Fr. John-Okoria Speaks on his New Leadership Role as Principal Hekima

An interview with the new Principal of Hekima College – Nairobi, April 20, 2017. The JESAM communications officer sat down with Rev. Dr. John-Okoria to get insight into his new role as Principal, having taken over from the JESAM President Fr. Orobator SJ.

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1. Thanks for agreeing to speak with me at such short notice. Please, begin by telling us a bit about yourself, nationality, education, publications, if any, or notable works and achievements as a Jesuit...

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: It's my pleasure to chat with you and so take my mind off so many issues at my desk. I think the most pertinent thing about me in my new role is that I am a graduate of Hekima College. I studied here about 17 years ago. Since then I have gone on to earn a Masters Degree in the Psychology of Religion at the University of London and then returned home to Nigeria for my ordination in 2003. I have done a couple of other studies, earning diplomas and certificates, but my last major field of studies was the PhD in Education...

2. Now talk about your publications...

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: In terms of publications, I would rather say that I take much pride in the articles I published in Hekima Review. One of them stands out in my mind, and it is titled Africa's Priest and Levite. I think it was published in 2000, before I became the editor of the Review.

3. What about recent publications?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: There are more recent publications of mine like A Constructivist Search for Knowledge and Truth, published in 2014 by the International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, as well as Toward an African Community-Based Research Methodology published by Sage in 2015. Out of my sheer love for the environment and inspired by Pope Francis' Laudato Si, I wrote a book titled THE DIALOGUE WITH NATURE, which was published last year by Author House UK.

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Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: You asked earlier about my "achievements" as a Jesuit; I think my greatest achievements would be those moments when I am able to bring happiness to someone in pain due to illness or poverty. Unfortunately there are too many people suffering, and we don't do enough for them.

4. Is that what motivated you to join the Jesuits, and when did you join the Society?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: I would say yes. As a young man, I was very passionate about social justice. I applied to join the Jesuits in 1988, but the Society said I was too young and idealistic. While preparing for my university matriculation examinations, I served the poor regularly with St. Vincent De Paul Society – which was the only other group in the Church that competed for my passion as a Legionary of Mary. Through St. Vincent De Paul, I became involved with the JDPC, that means Justice Development and Peace, of my archdiocese – was even elected secretary before I joined the Society.

5. All that was before you joined the Jesuits. When did you eventually join, and what moved you to that decision to join the Society of Jesus?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: I joined the Society in September of 1991, and the decision became clear to me after one year of serving as Director of Joseph House – where we provided food daily for about 27 homeless people as well as medication for many with mental illness. Let me add that my mentor then, Fr. Bill Watters SJ of the Maryland Province, was a great inspiration for me in those early years.

6. What other positions have you held prior to being Principal at Hekima College?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: I have served in different apostolates of the Society, parishes, schools, novitiate, and even retreat work. The most recent ones would be: serving as Principal and President of Loyola Jesuit College Abuja from 2006-2011; I also enjoyed my time as Assistant Editor of the Visiting Scholars Series of the Jubilee Press of Nottingham University around 2012-2013, as well as being the Research Assistant for the 2014 project of evaluating the course assessments for the Nottingham Advantage Award.

7. Say in the last two years, what positions have you held?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: In December 2015, my Provincial Superior asked me to be the Director of Development for our new school in Port Harcourt, Jesuit Memorial College. We managed to raise funds to begin a 300-capacity dormitory for the school and completed it in 2016. Then I was missioned to Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington and began my role there in January 2017 as the Presidential Scholar in Residence. It was while at Gonzaga that I got a call from the JESAM President Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator E. SJ that my name came up for the role of Principal of Hekima University College. I was very surprised. The President explained I would be the right man for the job at this time in the development of Hekima. I would have preferred to remain in my Province; however, as Jesuits, we go where we are needed.

8. Having succeeded the now JESAM President, do you feel that you have some big shoes to fill?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: Fr. Orobator's foot is much bigger than mine – that is physically verifiable. Therefore I only intend to contribute my own little quota to the further development of Hekima for the good of the students and the people we are called to serve. I doubt if anyone can really fill another's shoes, because each person brings a unique vision to an institution.

9. Can you then share your vision for Hekima College - so what should we expect from your leadership as Principal?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: My expertise, that is to say my field as a PhD, is in Contextual Learning. I think we can improve the way Hekima does Theology, Peace Studies and International Relations, by making the learning process and content more contextual. I have already asked the Dean to create an elective course in Kiswahili next semester. It's still early in the day. As the weeks and months go by, we will continue to find creative ways to commit ourselves to a culturally contextualized pursuit of knowledge – of course, within our Catholic tradition.

10. What motivates you as a Jesuit?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: Two things: the intellectual life and service of the poor.

11. Any closing remarks?

Rev. Dr. John-Okoria: Well, I have to run now because I have a meeting in the next several minutes with the director of JHIA that is the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa. Quickly, let me say thank you for the conversation and the good work you do for JESAM. Be assured of my good wishes and prayers.
Please, pray for me too!

Interview done by: Ms. Anastasia Makunu, JESAM Communications Officer

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