Dispatch from Ethiopia by Laura Belcher
A Memory of Addis
It was our last day in Ethiopia, a Wednesday. I was standing outside the Kaleb Hotel, trying to wait patiently as a few of my teammates were negotiating with taxi drivers for transportation to a museum. My very limited patience was depleted. I was done. I had shut down emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. I was done.
I was done with Ethiopia. I was desperate for America. I craved American standards of cleanliness; I longed for America’s cleaner air; I missed American toilets, American sanitation, American type-A mentality, American friends, home, family, dog, luxuries. I was so desperate for America that I could taste it in my cravings for a fresh, crisp Gala apple.
As I stood and waited on the hotel steps, I occasionally turned towards the bustling street filled with construction trucks spewing out enough diesel exhaust to make one choke; construction workers using the street as a urinal; dozens of people trying to earn a meager wage by selling maps, cds, & dvds; poverty-stricken mothers holding infants, begging for money and food; small children waiting to persistently follow the Westerners from the hotel calling out “Sista, sista, sista” and pointing to their mouths with their tiny fingers, an internationally-understood gesture of hunger. I was done. Done. Done. Done. I had shut down. Instead of graciously saying “I’m sorry, but no,” or even trying to learn the Amharic phrase that most Ethiopians use when confronted with extreme needs “May God provide it for you,” I had reverted in the last few days to sternly, briskly, and loudly saying NO and shaking my head.
And then I noticed a small procession. I glanced and then turned away. I turned back around, curious, and then immediately looked at the ground, the sky, the hotel doors, my teammates, anywhere but back at that procession. At first, I dismissed them as the poor and needy who begged on the street corner or attempted to sell small insignificant trinkets to those passing by. I thought, they must be those bodies we almost stumbled on last night as they slept under plastic tarps on the side of the street with only a path of dirt and stone as their bed.
I looked again and turned away again quickly. The procession was not one of familiar faces already glimpsed as I had walked back and forth to the hotel. This procession was different and indeed a procession. These people were not selling anything or waiting for Westerners. They were on a journey. They were moving towards something. They were on a mission. The procession consisted of barely-abled bodies, young and old, all physically carrying others, carrying loved ones or neighbors or children or parents or strangers, carrying others who had mind-bending and crippling deformities, carrying those with savage, harsh disabilities like none I had ever witnessed in my life and will probably never witness again.
The only thought that I allowed myself was they must be on their way to the church a few blocks away, maybe for a healing service. And then I stopped thinking and forgot. For a woman who is constantly thinking, feeling, and asking questions, I did the opposite. I did not allow myself to ask any questions, to wonder about these people, or to call out to the Lord. I did not ask within my soul the questions I now have: How long have they walked? Where are they coming from? What are their stories? What are their daily lives like? How do they manage the burden? How do the afflicted continue to live and indeed continue to live with hope for healing? I did not ask those questions. I forgot and forgot very quickly and intentionally. And I returned in my mind and heart to my desperate ache for America.
I forgot. I forgot. I forgot until this morning when I remembered. Tears began to form and roll down my face, and the questions that I did not have the courage to ask came readily to my heart, mind and soul. And I reflected on that scene. I saw again those people and I realized what I had witnessed and then could not bear to think about. What I saw on that street in Addis Ababa was love and courage so immense, so beautiful, so ground-moving, so radical that I will never comprehend it. I had read stories and heard accounts of this form of love, but I had never witnessed it myself. What I saw on that street in Addis Ababa was Christ himself. Christ present, Christ with us, Christ carrying, Christ vulnerable, Christ desperate, Christ hopeful, Christ loving, Christ human, Christ weak, Christ bearing, Christ triumphant, Christ brother, Christ Savior. I saw Christ that day and could not bear to look for more than half a second. I can hardly bear the memory of that scene now.
I wonder today, what if? What if I had been able in that moment to see and allow my eyes to connect with my heart and mind? What if I had moved towards that procession? What if I had joined that procession? What if I had practiced and shown the type of courage they, the carriers and the carried, displayed-- their Christ courage? What if I had followed those Christ-bearers to the church? What if I had fallen in step with them as they journeyed? What if I had chosen to help carry the infirmed and vulnerable? What if I had been blessed by being present with them on their way, in their burden, in their hope?
I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened in my soul, mind, heart, body, life, character, memory, or understanding. I don’t know, but I will continue to wonder what if? And maybe next time, I will move closer, just a bit closer, to having Christ courage. Maybe I will step out bravely and join the procession.