Keith and Kathy Ham are so in synch that as one of them starts a sentence, the other finishes it. They tell stories joyously and simultaneously, their minds melded.
One might have expected this harmony. The pair have lived and worked together for the past 30 years, intertwined as partners in work and life.
Recently, Keith Ham became the new pastor at West Hills Christian Church on Southwest Troy Avenue, and his wife continues to work at his side.
The Hams began their romance steeped in the church, knowing they wanted to do mission work overseas. They met at Hope International University, a private Christian school in Fullerton, Calif.
"From a very young age, I felt like working overseas was going to be my thing," Kathy said. "I went to college and met Keith, after meeting several guys who also wanted to go overseas and were very dull and serious. I thought I would be single, but I finally met someone who both wanted to go overseas and was able to laugh."
Overseas they went, to the east African country of Kenya.
In the early 1990s, the Hams were stationed with Missions of Hope International — first in the desert in Turkana, where they stayed for 12 years. Eventually they ended up in the capital city of Nairobi, at the infamous Mathare slums where a stretch of land 3 miles long and a half-mile long houses almost a million residents.
A few years in, a chance encounter let them know they were meant to do the work.
"His mom went through her attic and found a box of his stuff from when he was 18 years old. He had clipped out an LA Times article on this person living in the Mathare slum, and there was a picture of it," Kathy explained. "It was right where we were working, exactly, even that same slum house. We knew where it was, we knew the people there. He had clipped it out just because he was moved by the poverty."
The Hams helped run Hope Centers, which provide education, food, health care and micro finance to the slum community. And when they say "micro," they mean it.
Kathy tells of her friend Elizabeth, who had been involved in prostitution to make money to raise her two girls. Hope International offered her $8 to start making the east African version of chapatis, or flatbreads. On less than 10 bucks, Kathy says, Elizabeth quit prostitution and began a thriving business making chapatis out of her home.
Though they loved the work in Africa, the Hams moved back to the West Coast of the U.S. for two reasons: family and opportunity. Their parents, who live in Oregon and California, are aging and require more support. Plus, their kids are graduating from U.S. colleges and setting down roots in the states. And when representatives from West Hills Christian told them about an open pastor position at their church and asked if Keith would be interested, they knew the time was right to come home.
The pair are still involved with Missions of Hope International and visit Kenya quarterly. They do wonder sometimes if they're too radical for the older crowd at the church.
"We approach life as missionaries, which is a different approach, really," Kathy said. "It's like learning the culture, seeing the culture and trying to relate to the culture. And I would say the church is probably not related to the culture much. They stay a little more inward."
"We're kind of coming in with this, 'Hey, let's reach out and meet people's needs, and what does that look like,'" Keith said. "It might be a little scary sometimes, (if they're) unsure where that's going."
Still, they say they're excited to get to know the congregation and the greater Multnomah Village neighborhood.
"(The congregants are) very positive," Kathy said. "They're such a lovely group of people."
"They're getting to know us, we're getting to know them," Keith added. "That takes time."