Who is Ebele Onyema?
What does it say about me that my immediate reaction to this question is to tell you what I do?! Haha! I will say, though, that what I do for a living says a lot about who I am. Or, maybe the reverse is more true. Who I am has been the number one influence on what I do. Sooo, without any more rambling (!), I am the Love Works Director at Soul City Church. I oversee the strategy behind Soul City's local and global community engagement, which means I provide opportunities for people to be catalysts for change and love in Chicago and around the world.
I love your name, can you share what it means?
Thank you! Name love wasn't so strong when I was growing up and it was the first day of school roll call. The teacher would inevitably get a look of consternation and nervously titter, "Well, this is an interesting one." I wish I'd had the ability at 8 years-old to say, "Really? No more interesting than your eight-syllable Polish last name that you managed not to look sideways at." It's interesting how we're taught to otherize somethings, and not others. So, yes, it took a minute to get on board, but I love my name, too! My full name is Ebelechukwu. It's Nigerian and means God's (Chukwu) mercy (Ebele.)
How can we stalk/follow you on social media?
Oh man, you'll be so disappointed if you do! My social media game is sporadic at bes. Facebook always left me feeling inadequate and jealous, which is my least favorite emotion to feel, so one day about five years ago it dawned on me - I don't have to engage with this. It's like that cheesy anecdote, a patient says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this," and the doctor responds, "Well, stop doing that." Oh, duh! So, I go on Facebook once a year on my birthday to be polite, but that's it. I do like Instagram, and sometimes wish I was more consistent at it. I take to it when I feel I have something interesting to share, and my feed makes me smile. It feels like me. You can find it at @bellauaswella
We're also getting the Love Works Instagram off the ground - @loveworkschicago. We're still tinkering with what perspective we want it to have, what space we want it to take up in this world, but I feel a lot of excitement about its potential.
What's your favorite drink?
Tequila and wine! Can I say that???
What makes you laugh?
Um, funny stuff? Haha!
I love going to improv shows. I love dry humor. I hate puns. I like a story told with gusto.
What does a typical Sunday or should I say Saturday look like for you since you work on Sunday's?!?
Haha, yes, Friday's are my Saturdays, which - it took a year - but I've finally gotten the hang of. Weekend mornings I'm typically boxing or yoga-ing. I love, love, love boxing. It's no contact, but you are working with a partner, not a bag, so its dynamic and as close to being hit in the face as I want to get! I love strong, powerful, brave women - I believe I am one - and boxing rewards you for being those things. Women can't always say that about every sphere of our lives.
What are you most passionate about in life?
Defining the shape of the space I want to take up in this world and then taking it fully, with integrity, humility, vulnerability, and pizazz. And empowering others, particularly women and girls, to do the same.
Please share a bit about Love Works? What is it? How long have you been working at Soul City Church?
Love Works is Soul City's compassion and justice arm. I've been on staff for fifteen months (ooo, I felt like a mom there! "Little Scout is 44 months old." Which always sends me into a panic - soooo, what does that mean, she's 26?? I have no idea. I didn't realize our interaction was going to involve math.)
The mission of Love Works is to educate, equip, and mobilize volunteers to transform the city and the world. We send volunteers to our partner organizations (like preparing meals at Breakthrough or, very soon, working with churches in El Salvador), we create our own events to serve the community (like the Christmas Store and Back 2 School Bash), and we provide spaces for people to talk about social justice issues (forums on homelessness and immigration.) In my opinion, what we do is interesting, but how we do it is everything. We are all broken people, so there are no saviors at Love Works, just individuals who are guided by the example of The One who came to save us all.
You can learn more at www.loveworkschicago.org
What do you love most about what you do?
I'm deeply humbled by the people I get to meet. The people we serve teach me that we are far more alike than we are different. I think service can be intimidating for people because they're nervous they'll say or do the wrong thing or that the people they'll encounter will be so foreign from what they're used to. But every time I serve, I'm reminded of our shared humanity, our shared identity as daughters and sons of Christ; and all the superficial stuff both melts away and recommits me to the cause. When we meet people whom society has marginalized, and we see that the only thing differentiating their outcomes from ours is place of birth or skin color or some other superficial thing, it should make us angry. It should make us question our seats of privilege, and want to use that privilege to make things more just. Love Works has incredible volunteers who share that belief, so serving alongside them is also one of my favorite parts of the gig.
What keeps you excited about what you do with Love Works?
It's potential. The people of Love Works are going to change the world. There's no doubt in my mind. We haven't even scratched the surface of what we can do to address systemic issues.
In what ways does Love Works give back to the community?
Love Works' sole reason for being is to engage in community issues. We are in constant communication with our partners; they know what they need and we follow their lead. We are also in a process of listening to the Holy Spirit to discern here we should focus. There are so many issues in the world, we could spread ourselves very thin and not be effective anywhere. We want to be intentional about two or three areas of focus so that Love Works can make the biggest impact possible.
What was the scariest part in deciding to be a part of Love Works?
Working at a church. I carry a lot of church hurt from previous experiences, and it felt cruel that God would plant me in a setting that was the source of some of my most toxic self-beliefs. But Soul City is exactly where I'm supposed to be and Love Works is exactly the thing I'm supposed to be doing, and even with that confidence, I can tell you that every inch of it is hard. I'm uncomfortable, I'm not in control, I doubt my capacity, I'm constantly battling old stories about churches and church people that continue to surface, I'm comparing myself to an outlandish ideal, the list goes on. Never has a job challenged me so much professionally and personally.
Can you share a time you wanted to give up, or a struggle that you encountered?
How did you overcome it?
I'm used to achieving on a high level professionally. Career has always been a large part of my identity, which I like, so being good at it has always been hard work for high self-reward. This new role, much to my ego's discomfort(!), has been hard work for high self-growth.
God is growing me by breaking me. I didn't catch on to His process at first. I started the job assuming, after a requisite acclimation period, I would start killing it straightaway. Well, that acclimation period is lasting a whole lot longer than I anticipated! There have certainly been wonderful victories, and there are parts of the job that come effortlessly, but I am having to rely on God more than I ever have before. It is not in my own power that Love Works is going to change the world - that has been made abundantly clear to me. I think about Moses a lot. His, "You got the wrong guy, God. I don't talk so good. I don't lead so good." And God's response, "Well I talk and lead perfectly, so when we do this extraordinary thing, all will know it's through My power in you that it was done."
I don't know how to change the world, but I'm coming to the realization that it's not my job to know how. That's God's job. My job is to dive deep into prayer and listen to where the Spirit leads. And then say yes - even if I don't get it, even if I can't imagine it. I get through struggles when I realize that I don't have to struggle, that God is capable of the super human when we allow him to be.
What encouraging words would you tell someone who wants to work for a non-profit?
I've worked in both corporate and non-profit settings, and have loved them both. I actually like to bring a corporate mentality to my non-profit work. Measurement, analysis, processes are all music to my ears, and I think a commitment to those things are benefits a person can bring to non-profits, since often time you will be grant funded and will need to report on metrics.
I also think it's important to have boundaries and practice self care. Because this work is values-based, we can lie to ourselves and say, "If I was truly passionate about this issue, I'd be willing to give it every area of my life." Don't do it! Hard stop.
That said, non-profits often afford you the opportunity to get your hands dirty across a lot of different areas. Get dirty! You'll be busy and maybe a little tired sometimes, but you'll be learning and hopefully really fulfilled.
Photos by: Jazi Photo