattered was being there and being able to work with local people.
Steve’s role was to support the Diocese of Mount Kenya East’s community development programme, through irrigation and water management and agriculture.
Cathy would focus on childcare initially, and be part of the lively, multicultural women’s fellowship.
Based in Isiolo, in the middle of Kenya, they were at the end of the tarmacked road.
“It was a gateway to places where people lived nomadic lives. A lot of people didn’t know Jesus, a lot of people were struggling to survive.
“At that time, one side of Isiolo was Christian and the other side was Muslim. So it was a really interesting place to be. I just loved it.
“I loved northern Kenya and engaging in grassroots development work there together with the Anglican Church.”
From Isiolo to Eldoret to the UK
The family spent six years in two different contexts within the same diocese, and welcomed two more children during that time.
In 1994, they moved to the Diocese of Eldoret. At the top of Steve’s new job description were some very familiar verses: Isaiah 61:1–2, echoing God’s calling on his life in this role, too.
While Steve worked with an integrated rural development programme, providing support on water and irrigation and hygiene and sanitation programmes, Cathy developed a role coordinating the Theological Education by Extension programme in the diocese, helping Christian leaders in remote rural places to study the Bible and theology.
After 10 years in the Diocese of Eldoret, they returned to the UK in 2005 and finished as mission partners.
Steve joined the CMS office team as a regional manager for mid-Africa, and found that Luke 4:18–19 was a key passage, echoing Isaiah 61:1–2 again.
A shift to indigenous mission
Part of Steve’s role as regional manager for Africa has been to support the vision of CMS-Africa.
CMS was very well known in Africa, having established the Anglican Church there, built schools and hospitals and sent many, many missionaries.
Nevertheless, CMS had always had a vision for decentralisation and indigenous expressions of mission. So, in 2008, CMS-Africa came into being as an autonomous organisation.
Where possible when visiting dioceses, bishops and church organisations in Africa, Steve did so with colleagues from CMS-Africa, to build stronger relationships.
Along with seeing CMS-Africa take the reins, Steve has really enjoyed connecting with and encouraging people in what God has called them to do – whether training artisans in Kenya to build water tanks or, more recently, facilitating people from the UK making their own contributions to mission in Africa.
He has particularly valued visiting people in mission: “They are just an amazing bunch of people.”
A final word
Poignantly, the CMS UK staff Bible passage for 2021 includes Luke 4:18, an echo of Isaiah 61:1–2, which Steve says he will take into whatever God has for him next.
So, what would Steve like to see happen in mission in Africa over the next 10, 20, 30 years?
“For people to know Jesus. I mean, it’s that simple, isn’t it? I think we’ve got to keep Jesus at the centre of what we do. But in doing so, engaging as equal partners, each contributing their gifts and skills to God’s mission and learning from each other.”