ST. BENEDICT — When asked if he's ready to be a priest, Rev. Mr. Chrispine Otieno pauses silently to recast the question in truer form.
"I am available," he answers with a knowing smile. "I am not doing my own work."
Archbishop John G. Vlazny ordained the 31-year-old Kenyan as a transitional deacon in October. Rev. Mr. Otieno, who speaks four languages, hopes to be part of this spring's priest ordination class for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Only months away from promising lifelong celibacy, Rev. Mr. Otieno sees the discipline as a gift, but not one that can be lived in isolation. In fact, he says, celibacy should energize him to be a loving force throughout the community.
In regard to another promise he'll make, he's committed to living simply, preferring low-cost cars and clothing. "If I am standing before a church with the roof leaking, and saying we should give more money to the church, how am I supposed to do that wearing a suit that costs a thousand dollars?" he asks.
He was born in Siaya — a town of 40,000 in warm, dry western Kenya — the first of five children of John Otieno Oriang, a house builder, and Margaret Otieno, a nurse. When Chrispine was 11, an Irish Mill Hill missionary arrived as pastor of the parish.
The priest worked hard to learn the local language and visited homes regularly. The boy felt attracted to the missionary's work and courage.
"That was a lovely experience to see someone not from our place," Rev. Mr. Otieno recalls. "Someone from another country comes in and knows the people."
Chrispine became an altar server and joined the youth group. One day, speaking with his mother, the boy announced that he, too, wanted to be a missionary who would preach the word of God in a faraway land in another language.
Rev. Mr. Otieno was also inspired by his late grandmother Isabella, whom he calls a "great saint." Isabella had wanted to become a nun, but lacked education. The sisters told her that though she could not enter consecrated life, someday her descendants would. Her firstborn daughter became a Franciscan. One grandson was ordained a Redemptorist. And now Otieno is close to becoming a priest.
He recalls his grandmother rising at 6 a.m. to pray daily and then hosting the extended family in the evenings for long rosary sessions with everyone kneeling.
He is convinced she is praying for him now amid heaven's communion of saints.
As a youth, he gave thought to other callings like teaching or becoming a lawyer who defends people who are poor and works for justice. But he decided priesthood was a good way to get at the roots of teaching and justice work.
So far, he's been right. After entering seminary in Kenya in 2001, he studied in Rome at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a sacred theology bachelor's degree. While in Rome, he worked at a treatment center for drug addicts.
"In the whole world, when guys get to age 25 or 30 there is a crisis," Rev. Mr. Otieno has observed. "These men question where they are heading. 'What is my course?' They are hungry but they don't know what is the right food." He hopes to offer them the nourishment of God and God's church. He helped one young addict reconnect with family after six years of alienation.
Recalling his boyhood pastor, he signed on to serve as a missionary in distant Oregon. He arrived 18 months ago. Ministry training has included time at St. Henry Parish in Gresham, St. Paul Parish in Silverton and St. Mary Parish in Corvallis. He is grateful for the hospitality and the schooling in American culture. Parishioners took him on tours of mountains, coast, parks and cities.
"I wondered, who am I that they are doing this for me?" he says. "They saw me as one of their own."
At first, he would look into the congregation and see only white faces. He wondered if he'd fit in. Now, he gazes out from the altar and sees not the color of the skin, but the smiles.
His parents are happy for him. Though they could not afford to travel to his diaconate ordination, they stayed up in the middle of the night to pray at the same hour the rite was taking place across the world in Oregon.
"That was really touching for me," Rev. Mr. Otieno says.
He knows his future ministry rests in the hands of his bishop. Wherever he goes, he intends to work not as a commander, but as a partner with the people.
"We walk together," he says. "The sense of community should be a fundamental factor for us — joy and suffering together."
He wants to keep learning from people about life, ministry and even the English language. He invites parishioners to correct him.
"My intention is to preach the word of God as clearly as possible," he says. "Language limitation should not be a barrier."
His thesis for a master's degree in theology proposes that incarnation and inculturation go together. In other words, when Jesus became human, that event became the church's model for entering and embracing new cultures. That mindset, he argues, will lead to a church that does not simply preach, but witnesses.
His study and his ministry have taught him that life is difficult for everyone. The only response, he says, is to follow the advice of an old Swahili song — see than hand of God working in you.
Rev. Mr. Otieno, who is finishing studies at Mount Angel Seminary here, loves praying the liturgy of the hours. He also walks up and down the abbey hill to meditate. For physical exercise, the slim deacon takes long runs in the undulating Willamette Valley landscape.
His favorite scripture comes from John 15, in which Jesus urges disciples to stay connected to him: "Remain in my love." A nun in Rome embroidered the passage for him in Italian. He keeps it on the wall where he sees it each morning as he wakes.