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‘It’s not about me. It’s about God’

Ph.D. student prepares for service in Kenya

Christine Ouko’s gentle voice grows soft when she recalls the survivors she counseled as a social work intern at a women’s hospital in Nairobi. When post-election violence rocked Kenya seven years ago, she listened to stories of abuse, longing to offer more than she was equipped for with only a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology.

“I had the counseling skills and could link them to resources, but there was still a gap in between. What next could I tell this person?” she asked about the patients in the hospital’s gender violence recovery center. Some of them were unspeakably young. “I realized there was a greater need than the physical — that I could not touch them spiritually and share with them the word of hope that is through God.”

Today, Ouko (pronounced oh-oo-koe) is a graduate student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. She earned her master’s degree in May 2015 and is now pursuing her Ph.D. in practical theology (theology and culture).

Her goal is to help her church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), train more deaconesses
in a country where challenges — HIV and AIDs, teen pregnancy, a lack of educational and economic opportunities — hit women especially hard. The ELCK is a partner church body of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

Christine Ouko, left, with the Maasai women of Kumpa Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya in Kajiado County, Central Diocese, after a Bible study in August 2015.
Christine Ouko, left, with the Maasai women of Kumpa Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya in Kajiado County, Central Diocese, after a Bible study in August 2015.

 

It’s a quest that also holds challenges for her as a wife and mother. Her husband and three children remain in Africa. She misses them terribly. But she is focusing on a larger calling.

“If I stayed with my family, I would not be helping these people and that’s what God really wants us to do,” Ouko said. “It’s not about me. It’s about God. It’s about Jesus.”

Fire of determination
Ouko didn’t know the meaning of “deaconess” when her husband, Richard, showed her the Facebook page for the LCMS.

“This is the kind of job you want to do,” Richard said, after he read an LCMS Facebook post about the Seminary’s
program in deaconess studies.

The program provides theological training for women to serve as professional church workers through spiritual care, mercy work and teaching the Christian faith.

At the time, Ouko was working at a women’s hospital and also volunteering at her Lutheran church in Nairobi, which had opened its doors to displaced Kenyans. Richard — who had grown up in the ELCK and whom Ouko calls her “pillar” — knew of his wife’s fervent desire to share Christ with the hurting souls who filled her days.

When Ouko asked Dr. Walter Obare, bishop of the ELCK, if he had heard of Concordia Seminary, his enthusiastic response also encouraged her to seek theological training. “That’s my school!” exclaimed Obare, who received his Master of Arts from the Seminary in 1997.

In 2013, Ouko arrived on campus and immediately booked appointments with her professors. She worried about her limited American-English vocabulary and knowledge of U.S. culture. But her instructors calmed her fears.

Dr. Gerhard Bode, the Seminary’s dean of advanced studies, said Ouko has managed well.

“She’s so dedicated to serving the Church and getting a good education,” said Bode, noting that Ouko completed her master’s degree in two years, an accomplishment that many students “would find a challenge — and she did
a very good job.”

Last summer Ouko returned to Kenya on Seminary break and helped teen mothers learn life skills to improve their employment prospects and care for their babies.

“This is how she spends her summer!” Bode said. “She’s modest and quiet, but once you get to talking to her, you can see her fire of determination.”
 
Appreciates sacrifices
Ouko said she was surprised when Obare told her that she’s the first woman in the ELCK to earn a master’s degree in deaconess studies. That was humbling, Ouko said, because being a first was never her goal.

Ouko-MercyMinisry2009
Christine Ouko, right, helps the children of the Kibera slums during a free medical camp in 2009 offered by a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod church. This picture was taken after the post-election violence in Kenya, which left many people in dire need of health care.

“It means that I can go back and do what I’m supposed to do,” said Ouko, who, through ELCK congregations, already has organized “Luther Ladies of Faith” — women who gather to share spiritually and explore opportunities
“to achieve economic independence to sustain their families.”

Her professors have no doubt Ouko will make a difference in the ELCK, a church body that she said at present has only about 50 deaconesses.

“She’s going to be a very good example for young people in Kenya of what they can accomplish through education,”
said Bode, who predicts Ouko will be “one of the most important people in the next generation of deaconesses” in the ELCK.

Dr. Gillian Bond, Concordia Seminary’s director of deaconess studies, said that Seminary training will better equip Ouko to address the challenges of Kenyan women, including those with HIV or AIDS, whose struggles are compounded by cultural ostracism.

“With her good biblical and theological grounding, as well as her knowledge of the situation, she can give needed spiritual care and also raise awareness and provide education to change attitudes,” Bond said.

Dr. Richard Marrs, the Seminary’s director of the Master of Divinity and Residential Alternate Route programs, notes Ouko’s “willingness to take on new challenges while being a mother and wife at long distance.

“She sees the benefit of the personal sacrifice now for her church body in Kenya in the long run,” he said.

Her professors call her self-sacrificing, but Ouko points to the sacrifices of others. “I know someone somewhere sacrificed for me being here, so I also need to sacrifice to help others,” she said, referring to donors who make possible her Seminary education, including her scholarship from the LCMS’ Global Seminary Initiative, which supports international students identified by their home churches as future leaders.

“You’re never blessed to be a blessing to yourself,” Ouko said. “You’re blessed to be a blessing to help others.”


Kim Plummer Krull is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.