Calvin loses intercessor, friend

Photo+courtesy+calvin.edu

Photo courtesy calvin.edu

This summer, after six years of heart problems, Calvin alum and friend Stephen Okeyo passed away at the age of 26. Okeyo, who graduated from Calvin last May, survived seven major surgeries, including a heart transplant, during his time at Calvin. But despite the frequent hospital visits, his friends and family do not remember Stephen for being sick, but for his quiet, passionate faith in God.

“At his funeral everyone said they would remember him for his smile. It’s not something you’d think of for someone who’s had as many cardiac arrests as he had, and a heart transplant, and how many other relapses he had with his health. That’s crazy because for some of us who don’t face health challenges, we find it hard to smile,” said Jona Eigege, a friend of Okeyo.

When Stephen came to Calvin College as an international student from Kenya in 2008, Eigege said, his biggest worries were whether he would like the food, understand the culture, or fit in with his dorm.

No one predicted his weak heart would see him airlifted to Cleveland for major heart surgery during his second semester. After a traumatic procedure, during which he went into cardiac arrest and had to have his heart restarted, he faced months of rehabilitation. His improvement, many believed, was a miracle. In 2010 he returned to Calvin, supported by many friends and church members.

It was during his first hospitalization that Calvin associate chaplain Nate Bradford met Stephen. As he coordinated groups of students to visit Okeyo, Bradford was impressed by the soft-spoken student. “He’s the kind of guy you fell in love with right away,” Bradford said. “He had a big old smile.”

“As a friend, Stephen had a very calm demeanor, a really gentle spirit,” said Ebuka Mefor, a close friend of Stephen’s. “Something was different about him.

“He always struck me as someone who was always living with a foot in Heaven and a foot on this earth,” said Bradford. “He was living in the presence of God in ways that I just don’t see, that I don’t even experience myself. I always thought that Stephen was a wonderful encouragement in the way that I live my life.”

Others, too, noticed this difference in Stephen. “He was one of those people that when I think of, I think of as larger than life,” said Eigege. “And not in the sense that he was the most outgoing or the most boisterous or the most out-there person, because he wasn’t. But he was one of those people who, in his quietness, was able to influence so many people.”

“With Steve just by looking at him, you could tell that his faith was genuine,” added Eigege. “It just flowed out of him. There was no on and off switch.”

When Okeyo came back to campus in 2010, he came with a renewed purpose. This was a significant point in my life,” he said in an interview with Calvin News and Stories. “All of this caused me to seek God in a deeper way.”

According to Mefor, Stephen came to him after the surgery and said, “God has given me a new life. I have a new heart, and I have a new perspective.” After this experience, Stephen began reconsidering his plans for a business-economics career towards ministry, eventually applying to Asbury Theological Seminary, where he was to begin this fall.

Much of this new focus came from something that happened to him during the moments during his first surgery in which he was clinically dead. Okeyo spoke sparingly about his experience, afraid it would sound “too crazy” to others, but Bradford is convinced he would want his story to be shared.

In the moments before being shocked back to life, Bradford said, “He spoke of being in front of the Lord. I remember Stephen telling that story and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

“He spoke about two things,” Bradford continued. “First, the amazing power of God and being confronted with the utter shame of what he’s done wrong, but then a split second later, being enveloped by the overwhelming love of God. This was a place of the deepest, purest rest and comfort that Stephen had ever felt before. In some ways, I think Stephen never fully left this embrace.”

Quiet and unassuming, Stephen shared this experience with friends, but witnessed to the campus most in his quiet intercession.

“I know that Stephen prayed a lot for Calvin College,” said Eigege. “When ReigKnight started, he was heavily involved on the prayer time, and he would stay up for hours and for nights just praying for revival to happen here on campus. He would take charge and intercede on behalf of the people who were more up front.”

Friends noticed him slip out once a week to pray through the night, usually in the nature preserve. Said his friend Ebuka, “If there was ever a God ambassador on earth, it would have been Stephen.”

“I think his story can continue even if he is not here,” said Bradford, “The story of Stephen that should be told is that God is real, that this hope is real.”

“There’s a lot of ‘why?’” said Bradford. “Not just with Stephen, but why in the world. The why of Stephen was, for me, in a sense, he lived halfway in Heaven halfway on earth. For him to be gone is for him to just be where he always was anyway, right there at the feet of the Lord, in the presence of God. Though that doesn’t make it any easier for us to not have him.”