Why do people suffer from the sins of others? Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi has long pondered this question as she has studied some of the most ambiguous and troubling passages in the Bible.
A master’s of theology student at Harvard Divinity School, Siwo-Okundi has never shied away from difficult issues. Even while studying Old Testament stories of rape, human sacrifice, and war, Siwo-Okundi has found inspiration and even comfort; she has turned her discoveries into eloquent sermons that have won her national attention.
The Kenya native, who will give the Divinity School’s Commencement address, is developing what she calls “orphan theology,” a spiritual practice that heeds the world’s “small voices.”
“I preach about these voices in the Bible that are never heard,” she said. “Those women who have been raped. Those persons who have been left aside. Those people who in many ways have been discarded.”
More telling, she has put her spiritual beliefs into practice by founding the non-profit group Orphan Wisdom Inc., which will assist orphan children with financial, educational, and medical support.
“I’ve always picked on what I consider the ‘small voice,’” said Siwo-Okundi, who will seek a doctorate of practical theology at Boston University after graduating Harvard. “As preachers we have a responsibility to preach those difficult texts that speak to people’s lived experience.”
Siwo-Okundi, the daughter of a university professor and a nurse, grew up in the small community of Kendu Bay, on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Her parents impressed her with the need to help others; her father would say, “If you’re well and your brother and sister are not, that is something that needs to be addressed.”
Siwo-Okundi came to the United States for her education and graduated with B.A. in Black Studies from Denison University in Ohio. She later earned a master’s of divinity degree (magna cum laude) and a graduate certificate in African Studies from Boston University. While at BU, she returned to Kenya during the summer of 2004 for service work in an orphanage near her hometown. Here, she felt she found her calling; she founded Orphan Wisdom on her return to the States.
When she came to Harvard, she began exploring the many references to “orphans” in the Bible. She also focused on issues of widows and women.
A sermon that she first preached in 2005 at Boston University and in November at the Andover Chapel has won first place in a contest held by the FaithTrust Institute, an international, multifaith organization. Based on 2 Samuel, Chapter 3, the sermon focuses on Tamar, the daughter of King David, who was raped by her brother, who then demanded that “this woman” be put out of his presence. Where, Siwo-Okundi asks, is God in “this” — that is, the treatment of a human being as an object to be used and discarded? “God is in the voice of the victim,” she concluded. The sermon will be published in the Journal of Religion and Abuse.
She has also reflected on the story of the warrior Jephthah in Judges 11: 29-31 who promises that if God grants him a great victory, he will sacrifice the first thing that he sees when he arrives home. However, it is his daughter who greets him singing with joy over his triumphs. Jephthah believes he must sacrifice her — but why, Siwo-Okundi asks, must the daughter suffer for his pledge? Why would God require that she answer for his rash vow? The harrowing story is “a reminder that this is the kind of thing people wrestle with.”
In her Commencement speech, “The Value of Theological Education,” Siwo-Okundi will consider the implications of studying religion in a time of upheaval and terrible violence, including in her native Kenya this year.
“People kind of wonder: ‘Do you guys sit around and talk about God?’ And it’s a valid question,” she said. “We do wonder: What’s the point of being here? There’s actually something going on in the world and I’m just sitting in this luxurious university going to these wine-and-cheese events and shaking hands with all these famous people. What is the value of being here beyond some grades at the end of the semester and hopefully a diploma?”
Siwo-Okundi hopes to do more than simply challenge graduates to go out and make a difference. Rather, she hopes to inspire them to determine: “This is how I will go out and make a difference.”