It is a sunny Saturday morning in Emali, a small, dusty town surrounded by dry hills on Mombasa Road, Kenya's busiest highway. Hundreds of parishioners have converged to receive their visiting bishop.

Child dancers look like big butterflies in their multicolored uniforms. The choir's flowing purple robes hide the promise of some good music. Catholic Women Association members are resplendent in light blue dresses and white headscarves with their logo. The men in jackets and ties while away time with small talk.

Bishop Martin Kivuva of the Diocese of Machakos arrives. The crowd marches through the town, taking the bishop, priests, nuns and local worthies to the parish grounds for a daylong celebration.

The bishop has come to open a new parish dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Some 30 years ago, a few Catholics started meeting for prayers in the passengers' room at Emali Railway Station. Now they have built their own church.

Bishop Kivuva praises the parishioners for their work. A parish, he says, "brings Christ closer to the people." It does so, he explains, not only through the preaching of the Word of God and administering the sacraments, but also by caring for the sick, widows, orphans and all who need help.

St. John will oversee Church-sponsored schools in Emali and start new social projects, perhaps a health facility, a home for AIDS orphans or a rescue center for the women who sell their bodies to truck drivers on the notorious Mombasa Road.

No empty seats

As is the case at St. John the Evangelist, each of Kenya's 750 parishes tries to address the totality of the human person. With more than 8 million members, the Church has grown fast in just over a century since the first modern Catholic, Maria Pereira, was baptized in the Indian Ocean city of Mombasa on Aug. 14, 1889.

Today, Catholicism is the nation's largest faith. Parishes overflow with faithful. Consolata missionary Father Luigi Anataloni, a journalist and coordinator of the Kenya Catholic Directory Data Centre, said if a parish were to serve only 6,000 Christians, Kenya would today need an additional 660 parishes.

"At the present yearly growth of about 5 percent -- 400,000 Catholics every year -- our Church needs to create 65 new parishes per year," he adds.

The congestion is evident on Sunday. Every parish celebrates at least two lively Masses, not counting the Liturgy of the Word conducted by catechists at outstations and subparishes. Yet there are very few Catholic churches where one can find an empty seat during Sunday Mass.

The parishes, served by two or three priests, cover vast areas. Each parish has outstations headed by mostly volunteer catechists who conduct the Liturgy of the Word, prepare catechumens for the sacraments and coordinate parish programs for the area.

'Church of the village'

Outstations are divided into Small Christian Communities, comprising Christians of one village or section. Community members meet once a week for prayer, Bible study and discussion of local issues. The bishops of Eastern Africa initiated the communities in the 1970s to renew parish life. By 2006, there were at least 17,600 in Kenya.

Kenyan bishops call them "a privileged means of helping Catholics to live their faith to the full" by gaining "a true love of Scripture, praying with it and sharing together about how it can affect our lives." The communities, they say, have also produced "local ministries of service in the neighborhood, such as care for the poor and the sick."

Father Joseph Obanyi, vicar general of Kisii diocese in western Kenya, says the communities have transformed the Church from anonymity to being "the Church of the village." They boost participation of the laity in Church life, promote spiritual formation and empower the people to respond to their socioeconomic challenges through self-help activities.

Besides the communities, most parishes now have vibrant lay groups that provide spiritual formation of their members and assist the parish materially. The Catholic Women Association (CWA) is by far the best. Agnes Koech, a CWA parish secretary in Nakuru diocese, told Our Sunday Visitor her 200 members "meet every two months to plan how to maintain our priest by meeting his living expenses."

Daunting challenges

With the rapid growth witnessed in the towns, urban parishes have responded to the needs of the many poor people in their midst. Nairobi alone has more than 200 slums. In 2002, 15 city parishes covering slums established a network to better articulate issues affecting the informal settlements.

The largest of those settlements is Kibera, home to more than 700,000 people living in about 550 acres of land. Congestion, poverty, crime and lack of basic services characterize life there. Guadalupe missionary Father Raul Nava Trujillo, who worked at Christ the King Kibera Parish for five years, said parishes in slums cannot offer only pastoral services.

"The Church must be willing to participate in the transformation of the people," he said. "She must do more than just teach the poor to fish. She must teach them how to get part of the lake to fish in, build a boat, create a market to sell the fish, and finally how to save and invest the money they make from the fishing."

But the endeavor of Kenyan parishes to "bring Christ closer to the people" faces some daunting challenges, beginning with material poverty. Half of Kenya's 35 million people live below the poverty line, or on less than a dollar a day.

The problem is particularly acute in most arid parts of the nation (about 80 percent of the landmass) where drought and famine are endemic and infrastructure is very bad.

Outside threats

Poverty is also the main cause of Catholics moving to evangelical churches, attracted by the glamorous millionaire pastors who preach the "gospel of prosperity," with promises of a financial breakthrough and other miracles.

"Through their unrelenting efforts and compelling eloquence, our precious faith has been downgraded from a means to man's most ideal aspiration -- eternal life -- to a mere ladder up the food chain," said John Wahome, a university lecturer.

Another challenge is persistent paganism. "We have many Christians who consult fortunetellers when they want to start a project or when faced with problems," Michael Katola, a lecturer in pastoral theology at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, told a symposium at the institution.

Also, many Catholics who fall victim to witchcraft but are dismissed by their priests as being superstitious go to "seek deliverance, healing and exorcism" in evangelical churches, Katola said.

But all these challenges hardly dampen the joy of Kenyan parishioners in their love for God and neighbor. At every opportunity, they celebrate their salvation with color, song and dance.

Henry Makori writes from Kenya.