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Pope Francis gets WCC gift cross symbolizing disability, carved by Kenyan artist with a message

Pope Francis gets WCC gift cross symbolizing disability, carved by Kenyan artist with a message

Okiki, a deaf person from Nairobi, has carved and painted a cross for Pope Francis. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

21 June 2018

Losing his hearing and speaking ability as a young man has not deterred Kenyan Karim Okiki in his wood carving, and a symbolic sculpted cross he presented to Pope Francis on his visit to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva represents people with disabilities everywhere.

“I would like this cross to speak to Pope Francis and the churches worldwide on the need to embrace persons with disabilities especially the deaf and hard of hearing as part of the church today,” said Okiki.

“Being disabled is part of God’s diversity in creation,” explained Okiki, a 33-year-old deaf man from Kenya, who made the wooden cross, gifted to Pope Francis 21 June during his visit to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva.

Three disability symbols carved on the cross represent the blind, visually impaired, the physically impaired and the deaf. At the centre of the cross is the sign language symbol for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of the church and the society.

‘Appeal to Christians’

“I am excited to make this cross not just a gift but an appeal to Christians to change their attitudes to persons with disabilities as we too are created in the image of God,” said Okiki.

After facing discrimination growing up, he hopes the cross can remind Christians all over the world to act more welcoming to persons with disabilities, as part of God’s creation, something Pope Francis preaches.  “When I was three-years-old, I got sick and stayed in hospital for eight months,” explained Okiki. “By the time I left the hospital, I had lost my ability to hear and speak. I did not understand why I could not speak and hear like my siblings and other children.”

Okiki was enrolled in deaf schools, not mainstream schools “though I desired to go to the same schools with my siblings”. He could not even attend Sunday school, which frustrated him.

“After school closed, I had nobody to play with or talk to, as no one understood sign language. I felt discriminated against and had low self-esteem. I still face stigma and discrimination often today,” lamented Okiki.

After he completed his secondary school education, life turned more positive for Okiki when he was invited to attend a youth empowerment seminar organized by a nongovernmental organization known as the Undugu Society of Kenya in his home village.

The organization was impressed by Okiki’s ability to communicate through sign language and employed him as a sign language instructor in one of its Nairobi projects.

Meeting other deaf people

“Coming to Nairobi changed my life completely. I met other deaf people who introduced me to Emmanuel Church for the deaf in Nairobi and I started going to church,” he explains.

When not working he would go to a carpentry shop and help.

“While there, I developed a keen interest in carpentry and after two years of training, together with my friend, we used our savings to open a carpentry shop in 2013. Today, this shop is my means of livelihood and I have been able to provide employment to other people,” said Okiki.

His carpentry shop is in a densely populated Nairobi area and employs three young people (two men and a  woman), two of whom are deaf. One person has hearing and serves as the link between Okiki and his customers, through sign language interpretation.

Said Okiki, “Communication with my customers has been the biggest challenge I face in my work. I rely on the sign language interpreter to communicate with customers.”

In the absence of the sign language interpreter, he either writes or uses body language.

“At times when people realize I am deaf, they think I cannot do a good job and decline to buy from me. Others can decide to take advantage of this to pay me poorly. This pains me, as I know I can do a good job despite my disability,” he says.

Near Okiki’s shop is the Christ is the Answer Ministries Church. The church first welcomed Okiki as a neighbour and he became a congregant.

‘Embraced in the church’

“Being embraced as a member in this church, despite being deaf made me realize I have gifts which are useful to the church and society. I gained self-confidence and later held my wedding in this church,” he says.

Before this, due to discrimination he had faced, he feared joining a mainstream church “and that is why I joined a deaf church.” Okiki said.

“I would like to see a world where persons with disabilities’ spiritual needs are met just like those of any other person. They too thirst for spiritual nourishment but because there is no conducive environment for them to be part of our churches, they remain in their homes.”

Okiki, who loves dancing and playing volleyball, is married to a deaf woman and together they have two children who have hearing.


High resolution photos: EDAN Cross for Pope Francis

Learn more about the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN)

Visit of Pope Francis to the WCC