Extended Interview with Enuma Okoro

Enuma Okoro grew up in four countries, including Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, and describes her religious education as "doses of Roman Catholicism washed down with long gulps of multiflavored Protestant theology." Perhaps because of this broad personal experience, Okoro has a down-to-earth, generous perspective on churches, worship, tradition, and the sometimes circuitous path to spiritual community. A former director of the Center for Theological Writing at Duke University, Okoro is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books) and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan). Sojourners editorial assistant Betsy Shirley spoke with Okoro in December.

Betsy Shirley: Tell me about one of your earliest experiences with liturgy that for better or worse really affected you.

Enuma Okoro: Being raised in the Catholic Church, I was aware that there were certain acts that happened in church on Sundays, and I was always sort of mystified by them. The practice I remember most was kneeling during certain times in the service. Going to a Catholic Church -- old school Catholic --we had the pews with kneeling pads. I remember every time I had to kneel, I'd look around and follow everyone else. I must have been seven years old, but I remember putting down the kneeling pad and really thinking how reverent that was, even as a child.

What is liturgical living?

I think for me… Living in a way that honors the pattern of what happens in church. So, living a way daily in which I allow room for praise and for prayer and for service, for offering, for receiving gifts. All those things that I can name that happen in a service on Sunday if I can get to the place where I naturally begin to translate that into how I live on a daily basis, that to me becomes liturgical living.

How does engaging the liturgy in church hold us accountable to bringing about a transformation?

It reminds us…every friggin' week. Through the repetition of liturgy, these practices become ingrained and embedded in us. Every week we come back and we say the same thing over and over again until it becomes such a part of us that it leads to liturgical living in some way or another. And we don't get to choose our words. We repeat the words that have been repeated for centuries and there's an understanding that it's not about us what we want, but what God is inviting us into and how we respond. And the hope and the prayer is that, eventually, the desires of our heart eventually match up with God's desires.

A number of Christian traditions, especially evangelicals, are sometimes scared or even suspicious of liturgy. What are one or two things liturgy can teach people who are unfamiliar with the practice?

If they practice it on a regular basis, they'll find that God shows up in the most surprising places…and in the most ordinary places. And that's not something that can be perceived right away. It's sort of like when you're growing in a relationship: there isn't necessarily one point where you stop and say, "Hold up, I just fell in love with you right now." It's more like you stop and you reflect and you look back and you think, "Wow, I think I'm really going to love this person." Instead, it's more the consistency of that person's character and personality and how they've been present to you that makes you think, "Huh, I think I'm starting to love this person," and I think the same thing happens with the liturgy. If you're seeking to be blessed through it and transformed by it, you have to be open to letting it meet you and envelop you. You have to be open to having that spirit be poured down on you.

Together with Shane Claiborne and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, you've co-authored Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Why did you want to create another liturgy?

We definitely weren't trying to change it, but wanted to make it more vibrant for especially our generation and younger folks. I feel like the more time goes on, we move away from these traditional ways of prayers because we see them as outdated. But how can they be outdated-- the church has been using them for centuries? Something's got to be working! (laughs)

How does liturgy help us articulate the biblical call to social justice?

I think if we're faithful in both creating and embracing the liturgy that it will include a call to social justice because that's what Christ is all about – that's what God is all about, right? So even reading scripture is part of liturgical services. We are reminded of God's call to care for the poor, visit the prisoners, Matthew 25 all over again, the feeding of the five thousand, the beatitudes, the healing, every time in scripture God brings the gospel there is always some sort of healing involved on some level. So God's words are always in combination with God's actions. And so that's one way, the liturgy just reminds us by taking us back to the example of Christ, and I think it also just reminds us, even in you know the other aspects of the liturgy, taking communion, that itself reminds us that we serve a God who's all about social justice, the incarnation is an act of social justice, I believe, that God you know, descended to our level for our salvation to give all of God's self freely to us because of God’s love, to bring healing, to nurture, to care, to mend. And I've actually never thought of it that way until right now, incarnation as an act of social justice, but it is. God choosing to reconcile the world to God's self in fullness and full healing in justice and equality and mercy.

What gives you hope?

The consistent challenge to live as though we would recognize the kingdom if it kicked us in the ass. And the flip side of that is remembering that thankfully, it's not up to us. So holding both those two things in tension. God's love for God's creation is broader and deeper than our imaginations can hold and ultimately, God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. And that gives me hope.

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"Extended Interview with Enuma Okoro"
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