A life less ordinary: Starbeck's charismatic vicar says farewell

The Rev Francis Wainaina with his wife Elaine.
The Rev Francis Wainaina with his wife Elaine.

As his final service at St Andrew's Church in Starbeck looms this weekend, a community is preparing to say farewell to the Rev Francis Wainaina, one of Harrogate's most popular Church of England vicars.

But how many people know how he got to this point?

How many people know of his early years in Kenya when his dad was involved in the Mau Mau uprising?

There’s no great mystery as to why this Sunday’s service will he his last.

First ordained 31 years ago, he tells me he is retiring for the simple reason that he has been working since he was a young boy and wants a more leisurely life with his wife Elaine.

It’s unlikely any of the twists of the story he tells me about amid the hub-bub St Andrew's Welcome Centre’ would have happened without that phenomental work rate - and a great deal of easy charm and good humour.

When Francis was just a young boy in Kenya, his father Zechariah was involved in the violent revolt against British rule in the turbulent and traumatic days of the end of empire.

Francis said: “My dad was a brave man and a stubborn man. He was arrested and incarcerated between 1952 and 1959.

“He was beaten in every way. He came out crippled. He’d had his knee cap blown off.”

As for Francis, himself, he says his own most moment of courage came many years later when his father was out of prison and back with his mother Elizabeth.

He still laughs at the memory.

“The bravest thing I’ve done is when I introduced my dad to my future wife Elaine who was from Fleetwood in Lancashire and white.

“He didn’t bat an eyelid. He just looked at her kindly and said she was very nice.”

A highly visible figure on the High Street in Starbeck thanks to his love of cycling and his cheery smile, Francis is regarded as being instrumental in turning St Andrew’s into a real hub of the community in the 15 years since he first arrived.

Not that likes taking the credit.

He said: “It isn’t about me. I don’t do anything. I lead by encouragement. This is the best community I have ever lived in. It’s a community which is loving, which is open. I’m really sorry to be leaving.”

At cost of £600,000, one of his biggest achievements is the place we are sitting in - the church's recently-built bright and airy Welcome Centre which is now used by a wide variety of community groups, including Starbeck Residents Association which is holding its annual general meeting there next Wednesday.

But, wherever he's gone, it's the people that have counted to Francis more than the infrastructure.

“When I arrived at St Andrew’s, I knew it could grow. I thought it was a lovely church.

"There were people in Starbeck who had a sense of community already. The Welcome Centre is a monument to Starbeck not me."

Francis first arrived in the UK in the early 1980s but it was a journey which began in Africa nearly 20 years earlier.

The road from young boy to clergyman was neither fast nor easy.

For financial reasons, Francis didn't even get to secondary school until he was 19-years-old.

“I was always first in my class. After I passed the 11 Plus exams I used to write letters every month to the Ministry of Education in the early 1970s asking for a bursary to board at school. I never got a reply.”

But Francis refused to give up. He started working as a kitchen boy from the age of 15 to build up funds.

It still wasn't nearly enough but a combination of good luck and hard work combined to rescue his entire future.

“I wasn’t going to mope around. While playing football I made friends with a young man called George who worked for Kenya Shell, which was very well paid in those days.

“He helped me get a job there. In return I offered to clean his family’s house and make the meals each evening and every weekend after I’d finished work.

“I carried on doing that in the holidays even once I got into school.”

Francis’s original aim had been to make a financial success of his life so he would never again experience the sort of poverty his family lived through.

Then he met a young man of faith at boarding school who lived life to the full.

Francis decided to volunteer to help out in in one of the Testimony Faith Homes looking after orphaned and destitue children.

Without this single act he might never have found God and would never have bumped into his future wife.

“I never intended to be ordained but during that time I realised, even though I wanted to be rich, I’d rather work for nothing in the church than earn money at Shell. I realised my gifts lay with people. I decided to give myself to God.”

After - eventually - gaining a masters in theology at Durham University (and that's another lengthy story!), Francis went onto successful spells as a vicar at St Mary’s Upton in The Wirral in Liverpool, St Peter at Ellesmere in Sheffield and St Michael le Belfrey next to The Minster in York.

No one should assume that with his final service this Sunday in Harrogate and retirement only days aways he will be taking it easy in future.

Francis still hopes to be involved in some way in church life and he’s already planning another epic bike ride with Elaine, this time from Krakow to England.

“Going by tandem is good for a marriage. You can’t cycle alone on one and if you disagree or fall out you still have to stay together to ride it home!”