There is Still Hope

Tonight the state of Georgia will execute a beloved child of God. Last time they planned to execute her, the Holy Spirit intervened in the form of a cloud. Read below (and listen if you like, download is available here) the sermon I wrote in March before Kelly’s last scheduled execution.

We must not give up hope while Kelly has breath that God will intervene. And if there is no intervention, may the LORD receive Kelly into the eternal grace she has shared with so many.


Hope Is Still Alive

Genesis 17:1-9, 15-22

A theologian once said in her graduation address, “We must remember that the clearest hope about what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past.” This is why we have decided to look at the Old Testament texts through Lent; to examine the whole story of God’s promises to creation since the beginning of time.

Today we explore God’s covenant with Abraham. This is the third passage of Genesis in which a covenant with Abram is presented, yet this one marks a definite turn in the story. This passage is where Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. The name change marks a new identity as a result of God’s promise. Abram, meaning exalted father, becomes Abraham, father of multitudes. Sarai, meaning quarrelsome, is renamed Sarah, Princess of nations. Even a new name for God is used in this story. I am El Shaddai. The direct translation remains unclear, but it is a significant shift from Elohim, the plural “gods” to El Shaddai, read in most Bibles as “God Almighty”.

What is the promise? That the new names would be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah would produce not just one son, but many nations. Abraham falls on his face at this and laughs. Imagine someone telling Ms. Nan, at 98, that she was going to produce a multitude of nations through childbirth. And though Abraham already has one son, Ishmael, through his wife’s maidservant Hagar, God makes it clear that this blessing is to come through Sarah.

This is particularly significant because Sarah has remained unable to produce an heir. In the ancient world, and still in some places in our modern world, infertility or the inability to produce a son, renders a woman as worthless. Her ability to produce children is her only source of social pride and value. Sarah, at 90-years-old, has given up. She is lucky Abraham has not discarded her. But what we see as barren, God promises to make fruitful. While Abraham receives the message, it is for Sarah whom the covenant is intended. God offers a covenant of abundance of offspring through Sarah, which will bring Abraham great honor and redeems Sarah from her shame. What the world saw as a lost cause, God saw as the seedbed for a nation of blessings.

A story on the front of my mind this week which began as hopeless and tragic has sprung forth with hope. You may have read that the only woman on death row in the state of Georgia was set to be executed last Wednesday. Kelly Gissendaner, who was convicted in 1996 for planning the murder of her husband, Greg Gissendaner, was sentenced to death, though she never touched the murder weapon and her accomplice will have the opportunity for parole in 8 years. Though state sanctioned execution is always of concern to me, as I believe all are capable of being redeemed by grace and only God should determine when that opportunity in life runs out, Kelly’s case was of particular concern because she is a graduate of the prison theological studies program that many of my Candler classmates and professors have taught. Were she not behind bars, I might have encountered her in my circle of acquaintances, as she is called friend by many I know. Kelly was denied clemency, but her execution date was pushed back to tomorrow night due to the winter storm warnings last week. In that time, what has sprung forth is an abundance of blessings.

Since Kelly’s execution date was pushed back, stories began to circulate about her in a mass media campaign to save her life. For Kelly not only found God in prison, but began to embody her role as a Christian and a theologian. A New York Times article tells of her correspondence and friendship with German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who has said that Kelly’s devotionals gave him “much inspiration” and came to visit her when he was lecturing at Emory. She mentors and has become the spiritual guide for many women in the prison. Kelly directly prevented three of her fellow inmates from committing suicide.  

These are word’s from Kelly’s commencement speech for the Certificate in theological Studies:

“The theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that, despite a gate or a guillotine hovering over my head, I still possess the ability to prove that I am human. Labels on anyone can be notoriously misleading and unforgiving things. But no matter the label attached to me, I have the capacity and the unstoppable desire to accomplish something positive and to have a lasting impact… I have a placed my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

What we see as barren and hopeless, God sees as a seedbed for abundant blessings.

There is another great theologian to consult on this text, who was guilty of the same crimes as Kelly. Before Saul became Paul, he orchestrated the murder of countless Christians, yet was also redeemed by the intervention of God’s promise. And in speaking of God’s covenant to Abraham and Sarah, Paul tells us in Romans 4 what this covenant means for us.

13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith…16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations.[c] So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have…. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness. 23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him[e] wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Romans 4:13, 16-18, 23-5:1 CEB)

We inherit the covenant of Abraham, to be a part of the nation of blessing. And we receive peace through our Lord Jesus Christ. All of us. The continuance of a covenant we remember each week at this table as we partake in the loaf and the cup. Knowing and believing in this covenant of blessing and grace changes us. In Kelly’s words “There is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean, or turn a tragedy into a triumph, and a loser into a winner. When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted.”

As I saw stories spread about Kelly, some who know her best began to use her full name, the name that would have been used in her baptism, the name God claims upon her; Kelly Renee. In the original French, Renee means redeemed.

What we see as barren, God sees as a seedbed for abundant blessings.

As long as Kelly has breath, we have hope that the hearts and minds of the parole board and Governor Deal might be changed to see that Kelly is a success of the corrections system, living a redeemed and grace filled life. She is an inspiration not just to her fellow inmates, but to all who hear her voice. And her words speak to today’s passage “I implore you not to allow prison to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.”  I implore you not to allow your barrenness to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.

Or your depression, or your unemployment, or your addiction, or your body image, or your fear, or your anger, or your shame, or any disadvantageous position life has placed you in to rob you of your dream or vision, nor of your dignity or self-worth.

For where we see barrenness, emptiness hopelessness, God sees the seedbed of abundant blessings.

The New York Times article about Kelly ends with this quote, “Professor Moltmann, who has written of his own remorse at having fought in the German Army, offered his own ide of what awaits his friend. “If the State of Georgia has no mercy,” he said, “she has received already the mercy of Heaven.”
May God grant the same mercy of abundant life through faith to each and every one of us. Amen.

He gives and takes away

My classmate, Rev. John Shettima, is originally from Borno State in Northern Nigeria. This was the birth place of the militant group, Boko Haram. He is the principle of a Christian school in Kaduna but most of his family lives in Yobe. He is also here to study Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations in an attempt to understand his community better in the majority Muslim North.

Rev. John at a meeting in Eastleigh, the primarily Sudanese neighborhood of Nairobi where the CCMRE is located

A few weeks ago, Rev. John lost the 9th, 10th and 11th members of his family to Boko Haram (timeline of attacks). He has said of the 13 he shared in the joy of their coming to Christ, now 10 are dead.

His brother-in-law was a police inspector. He was killed in an attack on the police station.

A week after John’s brother-in-law was buried, John’s sister, who had suffered bullet wounds in her legs during the attack, was finally told of her husband’s passing. I don’t know the details, but during our Arabic class, John received the call that she had also died.

She was four months pregnant.

There are now 31 orphans in John’s family.

Violence like this does not make sense to me. I can’t comprehend the frailty of life around me. On top of militancy, there are fires, road accidents, misdiagnoses that end in untimely death, entirely preventable illnesses, maternal mortality and a whole slew of other crises we just don’t tend to think about in the West. Within this semester, our cohort of six has been affected by just as many deaths of close friends or family. “If I should die before I wake” is a weak prayer here. Every time we leave each other, every time a person is away from the group, we pray for safety and God’s grace and protection. There is reason to give thanks for every new morning, not because of sunshiny optimism, but because there it is ever present on the African conscience that one might not have seen it without God’s present hand while we rested.

My professor from the Netherlands asked me how I was doing with all of this tragedy. I stared at him for a moment, unsure what to say. How was I doing? Did it matter?

“I’m speechless. Truly. I don’t know what to do with all of this except pray, and ask others to join me.”

Shortly after this news, I was assigned a paper on Terrorism in Africa. I researched the major cells, including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. I could list for your here a slew of political, economic and social reasons why I think violence is so rampant among these groups, particularly in Africa. If you want, I’d be happy to share my paper. That writing process gave me something to say, but it didn’t really give me answers.

I flipped through the Biblical texts of catharsis, lament and comfort, trying to reason through how or what I was supposed to feel. I finally settled on Habakkuk, a succinct book of the prophets. It opens as a plea from a man who feels like a single grain of sand trying to hold back a rushing downpour of oppression and injustice. Fitting for how I was feeling at the time. How I feel most days.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen!

“Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.

-Habakkuk 1:2

But God replies to Habakkuk and basically says, “Don’t worry, I’m God. I will bring wrath upon the wicked and those that harm the righteous. But I’m doing in in my time and in my way. You probably won’t even see it happening. But don’t worry, I’m in control. I promise.”

And I realized something terrible yet awesome (in the true sense of the word). God is not just great because He creates, but also because He destroys. Destruction is an awfully difficult, but often necessary task. Wild fires have to burn to create the right conditions for new growth. The story of the great flood is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of new creation in the covenant with Noah. When He destroys, He will build again. But because only God can truly create, only by the directive of God can destruction be pure. It’s when destruction is done outside of the orders of God that it becomes sin. When humans try to play God in controlling the order of the world in a destructive/manipulative way that they become worthy of God’s wrath.

What good is an idol carved by man, or a cast image that deceives you?

How foolish to trust in your own creation -a god that can’t even talk!

-Habakkuk 2: 18

When that forest fire is started by a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, or a reckless arsonist. When children go hungry while the money sent to feed them lines the pockets of government officials. When a man is killed because he went to school to become a doctor, but Western education has been deemed apostasy. When an adolescent is recruited to blow himself up in the name of a war he doesn’t understand in exchange for protection for his family.

These atrocities, more often than not, are man driven, not God made. They occur because of and within worldwide, systematic sin. Yet the violence we see here in this world is just a single immeasurable point on the arch of God’s divine justice . And in the end, God will always bring justice.

Because you have plundered many nations,

now all the survivors will plunder you.

-Habakkuk 2:8a

Rev. John returned to class the next day, to all of our surprise. Our professor shook his hand, saw him to his seat, and patted him on the back. He said, “It is well, sir. It is well with my soul.”

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines;

even thought the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren;

even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD!

I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

-Habakkuk 3:17-18

How do I feel? Inspired. Challenged. Encouraged. Overwhelmed with the courage of my classmates. Above all, in the midst of all this tragedy, I have been given hope that what we are doing here is truly work worth doing.

Missiologist in the Making

It’s been two weeks since my last post. I’ve been sick four times now, twice requiring antibiotics, but no malaria, so that’s good. I accidentally joined the women’s volleyball team, which has been a fun way to spend afternoons, but going for tournaments on the weekends has caused some all-nighters I wasn’t planning. I did well on our first Arabic quiz, which felt really good for all of the work I’ve put into that class. We have another quiz next week and I should be writing my third seminar paper and preparing to lead a round table discussion on the differences between mainstream Islam and fundamentalism. Instead I’m writing an update to you all. There aren’t any pictures, but LOTS of fun links to learn more!

I mentioned in a previous post that I think I might just become a missiologist. The paper I should be writing right now is for my missiology class.

“What is missiology?”

Missiology is the study, historically, theologically and contextually of the mission of the church. Missiologists seek to understand and improve practical mission strategies.

“Aren’t all Christians missiologists, then?” 

I wish they were, just like I wish all Christians were theologians. Many Christians don’t think that formal study should be involved in faith. But just as many are involved in the study and practice of missions; they just don’t always use the formal term.

Missiology in modern day is a branch of practical theology that asks questions that place it in the crux between several disciplines; Why do we do missions (theology), Who is involved in missions (anthropology and sociology), What structures are used for mission (nonprofit management, church administration), How do we do mission better (ethics, pastoral care, law, public policy, economics, development, international relations, psychology, public health, etc). David Bosch, a well-known South African missiologist, described the field as such:

“Missiology acts as a gadfly in the house of theology, creating unrest and resisting complacency, opposing every ecclesiastical impulse to self-preservation, every desire to stay what we are, every inclination to provincialism and parochialism, every fragmentation of humanity into regional or ideological blocs, every exploitation of some sectors of humanity by the powerful, every religious, ideological, or cultural imperialism, and every exultation of self sufficiency of the individual over other people or over other parts of creation.”

This fits in very well with my common answer to “Why are you in seminary?”

Because I’m a rebel.

Over the last year, I’ve lost sight a little bit of why seminary was the right place for me. As I’ve gotten deeper into the path of ordination, I’ve calmed my inner restlessness at the idea of working in a local parish. I know that being an elder is important, and so I expect to serve the church in the traditional role of pastor for some time in my early career. I worked very hard to restructure my thinking; the local parish is not a sign of defeat. I have grand ideas of working at the UN Church Building or for the World Council of Churches. But the reality of serving a mostly white, aging, suburban congregation being my future, at least for several years after seminary, had to be place on my radar to cool my ambitions. And I will go, and I will serve whatever church I am placed in. I will serve earnestly and devotedly. It would be plain ignorance to think that I could help direct the goals of the global church without being in community and relationship with the Christians that comprise it. But the discovery of this field of missiology is so clearly in my path, it’s hard not to want to jump right into a PhD or head to the Bossey Institute for another masters.

The prompt for the paper I am writing is to critically assess two of the six “constants” of mission according to Stephen Bevans:

1) Witness and proclamation

2) Liturgy, prayer and contemplation

3) Justice, peace and integrity of creation

4) Interreligious dialogue

5) Inculturation

6) Reconciliation

Honestly, it’s hard to focus on just two. My brain is pinging away, making connections about the importance of a holistic approach toward mission, especially in the post-modern world we live in. My immediate reaction was to write on three and four, sense since my focus at Candler is in Justice, Peace and Conflict Transformation and I’m here to study Muslim-Christian Relations. But instead I’ve decided to stretch myself.

Through the last two rounds of papers my cohort has written and presented, I realize how Western my world view really is. I consider myself to be a culturally aware person, not culturally competent (I know enough to know there’s a lot I don’t know), but I had thought I had become fairly adept at cross-cultural dialogue. But as I presented a paper on the history of Islam in the United States, I saw how deep my bias is. It wasn’t until after I had heard the rest of the cohort’s presentations that I realized I had written the paper with the assumption that the reader would understand certain American historical and cultural allusions, which of course, my African colleagues did not. It made the presentation a bit of a stumbling mess as I tried to fill in the gaps. I had found out I knew even less of what I already knew I didn’t know.

I’m writing my paper for Missiology on one and five, Witness and Proclamation, and Inculturation. Witness and proclamation in Kenya is an unabashed part of church life. Every church service I’ve been to allows for an open time of testimony, where anyone can come up to the mike and speak to God’s work in their life. Each time someone introduces themselves in a public setting they begin with “Praise God” or say “I’m so-and-so and I’m saved/born again.” If someone in the US introduced themselves that way, I would have rolled my eyes and mentally discredited everything that followed. But I wouldn’t be able to take seriously any Christian I’ve met in Kenya if I still reacted that way. I’m going to take this opportunity to explore my own bias and resistance toward witness and proclamation.

Inculturation is obviously a pertinent topic as well. I spent the last year trying to help refugees learn and navigate American culture. Now I’m trying to read into and understand culture here. There are only a handful of people I trust to have conversations deeper than the weather report with, because I know they will be patient enough to clear up any cultural mistranslations. (Check out this great blog post about Cultural Humility) And even with those friends I haven’t yet begun to discuss topics of faith or theology beyond answering questions about what I am currently studying. On more than one occasion someone has asked me how I can live in a country as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, with “all of that homosexuality”. Trying to explain separation of church and state lead to such confusion I didn’t even try to explain liberal Biblical hermeneutics. But you don’t have to travel outside the States to face the question of how we claim to be one body as the church when we have so many different and conflicting theologies. Crossing cultural borders changes even further complicates the crossing of those theological divides.

The good news is that the students here are facing many of the same questions and challenges we are. How do we reconcile interdenominational disputes? How do we help the church grow? How can the church be a force for change? How can we as clergy and church leaders hold our government officials accountable to ethical standards? How do we interact with our Muslim brothers and sisters or deal with family members that don’t accept Christ? How do we feed the hungry and care for the orphan and protect the widow? Because ultimately, the Missio Dei (mission of God) is about sharing unbridled love and reducing all pain, suffering, evil and inequity in this world.

Though I may have difficulty expressing myself here and now, my eyes, heart and spirit are being widened. It only makes sense that a field meant to unsettle and challenge the work of the church is introduced to me in a place where I am currently, personally, unsettled and challenged. Despite the current discomfort, I could not be more excited to see where else this new focus will take me.

Peace and Blessings,




For my birthday I just wanted something simple, a trip to the local shopping mall to get a slice of pizza and some frozen yogurt. A simple slice of home. Instead, I got a lockdown.

I wasn’t at Westgate. Village Market is another western style mall I mentioned in a previous post, that’s where I was planning to head to celebrate 24 (which feels exponentially older than 23). I’ve never been to Westgate, but a friend of mine went there the week before the attack and bought me a shirt that says “Mzungu” across the front. I’m not sure how I would have reacted had the mall been Village Market instead. It is located along the only major road between me and the US Embassy.

I had been in Naivasha all day on the 21st, visiting a recovery organization for commercial sex workers. That night, before I headed to a birthday party of a friend, I checked my Facebook. There were a few messages waiting for me from concerned friends. Then I checked my email. It was FULL of security alerts.

To be clear, I get security alerts every day. They come in a list of all major events across the continent of Africa. Usually I skim through, read in detail anything about Kenya, and delete the email. This time it was ALL about Kenya, including messages directly from the Embassy.

I was shaken, more than the other international students I was with. They convinced me that al-Shabaab had no reason to be in Kibuku or Limuru, so I went to the party. I asked if I should go back and get my passport since we were going outside the gates of campus. One friend said jokingly, “Your skin is your passport. Stop worrying.” I called my mom that night so she would know for sure I was safe.

The next morning, the situation was still going on. I ate breakfast alone, watching the news coverage.

Here’s a definite difference between the US and Kenya. I imagine the coverage in the US showed violent images of victims, crowds fleeing the mall and police officers with machine guns (which they all carry, not just “special forces”). In Kenya the coverage on day two of the attacks consisted of a video feed showing the street outside the mall, a list of phone numbers people could call for information about family members, a death count and in the lower right hand corner, gospel music videos. Mind, every Sunday morning they play gospel music videos, but not even a terrorist attack would interrupt the vigor of this country’s Sabbath day. Bet al-Shabaab loved that.

The Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation, was highly criticized and fired an editor for use of a violent image as the Sunday front page. Kenya was in mourning, but it would not sensationalize the grief. As Buzzfeed pointed out, the New York Daily News ran the same image with no criticism whatsoever.

The emails from the embassy kept coming. Stay in your houses. Don’t move unnecessarily. Avoid “soft” targets like tourist attractions, transport hubs and shopping malls. Don’t use public transport. Stop calling the Embassy unless it’s truly an emergency. I spent my birthday on lock down, too nervous to even venture out for a queen cake at the bakery across the road until this situation was resolved.

A week before I had told a classroom of 8th grade students about the peaceful origins of Islam, the common misunderstandings of jihad, the specific contexts of Muslim warfare. ”Kenya is a perfectly safe place to be studying Islam,” I’d told them. I’m beginning to wonder if putting my foot in my mouth is one of my spiritual gifts.

But everything about the attack was uncharacteristic for attacks in Kenya. It was in the heart Nairobi, not in a primarily Muslim neighborhood, not near a border, not on the coast. It wasn’t a fully Western target, not an embassy, not a hotel. Most of the victims are Kenyan. This time, Kenya was the target. And there was a WOMAN in some kind of leadership role. The more I learned, the more concerned I became. It feels as if the game has changed.

Monday morning the hostage situation continued. What I couldn’t understand was why it was taking so long to end this. Terrorists do not go into these things planning to come out alive. So why haven’t they just blown it up yet? And how long does it take to get MI6 or the Navy Seals out here to end this thing? Israeli special forces arrived, to answer that question for me. There was so much uncertainty on details and reports, I eventually just stopped following the news asked at meals if it was over yet.

We spent Monday in class debriefing how we felt. Confused. Frustrated. Confirmed in the importance of our work in Christian-Muslim Relations. We each recounted the stories of friends and family calling to make sure we were safe. Four out of six in my cohort are international students. My colleague from Nigeria lamented that this is how he felt every week, not sure if the grenade would fly through the chapel window this service or next. Emotionally, I felt very much the same as hearing reports of mass shootings in the US, but I clearly vocalized my determination that we not allow all of Islam to be grouped in with these maniacs.

We took a break for chapel. The preacher stated during his sermon the absolutely WRONG thing. “This is a Holy War. They are going to try to convince you that it is not, but these attacks are because of Islam.” I almost stood up in my chair and vocally protested. Islamophobia is the LAST thing this country needs, and certainly the last thing frightened Christian students need to be hearing. A decade of watching Islamaphobia play out in my own country and learning about the century of Muslim-American tensions that further fueled it is exactly why I am here. The struggle of convincing American congregations that by supporting Muslim refugees, they are not harboring terrorists. Extremism and greed sent our troops to “the sandbox”, not hijabs and Ramadan. The preacher’s statement had been ignorant, and I am here to help battle this specific ignorance that has led to many hateful and violent actions in my own country.

My classmate from Mombassa was equally as enraged at the remark. Our lecturer encouraged us to open up a dialogue. Thursday afternoons are reserved for public lectures, so we are planning an evening to straighten out all of the questions that students have about Islam, terrorism and al-Shabaab. We are hoping to have a Muslim scholar from the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh come as well. It feels good to know that we can do something real, even if it’s just here on campus.

But the situation is far from over. The State Department has issued a new travel advisory for Kenya. The places I had hoped to visit to interact with the Muslim community are marked as off limits. Someone mentioned I might want to avoid town for a while as I “slightly resemble that mzungu terrorist.”


My closest friend was scared to take me into town, so I’ve spent the weekend in my room marathoning tv series (you can get them bootleg for 50 ksh a disc) and haphazardly prepping for a paper on the history and influence of Islam in America. Two weekends in a row I’ve felt completely unproductive.

I was just beginning to work up the courage to make short trips alone, but that confidence has been obliterated by everyone else’s fear. Not to say I’m not afraid myself, though not any more than I ever was walking home alone in South Central LA. But until things calm down, I’m stuck here on campus. Feeling a bit frustrated that I’ve come thousands of miles to see the same 20 acres.

I’m beginning to question my choice to be here alone. I am not afraid of being in dangerous places. I am not afraid of correcting misinformation, fighting misconceptions and forcing people into uncomfortable situations of honest conversation. But it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to do it without an anchor. At least on that walk home in LA, my roommate would do something if I never made it home. But I go days here without anyone checking in on me. The campus empties out on the weekends and now even my friends here are a little scared that being with me creates a greater risk of violence, retaliatory or otherwise. There are already buzzing rumors that the whole thing was a hoax to strengthen Kenya’s relations with the West. I’m simultaneously the aggressor and the victim, depending on who’s looking at me. I can handle awkward or even scary situations, but the isolation I’ve been forced into by these events has been the most frightening thing of all.

The night before I left, a new friend sent me the note to check out Joshua 1:9,

“This is my command- be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

An excellent verse, I have no doubt God has been present with me through every moment of this experience. But His main mode of communication requires me to be introspective and contemplative, and there is only so much quiet time and meditation this extrovert can stand. Here’s praying for someone to be courageous enough to take me on an adventure soon, or even just to Nakumatt to restock my coffee and cookie supply. And please continue to pray for Kenya to be united as they start the difficult process of healing and reconciliation.

Peace and Blessings,



I’ve had some difficulty getting my course schedule worked out here. Although let me explain some terms for you all that probably added to my confusion in this process.

Course is used to refer to your course of study, equivalent to a program or major in the States. My course is ICMR (Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations), which is a post graduate degree under the department of theology. But considering I am not actually (currently) pursuing a Masters in Christian-Muslim relations but am taking this course as a supplement to my MDiv at Candler, I didn’t know if a whole semester of studying Islam was a good idea. Not because I’m not interested in doing that (trust me, I am) but because I have all of these pesky requirements I need to check off to graduate from Emory before my scholarship runs out and satisfy the UMC ordination requirements.

I tried to figure out if I could take a unit or two in some kind of Christian theology. This is still a little wishy-washy, but I believe units are the individual subjects you enroll in. Most undergraduates take 7 units. This means they are taking 7 different class subjects, sitting in each for 2 or 3 hours a week.  The ICMR takes 5 units, 4 for credit and 1 (Research Methodology) that you have to sit for and take an exam but receive no credit. I figured I wouldn’t take the not-for-credit class and perhaps drop one of the other units to pick up a Christian theology class. I looked at my schedule.

Except it’s not a schedule. It’s called a time table. Each course has its own time table, completely independent from every other course. You tell the registrar what year you are and what course, they print out a slip of paper with the units you’re taking on it. Cross enrollment between courses, I found, is very difficult because of this set up. But looking at my ICMR time table, I could drop Qur’anic Studies because it was in a nice block Tuesday morning and go find another course that would fit there. Or so I thought.


Are you confused yet?

First I tried to ask for the time table for theology. The postgrad registrar told me Master of Theology was only being offered in the Nairobi campus, so I’d have to go into town. THAT was not happening, so I spoke to the head of postgrad studies (who studied for a year at Candler under Carol Newsome) and he was kind enough to explain to me that a Bachelor of Divinity (BD) in Africa is equivalent to the Master of Divinity in the States.  I’m not quite sure how this works out for the United Methodist Church in Africa, since ordination requires a master’s degree, so I’ll have to look into that more another time. ANYWAY, we had a nice chat and he was even kind enough to print out the BD time table for me.

Score! Missiology was being offered on Tuesday mornings! I would be able to get a unique view of missions from the global south, usually seen as the recipient of mission rather than the missionaries, AND knock out a credit toward ordination. The Candler Registrar said a-OK to everything and I was good to go!

Except NOT.

The problem with each course having an independent time table is that professors don’t have to go through anyone but their Head of Department (HOD) and other professors to approve changing classes. Students don’t have a say in the matter. We’re just supposed to show up when told. Professor 1 wanted to change his class for one of the blocks on my precious empty Tuesday, getting in the way of me taking missiology. The HOD told ME that he’d told Professor 1 no to that change. Professor 1 told me Monday morning the HOD had told him yes. Then Professor 2 (who teaches missiology as well as a course in ICMR) told me he wasn’t exactly sure when his missiology class was, but it might move, allowing me to stay in both classses. The HOD confirmed this was true. Then the HOD and Professor 2 both left the country for over a week.

Trying to get help from the secretaries to confirm the changes, I couldn’t get them past trying to explain that I was attempting to simultaneously enrolling in two different courses. Mind you, all changes to the time tables are posted on various bulletin boards across campus (without the room numbers- you literally just check all the lecture halls til you find the right class), except for ICMR which is only announced in class. Apparently one change had been announced in a class I wasn’t sitting in that week. Another professor I’d never met approached me and tried to get me to explain what I wanted. She promptly told me (very kindly) that what I’d been told changed simply wasn’t possible.

This is where my friend Carrilea would sigh and say, “TIA.” This Is Africa.

To add to that, courses were supposed to begin Monday, September 2nd. I was told by a school official they wouldn’t start til Wednesday, September 4th. Turns out my program started on the 2nd (glad I had the forethought to at least check my classroom that morning), returning students came on the 4th, but in reality, no one (including the professors) except for my course (although we were 2 professors down as well) began class until the following Monday, September 9th.



Things are always done in the most logical way possible, as shown by this local Kibuku traffic jam.

ALSO, I find out from back home that one set of paperwork I filled out for ordination that takes three to six months to process and made sure to turn in before I left (along with a hefty check for processing fees) was actually step one and there was a whole other slew of paperwork I had to fill out before the three to six month processing actually started. Since I didn’t find this out until I was already in Kenya, that’s pushing me back at least another three months into the spring. Again, I question how anyone here gets ordained when practical logistics seem to be an afterthought both in the culture and in the process of ordination.

So in all of this hulabaloo, I’ve been told six different things by five different people and I’m just praying that someone is going to tell me in the morning that they’ve put in a request to have a time turner pulled for me from the Ministry. The whole thing really had me in knots. Adding in the ordination hiccup, I was completely questioning whether coming here was a terrible professional choice as far as the short term goals of finishing seminary, being ordained and getting a job is concerned.

What would the BOD (Board of Ordained Ministry) think of me studying another religion for a whole semester of my seminary training?

How much would this set me back, or at least seriously constrain my course options back at Candler?

Do I even want to be ordained in the Christian church at all or do I want to work for interfaith and intergovernmental human rights organizations?

Why is there coffee growing on the side of the road and I can’t find it in a cup? Unrelated to my vocational crisis but equally as frustrating, disorienting and illogical.


It’s here. On the tree. Across from Kate’s house. GET IN MY MUG!

I emailed a whole bunch of people. I sat stressing over a situation I could not change without being the annoying and needy American student who wanted special privileges. Worst case scenario I have to take summer school or an extra semester at Candler and push back ordination anyway. Can I live with that?

I knew I needed to spend some one on one time with the big man. Despite my default to seek approval and guidance from other people, I’m old enough now to realize that He’s the only one who can really help me make life decisions definitively.  So I packed my Bible and set off to find a quiet spot.

Next door to campus is a Christian conference center called Jumuia (community). They have pretty cottages, tennis courts and a nice restaurant for visitors of the university. It’s very Karen Blixen. They also, coincidentally have an old but still intact playground.


Can’t you see her, sitting on that swing, penning her novels?

I tend to break down situations so much during stress that I can’t make decisions or act. My mom calls it analysis paralysis. Anyone who knows me will tell you that when I get stressed out, I do the most childlike thing I can find to de-stress. I learned in college that coloring books were a way to pull myself out of it. The whole wall of my freshman year dorm was covered floor to ceiling with my roommates and my art work.  We added watching Disney movies to that process. When I got a car it became trips to the beach to dig a hole in the sand or just bury my toes. I also enjoy going to the zoo, playing ski ball or cuddling with a puppy.

The process of focusing on something really mundane, but tactile and visual is a sort of mediation. The childhood primer specifically removes me to that state of being unconcerned by the problems of the world. Add to that the sensory stimulation and you have found my recipe for a clear mind.


Sweet stress relief.

I sat on the swing. Flying sometimes. Drifting side to side for a while. Thumbing through my Bible. I went back to find the verses later and couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d found to read that gave me some clarity. Swinging again, feet pumping up and down. I probably sat on that swing for a good  hour and a half. Until I came to the conclusion, as usual, that I was probably supposed to give up control and let my type-A personality be ok with whatever God (and my professors) worked out for me.

The next day they returned our time table to the original order, allowing me to keep all of the units I had originally chosen. I went to my first missiology class this week (during which the professor could only come for only one out of three hours). After just one class, I have a feeling I might just want to be a Missiologist… but more on that later. I’m just glad to finally have a set schedule… err… time table.

Peace and Blessings,


Servants of God AND Humanity: A call to Christian action

I have a post in the works about the last week of discerment, time table mix ups and skyping with awesome 8th graders. But on Sunday night when I usually write my posts, I was asked last minute to preach in Chapel for Tuesday (today) representing the International Student Community. So I set to writing this instead and delivered it today to quite positive reviews. A Muslim student from Tanzania said it moved her to want to come to chapel more often and the president of the Student Association asked for a copy. I’m just glad it came out as coherent. 

James 2:14-18

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing and you say, “Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”- but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing, what good does that do you?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

I’ve chosen to preach on James today because I believe it to be a book of action. The traditional summary of the book is “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). And in the last month, I have found St. Paul’s to be a place that is designed to balance faith and works. The mission statement of the University, “To serve God and humanity,” is very clear about this design. Especially with the bass note emphasis of “AND HUMANITY” in the school anthem, how could anyone ignore that part?

As faith without works is dead, service to God without the intention of affecting, or at the very least interacting with humanity, is an empty goal. As God came to earth in the human form of Christ to prove His love toward us, so too He designed mankind to be the instruments of His continued works of righteousness, mercy and justice on earth. WE, each one of us, is intended to be an agent of God to act within and for humanity.

I apologize if I’m getting too Christological. I have the infection of postgraduate theology and sometimes it’s hard to avoid using the big vocab words. In short, because God became human, His work continues to be done by humans.

 As Gary Haugen, the Founder of the International Justice Mission, said (paraphrased), WE are God’s plan A for the work of justice and mercy in this world.

I’d like to explore for a moment those two specific categories; Justice and Mercy. And to illustrate the two concepts, I’d like to share a story inspired by writings of the Mennonite scholar and preacher, John Paul Lederach.

Mother Mercy was standing by a river when she heard an unusual splash. She looked up to see a baby, floating in a basket. She waded out to the middle of the river and pulled the baby back in. As she climbed up onto the riverbank, she heard a cry. Another baby was floating round the rocks down the river. She waded out again and retrieved him. Halfway back to the bank, she saw another basket coming along. She called out to the fishermen for help. They called for people from the town. In a human chain, they caught the babies as they emerged from around the bend. The community formed a human chain to rescue the children from the rapids.

Brother Justice came upon the strange scene. Immediately he began running up the hill that lead to the other side of the river’s bend, away from the rescue mission.

Mother Mercy cried out, “Brother Justice!  Where are you going! We need your help!”

 “I am helping!” Brother Justice cried back,

“I’m going to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Mercy is the action that answers the call of the needy. Mercy delivers food to the hungry, shelter and clothing to the cold and compassion to the suffering.

Justice dares to ask why these people are suffer in the first place, and seeks to stop the cause at the source.

As Christians, we practice often acts of Mercy. Food drives, hospital visits, volunteering at orphanages.  Kenyans, with the practice of Harambee, are far better at it than any community I have yet had the privledge to be in. I have watched already, in just a month, how seriously Kenyans take the communal bearing of burdens. It’s inspiring, and I intend to share it with many when I return home.

But as educated people of the church, here at St. Paul’s, we have been delivered the blessing to be able to understand the complex answers that come when we dare to ask, why are the babies in the river? And we’ve been given the resources to act.

When a bus rolls off the road, the BAC (Bachelor of Arts in Communication) students can craft an exposé on the bribery that allows old and overloaded vehicles to remain on the streets.

As scammers attempt to break into customer information in the bank, the BBIT (Bachelors of Business in Information Technology) students reconfigure the security system that keeps them out.

When rising costs threaten lay-offs at the company, the ingenuity of our BBA (Bachelors of Business Administration) students creates a new profit driving concept to keep them employed.

As children die unnecessarily of water borne illness, the community development students help install rain collection and purification systems and teach parents about sanitation.

When society struggles “to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God”, the students of Divinity prepare ourselves to offer encouragement along the journey, keeping the end in sight when others might have lost hope.

We have the staff and faculty to thank for fighting hard to create a safe and challenging environment in which we build these skills. They especially play a delicate balancing act of Mercy and Justice. Though they plead with and warn university students about the dangers of wandering into morally ambiguous territory outside the gates of this institution, they allow us to make our own mistakes and apply mercy or justice as appropriate after we have chosen to act, to be frank, quite stupidly.

Whatever vocation you find yourself in, when we choose to use our gifts with humanity in mind, instead of focusing solely on personal benefit, we are in fact acting on behalf of God. When we choose to ACT in ways that are Merciful and Just, we do so with the power of the Holy Spirit behind us. And as we challenge injustice, oppression, corruption and discrimination, we cause people to wonder, who are these Christians? What gives them such courage to challenge the status quo? Such compassion to give of themselves?

 Our faith compels us, our deeds further confirm us. And by being servants of God AND humanity, we grow deeper in that faith, and are given the opportunity to spread the joy of salvation provided by the sacrificial ACTION of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to all we may encounter.

May the security of His grace and unending love give you courage and go with you always.

Praise be to God. Amen.

The M Word

Mzungu= white.

After Jambo (Hello) and Hakuna Matata (YOLO), it was the first real Kiswahili phrase I learned before coming to Kenya.

It’s not a derogatory term, for the most part. Just a physical characteristic. It brings images of fat tourists, dignified diplomats or do-good aid workers. Annoying in their ways, perhaps, but endearing or at the very least amusing.


A US Navy officer interviews a Kenyan man. (Source| Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard it used in context, I was at a shop across the street from school. A small child, maybe four, wearing an orange GAP hoodie came running up behind me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” he shouted, finger outstretched and eyes wide. His older sister grabbed his shoulder, embarrassment across her face. I smiled, waved and said hello. He blinked his doe eyes in astonishment as he lowered his finger and bit his lower lip.

My friend Kate giggled and looked at me sideways as she asked me if I understood him. I said of course. After I had provided dinner entertainment the night before by way of butchering every Kiswahili phrase Kate patiently taught me, I think she was surprised I knew that one. I was more surprised that it had taken five days to hear it. Kate told me, “I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.” I took that as a grand statement of friendship.

As Kate and I rode in a matatu toward her home town for the weekend, a tour bus passed us, the faces of its passengers hidden behind clicking camera lenses. Kate gently tapped me, pointed, and whispered, “Mzungu bus.” We giggled.


(Source| Wikimedia Commons)

Then it became a game. Like Where’s Waldo. I coined it Spot the Mzungu (STM). 

It’s part fun, part reflex. To see a pale face is such a shock, I found myself pointing them out, in some sort of unreciprocated commiseration. I see you. Obviously. I think my friends at first did it to make me feel less isolated. But now it’s become a fun joke we share.

Village Market, a mall 20 minutes down Limuru road is filled with mzungus. It is one of the best shopping malls in Kenya and is surrounded by foreign consulates. Kate took me there to get my Kenyan phone and I’d run into a friend from the states as we were exiting. All the mzungus be at ViMa. We decided STM would be off limits there, as we’d be muttering the m word so often we wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation.


Posh Village Market at night (

Today we went into Nairobi for the afternoon. The city is chaotic, the roads and sidewalks constantly full. We’d run into a bunch of people Grace knew. One young man sat down with us for a while. I’ve gotten very used to sitting in silence as my friends jabber in Shang (Swahili slang) and Kikuyu, waiting until everyone is laughing before I ask for a translation. The young man who’d sat down muttered mzungu enough times, I finally interrupted him and said, “My name is Blair, as it sounds like you’ve forgotten,” as I outstretched my hand. Kate, Grace and Fatma burst into laughter as the young man shook my hand apologetically.

We walked back through the streets of Nairobi to the central depot of busses and matatus. I should say dodged and weaved our way back, as navigating the city is quite similar to one giant game of frogger. Crossing one street I went in front of a truck as Grace and Kate curled around behind it. As I jumped up onto the curb alone, with a sigh of relief at making it to the final lily pad, a man stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “MZUNGU!” as if a giant polar bear had just unexpectedly emerged from the flow of traffic rather than a frazzled young woman. I’d been caught as the prize in someone else’s game of STM.

But that is one of the reasons I chose to study in Kenya over Stockholm or Scotland. I wanted that experience of being the minority. The first day I was on campus, I sat alone next to a lecture hall soaking up wifi. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was doing. He grilled me as to my student status, my course of study, my country of origin, my language limitations and my date of departure. I answered his questions with a smile, and he finally walked away, satisfied that I did in fact belong. So that’s what it feels like to be profiled.

Except he didn’t ask to see my identification. Place his hand on his pistol. Demand to search my bag or frisk me. It was a mild encounter, but still a moment of realization.

Kenya imports from America hip hop culture along with second hand clothes. The undergrads throw around the n word in greeting, in passing, in casual conversation. Yo what’s up my n****r?!? 

In one particularly rowdy post dinner hang out, I finally admitted how uncomfortable it was making me. They didn’t seem to understand. My friend Charles, a native Kenyan, recently returned from spending most of his life in Evanston, explained that using the N\n word could land you in jail in the States.

Yes, if the wrong person heard it. Yes, even if it was just between blacks. No, we’re not joking.

I tried to paint a picture. Imagine if every time someone called me mzungu, it meant that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t just a description, black or white. It implied that I was dirty, diseased, lower, unwanted. To call me mzungu meant that there was something deeply and irreversibly wrong about me.

“That’s what the n word is like in America. And I would never call any of you that. Not even as a joke. Not even if you told me it was ok. Never.”

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

The only time I’d felt truly out of place was when we went up to Limuru Town. St. Paul’s is situated about 5km south of Limuru proper, in a neighborhood known as Kibuku. We decided to go up the hill and have a look around. As I stepped out into the main market, I could feel something different. We were far from Nairobi now, the cosmopolitan city. Away from Village Market with its Italian Bistros and international shopping. Beyond the guarded gates of the University. It felt as if everyone we passed was calling out, “MZUNGU!” But the fun pointing and giggling was absent. Only eyes tracking me. Children and beggars holding their hands out with expectancy. Shop keepers startled as I walked by.


The shops in Limuru Town (Source|

But I didn’t feel unsafe. Just slightly unwanted. Since Limuru was not in need of help, I might be there to harm, or at the very least disrupt, the flow of this rural town. They were fearful eyes that tracked me. A town with a famed country club. A stop on the Ugandan Railway. Colonialism had made impressions on this town in a way that my teenaged colleagues could not grasp. They had not lived in that time of oppression.

The way I could not grasp the use of the n word as anything less than hateful. Because we still live in a time of oppression.

I am thankful that I was made aware in my life of my white privilege. And now I have been made aware of the breadth of its influence. No matter how far I go, I cannot escape it.

But I can hope, by the power of God, to transform it. Beginning with the relationships I form here.

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

Peace and Blessings, 


Sawa Sawa in Limuru

I have been in Africa for seven days. If I tried to explain every emotion I’d gone through, this post would be seven days long. I am still at a level of overwhelmed that I’m not yet able to process everything I’ve seen and done. Here’s a short list:

Woke up to the cry of a rooster

Been into Nairobi on a Matatu

Ran into an old friend at a shopping mall

Broke down in tears trying to buy toilet paper

Watched monkeys steal from the lunch hall

Began to learn Kiswahili and a little Kikuyu

Picked coffee, and had people laugh at my excitement over it

Witnessed the roadside bribe of a policeman

Eaten cow intestine

Hand washed laundry in a bucket

Been to a Kenyan church service

and much, much more.

Above all, I’ve been blessed and astonished by the generosity, devotion and hope of the Kenyan people.

So rather than attempting to put all of that into a cohesive story, I’m going to give you a brief into to where I am, what I’m doing, and show you some pictures so you can get a better idea.

For the semester I’m studying at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. It’s an ecumenical Christian University about 30km outside Nairobi. I am studying primarily in the Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations Master’s program (ICMR) and will be taking one course (missiology) in the Bachelor of Divinity, which is equivalent to the MDiv I am pursuing back at Emory University. I am the only American on campus (so far). There are only five others in my course of study (all ordained ministers) from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Mombasa (Kenya). I am very excited to be in course with them, but due to age differences, I’ve found myself spending most of my time with the first year undergraduates I also went through orientation with. Tomorrow the old students arrive to “disorient” us, and classes begin Wednesday.

I’m living in a single room with a shared bathroom, in a cottage on the edge of campus. It is notoriously the coldest part of campus, though Limuru is the coldest part of Kenya. Last week the average temperature was 12 degrees centigrade (53 degrees Fahrenheit). There is one ATM, which was broken last week. I eat my meals in the dining hall and buy essentials from the shops and dealers across the road. I drink tea four times a day and had to ride into the city to buy a cell phone.

Below you will find pictures of my surroundings and happenings, to get an idea of my daily life here.

ImageThe chickens outside my dorm. The rooster actually wakes me up every morning!

ImageMy cottage is the one to the left. The laundry dries outside by the garden/crops and there are laundry lines all over campus.

ImageThere are three mischievous monkeys that wait around the dining hall for someone to turn from their plate.


The bathroom. Words can not really describe it. You have to carry your own toilet paper. They don’t keep it stocked in any of the restrooms. The toilet is called “choo” in Kiswahili. That white wire on the left leads up to a shower head that warms the water after you flip on a switch outside in the hall. Apparently no one else is worried about getting electrified besides me.


Doing my laundry!


My new friends Fatma, Grace and Kate. They have taken very good care of me and laugh uncontrollably every time I try to learn a new work in Kiswahilli.


The shops across the road. The white van on the right is a matatu, but a very nice one. The ones that transport people are well used.


Coffee beans! Picked from the tree across from Kate’s house!


With my ICMR classmates from Nigeria and Ghana. The building on the right is the main hall where chapel is held and behind that in the distance is the library.


A wise old tree that I sit under to get wi-fi!

 I should be posting again soon with something more cerebral, but I hope this will do to whet your appetite for more Limuru and assure you that I am safe, though stretched, and already having an incredible time.

Peace and Blessings,