Blog

Seminarian from Uganda prepares for life of service

Richard-article-1

Richard Okello (M.Div. ‘24) traveled to Yonkers, NY this summer from his hometown of Gulu in Northern Uganda, to take the next step in his longstanding commitment to service in the Church - becoming a seminarian at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Richard’s family and community are eagerly awaiting his return upon his completion of the M.Div. program, and he has many ideas and hopes for his future ministry within the Holy Diocese of Gulu and Northern Uganda, a diocese under the Archdiocese of Kampala of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This student spotlight interview is dedicated to Richard and highlights his clear-eyed understanding of mission work and what it takes to grow a new Church community.

Richard, please tell us about your family and home country.

My parents are Roman Catholic, since during their time there was no single Orthodox church in Gulu, the Northern part of the country. My parents had six children and I am the third born child, out of four females and two male children of my parents.

I was born in 1988 and grew up when the war was ongoing in Northern Uganda between the Lord Resistance Army Rebel group and the government of Uganda, a war which was fought for approximately 20-25 years. The war inflicted much suffering and destruction on the people of Northern Uganda. There was no education for children, trauma, and economic breakdown. People have been confined in internally displaced person camps (IDP) and suffering from famine. The rebel group abducted many young children forcefully, turning them into child soldiers, and many young girls were forced to become wives of the rebel commanders, turning them into child mothers; in general, rape and sexual harassment were done to many women and the female victims of captivity by the rebels. Men died in the war or got killed for refusing to accept to fight for either the rebel or government army. I hope by your love and care towards these people, they will be, at one point, able to get healing and rehabilitation from all the unimaginable situations they have been going through due to the war.

I am married to Winnifred Ayaa, my wife. We are blessed with two children, a girl and a boy, Anastasia and Alexander, five and two years old, respectively. They are back in Uganda while I am here studying at St Vladimir’s Seminary for three years, God willing. I ask for your prayers for me and my family back home during this long period of being away from home.

Richard article 2

Please tell us about your personal journey into and within the Orthodox Church.

I converted from Roman Catholic to Orthodox in 2006 (16 years ago) at the age of 18, at St Basil Orthodox Church,  now the new Holy Diocese of Gulu and Northern Uganda. Later, I served the Orthodox Church as a youth organizer, holding a leadership role in the parish council representing the youth. More recently, I served as the chairperson of the organizing committee at St Basil church, a choir member, and teacher. I also worked with a mothers union in another sister parish, St Nectarios Orthodox Church, as a coordinator for their sewing (tailoring) project. We started this group activity for the women so that they can earn a living and support their children, as well as the orphans and widows of the prolonged war in Northern Uganda. They support many children who lost their parents and women who were either former child soldiers, former wives to the rebels, or child mothers due to rebel abduction.

My country has a largely Christian majority - 85% of the population. Roman Catholics have the greatest percent, followed by Protestants; Muslims are growing fast and Orthodox have the smallest component of 0.1%. Much work needs to be done for the Orthodox Church to grow in Uganda, especially in Northern Uganda where I come from, the city of Gulu.

What is your pre-seminary educational and professional background?

I am a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree in Arts Education and Humanities from Gulu University, where history was the major I specialized in, and I also studied Christian religious education. My studies have been possible with the help and support from generous American people who believe that every human being deserves the love of Christ through practical faith with action, through their extension of a helping hand in contributing to my tuition fees. During missionary visits, the people who came from America to Gulu left a footmark in Northern Uganda. Their contribution is facilitating the building of the Orthodox faith in Northern Uganda and the improvement of the human condition of living, especially through providing educational opportunities, not only to the Orthodox, but also to the most disadvantaged group of people in general, the people who sometimes have no hope in their lives: the needy, the orphans, widows, women, and the young boys and girls.

I am a professional teacher in general world history, African history, and European history. I taught for five years at Holy Archangel Michael Middle and High School, one of the schools built by International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and the St Nektarios Education Fund. Unfortunately, Covid-19 affected the school negatively; the school is open, but the number of students has not returned to pre-covid levels, so the teachers' salary is a problem - the school can not afford to pay the teachers.

Richard article 3

What is your current program of study at St Vladimir's?

 I am a first-year student, who started the M.Div. ordination track program at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in August 2022. Covid-19 disrupted my enrollment in 2020 and 2021, since borders were locked and the US Embassy closed, and no one was allowed to go for an interview appointment to get a US student visa.

I am so grateful, humble, and appreciative to St Vladimir’s Seminary administration, stakeholders, and benefactors for being the light and the voice of the voiceless people in Gulu, Northern Uganda, in particular through the scholarship St Vladimir’s Seminary gives to African students. This shows the true love and generous heart of the American people towards the Church and to the people of Africa. This initiative will revive the development of Orthodox faith in my country and in Africa as a whole.

What is your daily life like at St Vladimir's Seminary?

In my daily life at St Vladimir’s Seminary, I am experiencing the spiritual aspect that is developing me holistically into a prayerful person, through daily prayer and continuing to learn new spiritual life and growth.  I appreciate the treatment given to students at the Seminary by the professors during classes in a practical way and psychological support to new students in a new environment, new culture, from a totally different background - I, for one, am getting the necessary academic guidance and mentorship I need so much. Thank you to all my professors for your dedication, devotion, and commitment to your service to this seminary. We continue to strive for the Glory of the creator.

Richard-article-4

What are your future plans after graduating from SVOTS?

The future of the Orthodox Church in Gulu and all of Northern Uganda demands collective effort from all people of goodwill, and practical love of Christ from every person who feels touched by this call of transforming the world as the Bible says, that God may make it a better place to live in.

I hope to be teaching people to gain the truth about Orthodox faith, which is very essential for the Church, building a church where people can worship and assemble for spiritual growth, with the goal of continually expanding the Kingdom of God through orthodox faith, and showing a practical love of Christ to those who are touched by the unceasing love of Christ.

A continuing call for education of our people of all school-going ages shall be very instrumental for the Orthodox growth in Northern Uganda. Educational opportunities make the future of the Church come alive.

Seminary education for more students is crucially needed to meet the gap in the number of priests, lay leaders, administrators of the church, teachers, and theologians, to keep our faith alive and maintain its true glory.

I will also be organizing the community and identifying activities that can transform and develop them spiritually in faith, as well as developing social support activities and activities that support the community economically. I believe it is important to build self-esteem in others by recognizing God’s gift in individual people, gifts that must all be used to promote his Glory with both humility and confidence.

It is important to try to rebuild the lost hope in people's lives and to heal the trauma caused by the effects of the prolonged war in Northern Uganda.

Serving the people is at the center of my heart, and this basic conviction builds a good ground for the Orthodox faith. I hope to serve the people meaningfully by healing both soul and body through meeting both spiritual and bodily needs, which are all significant, and to have the ability, capability, and wisdom for able discernment of our Orthodox faith.

 Name Richard article 5

Another important priority will be working for  the unity of the Church, with a sense of mutual understanding of the diversity of our faith, but still serving the same Christ who loves every person regardless of their background. We will need to carefully identify the necessary initiatives, interventions, and projects. For example, conduct dialogues with the stakeholders and leaders of our Orthodox Church for a lasting conducive environment for the Orthodox faith in Uganda.  I will strive to always discern the Orthodox faith with beauty and respect for the diversity and status of the people, who, by our actions, we can bring to believe in the unending love of Christ. I want to extend His love to the people whom God will bring to me, so that they achieve their salvation.

 I look forward to the unity of the church and the united body of Christ. As Orthodox faithful we learn to live with new people joining our faith. I give big thanks to St Vladimir's Seminary for having a great mix of students here on campus, which shows a very healthy visionary leadership, aimed at uniting every Orthodox faithful.

I dream to have a seminary in Uganda cooperating with St Vladimir’s Seminary in many aspects of academics, theology, leadership, manpower development, human resource development, and management needed for the growth of the Church, a sustainable Church - able human capital for our Orthodox faith.

Richard-article-6

Other important missionary initiatives will be to create employment opportunities for the young, uneducated youth by putting up life-skill vocational training schools. This will minimize idleness, aim at reducing crime, help the street children, and build self-awareness among the youth. We will need to continue advocating for peace in Uganda among the people,  working to build a healthy community with love for one another within a stable church of Christ, to promote mutual co-existence between cultures that can live in peace and love.

One more important goal is to build a translation center for our Orthodox texts to the language which our people can understand, read, and write. This work will enable us to continue the work of reaching the people who may, by God’s grace, realize the true Orthodox faith.

Thank you once again to St Vladimir’s Seminary for shining light on the Orthodox faith; for aiming at bringing more mutual unity between different traditions within the Orthodox Church, by championing meaningful engagement; and for being role models in cultivating the spirit of faith with action, by training more seminarians who will forever serve the church, continuing the work of Christ in the realization of the salvation of the world.

Thank you again to the generous American people who care so much about the seminarians’ well-being at the Seminary, who care so much and support the various scholarship programs with the vision to bring more African students to study at this high-level seminary, to be transformed spiritually and return home to serve the people in Africa.

With much love of Christ, a Ugandan student,

RICHARD OKELLO