Book Excerpt: ’Reluctant Pilgrim’ by Enuma Okoro

Reluctant Pilgrim is a memoir and the first book by Enuma Okoro. Okoro is a freelance writer, speaker, consultant and workshop leader. She is a former director of the Center for Theological Writing at Duke University Divinity School, from which she graduated.

The book will be released in September by Fresh Air Books of Nashville.

Reluctant Pilgrim is about one woman’s search for a rich rewarding life of faith and community, for a place where both her turbulent love of God and her passion for gorgeous shoes can be embraced.

The book is for those who have fallen out of love with the church mostly because they can’t find a church community that both embraces and challenges them. It is also for those who love the Triune God, but are not afraid to admit that they love the world in all its mess and fleshly desires.

The journey towards God is full of dips and curves and bends in the road and it’s not always pretty. Reluctant Pilgrim explores life and faith on various levels: how our childhoods impact our notions of God, how friendship is central to faith formation and life survival, the challenge of navigating our deepest desires and yearnings, the ways in which organized religion can fail those are spiritually hungry and, most significantly, how God’s grace and love trumps both faith’s and life’s roadblocks.

An excerpt of Chapter 15 from the memoir is below:

When I was in the fifth grade, my family moved to the Ivory Coast, and I walked into my new classroom at the International School sporting white shorts that should have been illegal and my favorite Michael Jackson tee shirt, the one with the picture from the Thriller album.

I was fresh off the boat from America, and what was a carefully calculated wardrobe choice to win me new friends made me my first enemy, Liya. Apparently she thought I thought I was too cool for school and my Michael Jackson paraphernalia proved it. I, on the other hand, envied her familiarity with the school and my new classmates and her command of the French language. I’ve since told her that jealousy is a poison we drink hoping that the other person will die. Luckily neither of us died, and I learned how to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches in her parents’ kitchen.

We became lifelong friends and spent the next years of junior high more or less inseparable. Then we went away to our respective boarding schools, ended up at different colleges in the States, and continued our adult lives in different countries.

Since finishing graduate school in international public health, Liya has lived in Costa Rica, England, Mali, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and now Johannesburg, South Africa. Yet our friendship has never skipped a beat. I have boxes of old letters from high school days —when e-mail was nonexistent — and even letters from many of those foreign countries.

Every now and then Liya and I meet up in New York and spend a few essential days together. Liya knew me before I knew that Jesus knew me. She doesn’t pretend to understand my faith or why I feel compelled to talk about God as though he really were my Best Friend Forever. She just accepts that that is me. But she doesn’t ask questions either, except for last summer when I was spewing off some sidewalk rage about people acting like the streets of New York were just an extension of their personal living space.

Then Liya asked me laughingly, “What kind of Christian are you?” She repeated her question a few nights later when I asked the bartender for my second caipirinha, a Brazilian drink made with rum, sugar, and lime. I told Liya I was an honest Christian and sucked the rum out of my complimentary sugar cane.

By honest, I mean that I can admit to myself, and to anyone who will listen, that I find it hard to be Christlike. I don’t feel the urge to break out my pom-poms in complex cheers over the words reconciliation, community, and self-denial. Not because I don’t want to be like Christ. I just really struggle with it. And every day of my life so far I am reminded that being a faithful Christian is a choice.

Sometimes striving for the kingdom is a choice I make willingly, and other times obedience is like pulling teeth. But acknowledging I have a problem has proven to be a good first step in solving most problems.

Of course I want to be perfect: to empty my purse at the feet of every homeless person I come across; to feel deep peace every time I agree to volunteer with a local mission project; to sit on the edge of my pew on Sunday mornings gratefully thinking there’s no place else I’d rather be. I want to be the first in line when the roll call comes for giving up all my possessions and living amongst the poor. But that wouldn’t be very honest of me, and I don’t think it would make me a genuine Christian.

I actually don’t know any real Christians like that anyway. I am still trying to figure out what would make me a genuine Christian. It’s not just about being good, but on some level don’t most of us kind of expect compensation for our good behavior? When we realize there is no security blanket from life’s trials, it shakes our world. What happens then? Faith becomes faith, and it’s another opportunity to trade in our agenda and expectations for God’s agenda and mystery.

I often wonder what the difference is between being a Christian and being a humanitarian. I should know the answer to this by now, and I do somewhat — the textbook answer. But how do the differences play out in daily life?

Maybe I need to figure this out in order to remind myself why church is important, or really essential, to my growth. I am still just trying to understand community and what makes the community of believers so different from a bunch of really good-hearted people. The distinction seems to be that in the church the focus is on God first, and second on who we are capable of being by God’s grace. And with non-Christian humanitarians the focus is on people (or llamas and lemurs or the rainforest or other worthy foci).

The church starts with God, and the Incarnation (God becoming human in the birth and life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth) keeps us focused on people and all creation in the long run because we are constantly reminded that God was once a human; God became a creature. And because we believe that everyone is made in the image of God, we strive to see God in everyone.

Every day is a call to serve and love Christ in the people we encounter. Our instinct as Christians is to love as we have been loved, which includes loving all of creation and being good stewards of the earth. But because we start with God and end with God, that sort of love allows room for hope beyond ourselves and our actions. And because we believe that the church, the gathered community of disciples wherever they are found, has been given the Holy Spirit, we also believe that the Incarnation of God continues to manifest itself in creation.

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  1. Anne Trudel said:

    Hi, Peter. Thanks so much for posting information about Enuma Okoro’s book, Reluctant Pilgrim! We think it’s a great book and would like to be sure that Enuma’s name is spelled correctly in your headline and tag. Would you mind making that correction? Thanks! Anne Trudel Marketing Department Fresh Air Books

    September 28, 2010
    Reply

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