Kelley Nikondeha is one of my favorite theologians–she writes from a variety of intersections: as an adoptee and adoptive parent, from someone in a bicultural marriage (who spends half of her time in Burundi, half in the US) as a Latina operating in a very white Christian publishing space. As such, every sentence of hers carries with it the weight of a very full and complex life. Nikondeha has spent decades living and working out a life of justice and joy and is now embarking on sharing the fruit of theology lived out through her writing.


As a deep thinker/reader and someone in contact with poverty and injustice daily (through the work of her and her husband in Burundi through Communities of Hope) I thought Kelley would be the perfect person to ask about her reading habits in our current political time.


You can find Kelley’s personal blog here and her twitter here. Her first book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (one of my favorite reads!) was released in 2017.


For more information on the Reading To Save Our Souls series, go here.


DL: How do you feel reading fits into soul-care? How does this play out in your life?


KN: According to the Enneagram, I am a 5. I live and breathe ideas. Books are nourishment. Reading is discipleship. According to Strengthsfinder, I am first and foremost a learner. So again, reading offers me a constant source of good learning which my mind and soul crave. This means I am quite selective about what I read since it is key to my soul care during the year. Reading provides good seed for the soil of my soul, allowing worthy things to take root, grow and bloom during the year.


DL: Do you have any thoughts on the theological importance of reading in the fast-paced and tech-heavy world?


KN: No. But I can tell you why I prefer reading actual in-my-hands books in our current world. I need to interact with ideas, to make the conceptual concrete as I read. So I scribble in the margins. I sketch out the timelines; I make charts, I write connections to other ideas. I annotate (I have a system the correlates to many and varied things I am mulling over like unanswered theological questions, content for future books, etc.). I underline. I make a note of the books I want to add to my library (I find so many good reads in the footnotes!)


For me, a book is a canvas. There are ideas presented, but it is also an invitation for me to participate with my pen (pencil, actually). Each book becomes a living document where I engage with the author. Maybe that kind of hands-on participation isn’t only tactile but in some way, incarnational, making invisible ideas visible on the page. That’s close to a theological response, right?


DL: What is your approach to reading these days? Do you have a schedule or a philosophy or an attitude towards reading you would care to share?


KN: Each year I want to learn. There are some things I always am learning because the issues are complex and require sustained input over years. So every year I read a book or two out of Israel-Palestine, a book by a Muslim or about Islam, something about economics. There are short-term things I want to learn or study in any given year.


This year that category has been subsumed by my next book, so I will be reading many Exodus commentaries and other material about Exodus. I always want to read a few volumes of poetry. I always want to read from what I affectionately call ‘the South African canon.’ South African thinkers have captivated me, so much so that I am committed to read at least one per year! I will be reading plenty of liberation theology this year, as in years past. And without fail, I read a book by Walter Brueggemann, my theological hero. This is easy since there are so many to choose from and he remains so prolific; there is never a lack of something to choose from when it comes to his work rooted in the Old Testament. I also aim to re-read one book each year and read one book recommended to me by someone I trust.  


Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 I have also committed to reading at least two books about race each year. Beyond that, I leave room for serendipitous finds – books that I discover mid-year or hidden in a juicy footnote.


DL: What books got you through 2017?


KN: Poetry – reading two or three poems each morning got me through the post-election reality of 2018. I found myself needing a daily plumbline to what was true and even beautiful. Poems cut through the noise. They sparked my imagination, exigence from a place other than my daily newsfeed. My particular favorites: In Jerusalem and other poems by Tamim Al-Barghouti and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.


In May I traveled to Israel/Palestine for the first time. In preparation for the trip, I read Judaism ≠ Israel by Marc Ellis and A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation by Naim Ateek. But the book that got me through was This Is Not A Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature edited by Ahdaf Soueif & Omar Robert Hamilton. I read it upon my return and found the essays and poems well crafted but also helpful in processing what I had learned and experienced during my own time there. The collection aided my further learning and lament.


A book that got me off to a good start, which is the other side of getting me through, was Money & Possessions by Walter Brueggemann. As a community development practitioners in Burundi, my husband and I run a bank for the working poor that serves 21,000+ members. We believe God knows that healthy economies and healthy families are linked, and so we take economic practice seriously as a matter of discipleship and development. This text offers a sweeping view of economics from Genesis to Revelation. An essential read!


DL: What three books would you recommend people read in 2018?


KN: Only three?


  • Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda by Emmanuel Katongole. This accessible and insightful book isn’t just about genocide in Rwanda, but a primer on the tribalism that besets so many cultures and conflicts the world over. It offers helpful language and theological framework for understanding some of the current tribal dynamics in the United States.
  • A Persistent Peace by John Dear. I had the pleasure of meeting John Dear in New Mexico recently. He captivated me with his words on the non-violent Jesus. This is his biography, well written and fast moving (with a foreword by Martin Sheen, nonetheless!). It is a good reminder that bold thinkers, faithful activists and people committed to nonviolence are out there doing good work amid all the violence of these days.
  • Counting Descent by Clint Smith. If you read one book of poetry this year, let this be the one. Compelling, honest, enlightening. You won’t regret a single poem.


  • And I must say, if you have been to Israel-Palestine ever, please read This Is Not A Border. (I am really bad at math…because I think I might have just exceeded the three book limit!)


Thank you, Kelley for walking us through your reading habits (which seem very similar to a spiritual discipline of sorts). Be sure to check out our Reading To Save Our Souls column from last month with C. Christopher Smith, and be on the lookout for our next installment soon!