The interview is different from the start. It starts with an intense prayer time, which sends a signal that this Senator is serious about bringing her faith to her new job in Canberra.
Lucy Gichuhi is being sworn in on Tuesday 9 May as the new independent Senator from South Australia, replacing Bob Day. She has not joined Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives along with the other Family First MPs, (although that door is not closed). That sends a second signal: this lady will chart her own path.
“How did Jesus find you?” I ask.
“I believe that Jesus found me, knew me before I was formed my mother’s womb,” says Gichuhi. She grew up with Catholic parents in a poor village on the slopes of Mount Kenya. “That is where my journey began,” she says, referring both to her journey as a believer and her journey from Kenya to a seat in the Australian Senate.
“My mother was the last of a family of eight, she had lost her father in the Mau Mau war. She was a young teenage mother and I am her first born.” Her mother and father were both teachers, raised their children as Christians, with her mother giving up teaching to care for the family. “We did not have a lot of resources, but they wanted their values to impact us.
“I went to church in rural Kenya and we said the Lord’s prayer every morning so I grew with that.”
“They sent us to Christians schools even though they could not afford it.” – Lucy Gichuhi
She recalls village life: “As a young girl I remember it was a new settlement, just on the slopes of Mount Kenya. There were no people around us. It was not unusual for our neighbours to be killed by elephants which came out of the forest. Those stories are very common.”
“We did not even have a radio. No media. Not because it was not in Kenya, it was because we were in a rural area and my father did not have the resources.”
But Gichuhi thanks God for her parents. “They managed to protect our destiny.” Her father used the money he had to send the children to school and to buy books. “They sent us to Christians schools even though they could not afford it.
“I have this story of going to school even though my parents knew for sure they could not afford the school fees. My father said, ‘You know what: you are going.’ At a time when girls’ education was not [regarded as] important in that part of the country my father said time after time ‘anything a man can do, YOU can do’”.
“My father had to face the issue – he had eight daughters and only two sons – where girls’ education was not important.”
Gichuhi believes that it was only “the hand of God” that led her parents to push hard to give their girls a way out.
And her mother insisted they go to church. Gichuhi recalls that her mother would say, “You must be prayerful women if you are ever to escape poverty.”
But Gichihi says her Christianity has only fully blossomed late in life. “I went through life as what I call a ‘passive’ Christian”. She went to church almost every Sunday, met her husband William at university, and joined his Presbyterian Church, The Church of East Africa. “I was in a passive mode, confident in my own ways, leaning on my own understanding.”
“I came to Australia. And the first thing [to decide] is which church do we go to? I still had not got it at this point. For a long time I was going to Influencers Church (a Pentecostal church, in Adelaide). But I am there for social and emotional reasons. And I love it because I love praise and worship. It did not get me – until 2012.”
“‘I don’t even know how to pray’. This is embarrassing. I am 50 years old. I have three children. I look like a Christian. But I know I am not it.” – Lucy Gichuhi
Gichuhi realised that she could feel an emptiness in her life. “I thought ‘what is lacking in my life?’ It occurred to me that the only thing I have not tried is my Christianity. When you are leaning on your own understanding you think you have tried everything – even though you have been doing nothing.
“It was at that point, 2012, I lost my job – and my daughters were teenagers. And that was a crisis for me and my husband as well.”
Gichuhi resolved, “There’s no way I am going to do the second half of my life the way I did the first half. That is when I started the search.”
That is when she asked a prayerful friend, whose life she could see was different, whether she could go to her fellowship. She said yes, and then Gichuhi asked her to teach her how to pray.
“But when I walked in there, everyone was praying, Pentecostal style. I thought ‘Really? Is that how it is?’”. She started to go every Friday night, from 9pm to midnight. She asked questions and took notes. “I felt I was starting to get into a real thing. I went home, thinking ‘is this it?’, but I continued going.”
She met up with her pastor, Zipporah, and told her everything. “I have been a Christian but I never have been close to God. He either lives or he doesn’t but this ‘in between’ – I am not doing it.
“I said ‘I don’t even know how to pray’. This is embarrassing. I am 50 years old. I have three children. I look like a Christian. But I know I am not it.
“I had been trying to do what my pastor said, what my father said. But it was so tiring.”
Zipporah promised to begin by teaching Gichuhi how to pray. They went through the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, discussing what each line means.
“I was taking notes. I still have that notebook of how to pray. For a long time I was just praying along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer and it was so powerful.”
More challenges followed. 2013 was another spiritually challenging year for Gichuhi when her mother died, slowly. “I travelled to Kenya, and sit with her as she died. It was difficult but once again the Lord came through.
“I had faith in God, that tomorrow we’d be okay.” – Lucy Gichuhi
“I kept being reminded of how the disciples were when Jesus was dying and then going away. I kept imagining how it was for these men who were hanging onto everything Jesus was giving to them. But then Jesus said it was good for him to go away, so that they could be strong.
“And I was saying ‘Lord could there be any chance that my mother is going away so that I can become strong?’”
Her mother had been a friend – even when Gichuhi was in Australia she would call her mother about decisions, and Gichuhi says it was hard losing that support.
“I learned so many things during that time,” says Gichuhi.
When she returned to Australia she was broke. She had had savings that were getting her through law school in Adelaide but her mother’s hospital bills and the travel took it all.
“I was thinking ‘do I abandon law school?’ What would Mum have said?” Gichuhi knew the answer. “Keep going. Don’t ever stop your dreams because of money.
“The God that put those desires in your heart will provide the resources.
“I took that literally,” Gichuhi said.
“Miracles happened – now you can label these things as you want – but one of my husband’s nephews came to me and gave me $2000. I said, ‘there you go’. This is the money I used to do one-and-a-half years of law school.” She cut every expense. She travelled on ‘interpeak’ buses which are cheaper in Adelaide. She walked when she could walk. “I remember there was one Christmas that I hosted the whole Christmas lunch using $200. I will never forget.
“I had faith in God, that tomorrow we’d be okay.
“Looking at my life – he has demonstrated it – that tomorrow you will be okay.”
Through this time, every Friday, Gichuhi was meeting up with her pastor. She found herself the only adult sitting in a congregation of young people. “I was looking at them seeing their comfort, their content, their faith. I said to myself ‘this is what I want. Whatever they are doing, that is what I want. I will do it this way.’”
“It was pure theology. I thought ‘this is what I have been looking for all my life’ … I could connect with it. In that two weeks I got it how to study the word.” – Lucy Gichuhi
In late 2015 Pastor Zipporah was present for Gichuhi’s admission to the bar and introduced her to Adelaide lawyer and Christian, Mark Mudri, who has become a key mentor. Unwittingly he guided her towards a couple of key moves which led directly to the Senate. Despite Gichuhi being keen to find a job as soon as she graduated he suggested a public policy internship in Canberra. “I still have a childlike faith in Christians,” she says a little wryly, so early in 2016 she applied for the internship, but on the basis that if she got a job in the next few weeks she would not go. Pastor Zipporah was also keen that she went.
Gichuhi tells me that she thought she couldn’t afford it, and that her family were thinking that now I had completed law, when was I going to get a job?
“The date to go to Canberra comes. I have only $500 and I pay the fare.
“I remember that on the day to leave it was the most difficult. No one understood what I was doing.
“I took the flight. I had called my prayer warrior friend in Kenya and asked her, ‘What do you think of this decision to do three and a half months in Canberra. You know my home situation right now. And after I pay the fare I will have only $200 left.’”
She asked me if I needed the money to live in Canberra, but I didn’t, because the full board and lodging was paid for. She told me to go to Canberra.
“But following my conviction meant there was tension at home.
“I will never forget the first two weeks of the internship says Gichuhi. “It was pure theology. I thought ‘this is what I have been looking for all my life.’” It was two weeks of the book of John. “I could connect with it. In that two weeks I got it how to study the word.
“I don’t have to struggle to get answers. It’s better than asking your friend, your husband, your mother. I can simply connect with the word.”
She could see how her pastors had gained so much from studying the word, but now she could see how to do it herself, and that the word could speak to her directly. And that she would bear fruit as a result.
Gichuhi asked to be placed with a “South Australian and a Christian” politician when the time came for the practical experience part of her internship. The organisers placed her with Family First’s Senator Bob Day, just as the double dissolution election was called in 2016.
“I attribute it all to the hand of God.” – Lucy Gichuhi
The office was very busy. Unknown to Gichuhi, Bob Day’s number two candidate had just pulled out and Day was in the middle of a high court case challenging Senate reforms which had made it harder for minor parties to be elected.
Ironically, Day lost that court case (despite newly minted lawyer Gichuhi pitching in), but the double dissolution election, which meant that the whole rather than half the senate was up for election made it easier for Day to be returned. He just squeaked home.
But possibly the bigger change in Gichuhi’s life was a developing prayer life.
“It was very exciting,” says Gichuhi of a big change in her life during her time Canberra. But she is not speaking of working in the senator’s office. Rather it’s her prayer life.
“I am getting to be prayerful – I did not forget the words ‘let your will be done,’” she says, describing her prayers during that time in Day’s office. She developed the habit of fasting a couple of days a week, and waking very early to pray, resolving to tithe her time.
She recalls praying for her family, and what it would be like when the internship was over. “If I go back and everyone is still hanging on [doing well] I will take it as a sign that you [God] wanted this to happen.
“I go back home, and everything is calm. I had asked my pastor to ‘pray for my family’. One daughter was not going to church at that time and I thought ‘I have to leave you in the care of God.’” Her Friday night church group rallied around. “It worked wonders. By the time I got back home she was going to church.
“The chances of being elected number two as a Family First candidate, is zero point zero zero zero zero one per cent,” is how Bob Day put it when he asked Gichuhi to run on the 2016 Senate ticket. “I said ‘no worries.’” Gichuhi recalls. “I was just excited to be supporting him, and also learning more about politics.”
“This was the first time I started to feel very Australian. I started to engage with the issues facing Australia as an Australian. Sometimes as a migrant the body has arrived but all the emotions and beliefs are still in your country of origin. But there comes a time when you decide to do things the Australian way while keeping the good from before.”
After the election Gichuhi returned to Adelaide working in family law at the Women’s Legal Services. She was challenged in her prayer life to “prepare yourself”, and a prayer warrior friend delivered a message to her, “you need to get wisdom”. She decided to read the Bible cover to cover for the first time in her life. She drove to Koorong and bought one (having used an Bible on her phone before).
The news that Bob Day had financial troubles broke about that time. “That broke my heart. I had come to know Bob. I know what it means to be one decision away from bankruptcy.”
It was not clear at first what would happen about replacing Day who resigned to take care of his building companies. Would the Party decide (and there were preferred candidates) or would it be a recount, or simply go to the second of the ticket? Gichuhi just let the processes play out – and it took another high court case. In fact she headed back to Kenya to see her elderly father. By the time she returned the issue of whether Gichuhi was still a Kenyan citizen also came up.
As the legal process dragged on, Gichuhi read the Bible, getting up at four each morning, starting at Genesis. “You can never lose with the word of God. Whether I go back to law or not,” she recalls.
“The last day I finished reading the Bible, the day I got to the last full stop in Revelation, is the day the High Court Case finished.”
“I attribute it all to the hand of God.”