Dispatch from Ethiopia by Austin Smith

austin-smith-on-bess-backporch Emily stumped me with a simple request: write a blog post about the Ethiopia trip.  It should be easy, her expression seemed to say.  Both of us knew the range of emotions experienced by our group.  We felt encouraged by the limitless potential of a growing nation.  We experienced awe at people unburdened by impossibility.  We found humility in the grace and hospitality of our hosts.  We even cast doubt in a God who permits a faithful people to live in breathtaking poverty.  We should have plenty to say about this experience, I told myself.  After all, we paused our careers, invested our money, and traveled 7,000 miles from our delightfully middle-class homes for this story.

But after a few minutes of jotting down terrible ideas for a blog post, I gave up.  I attributed the small failure to one of many emotional shortcomings expertly diagnosed by my wife.  I realize now that I was overwhelmed.  We all were.  The stimuli came too often, in too many forms, for me to neatly wrap it up in a 500 word blog post.  The fact is, I'm still overwhelmed by it.  I've yet to feel satisfied with my response to "How was your trip? Tell me about Africa!" 4 days into the resumption of normal life, however, I'm starting to recognize something simple and profound that I couldn't grasp in the moment.  I think I had to miss it first.

At the posh Kuriftu Resort, economic development and social (in)justice and theology are conveniently situated just beyond the mind's reach.  The eager staff buzzes all around this oasis of privilege, poised to accommodate a guest's next whim.  The place gives new meaning to "embarrassment of riches."  Even so, Kuriftu seemed like a slice of home - a really good slice - especially after three days in a remote mountain town near Ethiopia's border with South Sudan.  Lounging across a gigantic Ethiopian leather booth, we drank macchiatos, admired local culture, and extolled the virtues of goat-hood.  Yes, goat-hood.

A few days earlier in Dembi Dollo, we curiously watched as two goats climbed atop a traffic circle.  Made of concrete, three feet tall and five feet in diameter, the traffic circle easily accommodated two of Dembi Dollo's most ambitiously lazy goats.  The scene of these strays from the herd, chilling in the midst of the town's inexplicably busy city center, left quite an impression on the men of Downtown Church.

We admired their bold strike against busy-ness, their sleepy protest against all the hustling of Ethiopia.  Unlike their cousins in Addis Ababa's urban herds - who are relentlessly driven from green patch to green patch across the city - the goats of Dembi Dollo lay around all over town.  Usually in pairs, sitting wherever they please, and occasionally lifting their heads to chew on whatever might be nearby - these bleating wonders have perfected hanging out.  Like some unaffected model, they manage to look like they don't care even when skirting a menacing dump truck barreling down Dembi's uneven dirt roads.

As we admired these goats, we laughed.  We laughed a lot.  Then, we told each other slight variations of the same tired jokes we told at the beginning of the trip, and we laughed some more.  Now that we are home, I miss chilling like a goat, telling the same tired jokes, and spending time with my Downtown Church family.  In those moments, I experienced God.  I've joked a lot that nobody in Ethiopia would be better off after our "mission trip," but I was wrong on at least one count. I'm better off. Our funny little family, created in God's image and blessed by his presence, made sure of it.