Something Happened in Ethiopia

[singlepic id=334 w=625 h= float=]This is Emily Long. She's one of three downtowners from the team that shared their experience in worship on a special Sunday in early November. The full text of Emily's reflection is below. The scripture for that Sunday was Luke 6: 46-49. Oh yeah, that's Emily above on the hills behind Bethel Evangelical Secondary School (BESS) in Dembi Dolo. [hr] The trip to Ethiopia was designed to be a cultural immersion. The plan was for our team to immerse ourselves in Ethiopian culture, as much as you can in 14 days anyway, and figure out how, or rather if, our church could help. Americans tend to think we have all the answers, don't we? We swoop in, build a school or a house, or take supplies, or clothes. Maybe stay a week or two teaching them about Jesus and then jet back home to our cozy western lives feeling good about saving a part of the world. But does that fix their problem? Or does it just make us feel good to say that we've been on a mission trip in a selfish attempt to fix our own personal problems?

I will be the first to admit that I've lived a privileged life. I've never had to long for anything necessary, and I've certainly had plenty of unnecessary items at my disposal. I had parents who would do anything for me. Literally, anything. I had an older brother who looked out for me and a younger brother who started out looking up to me, but now he looks out for me, too. I thought I had life figured out. I was a good daughter, good sister, good friend and a good employee. I planned to get married and have children and continue the life I had always known. The good life. But over the last 12 months I had some inconvenient interruptions in my life. This time last year I became engaged. A week later I was taking my fiancé to the hospital. Then three months after that, I was helping plan his funeral. These inconvenient interruptions to my simple, easy life had rocked my world.

So, I went to Africa. That's what every lost and grieving person is supposed to do, right? Go to a foreign country to do some soul searching?

All joking aside, I honestly didn't know what to expect in Ethiopia. I didn't google Addis Ababa or Gambela or Dembi Dollo. I wanted to see it all for the first time when we landed. Generally speaking, there is an underlying expectation having to "rough it" when you go to Africa. I knew we would witness poverty on a level that I hadn't seen before. I was certain I would come home thankful for my car and my house and everything else that falls into the category of stuff. And yes, there were days without electricity or running water or flushing toilets. But all of these stereotype assumptions I was prepared to deal with. My nickname on the trip was Revco. I had supplies to remedy everything from headache to heartburn, and thanks to wi-fi in the hotel in Addis, my phone could remedy feeling homesick because a few minutes of Facetime with my family cured that, too. But what I wasn't prepared for was feeling my own spiritual poverty.

One of Amos' favorite questions is "Where is God in all of this?" One evening before going to dinner in Dembi Dollo, we talked about where God was in Ethiopia. I didn't have an immediate answer. Visually God is everywhere. Being a predominantly Christian country, there are crosses on gates that guard private residences. There are signs equivalent to our billboards reading "I belong to Jesus." In the khaki colored capital city, the churches are massive and vibrant with color. You can't miss them. The ritual of prayer is hard to ignore too: its physical and rhythmic as they bow humbly and kiss the steps of the church three times before entering. To the eye, God clearly had a presence.

Our last afternoon in Dembi Dollo, a few of us went to the bank to exchange US Dollars into Ethiopian Birr. After the transaction was made, we rode in the back of the pick up truck to the center of town where Amos and his brother Raaji would negotiate our bus ride to Gambela, back down the long bumpy dirt road so that we could catch our return flight to the capital. While we waited outside, an older gentleman approached our truck. While I never feared for our safety in Ethiopia, I couldn't ignore that we were the obvious outcasts in the town. We stood out as foreigners not only because of our unfamiliar faces, but because we were white. Most of the residents in Dembi Dollo had not seen white people, and we had eleven in our group. He wanted to know where we were from and what we were doing there.

Everyone else standing on the streets of the town were wondering the same thing, but this man had the courage to ask. And when he asked, he had more than a sense of curiosity in his voice, it was laced with skepticism. Suzanne spoke up and explained that we were visiting for a couple of days, getting to know the village and to see if there was a way we could help the community. He sort of tilted his head back and looked down his nose as if to say "uh huh." She went on to explain that our Presbyterian Pastor was Ethiopian and his father was from the area and had attended BESS School. His eyes lit up. But it wasn't because of the Ethiopian connection, it was because we were Christians. We were brothers and sisters in Christ and that was good enough for him. The Ethiopian and Dembi Dollo connection were just an added bonus. We were instantly friends. We chatted for a few minutes and before he walked away, he shook our hands and said to each of us "God bless you," and invited us back anytime.

And there God was. Reminding me that we are all His and bound together by the same beliefs. I had been too distracted by what my eyes saw on the surface. I had forgotten to remember the underlying similarities and the ultimate goal. And over time I have come to realize that this was not only true during my Ethiopian trip, but my life in general.

And as if the "Where is God" question didn't give me enough to think about, Amos kicked it up a notch by asking another question: "At what point did you see the Kingdom of God?" I knew something happened to me while in Ethiopia. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It took me a while to realize this, but I found the Kingdom of God in me. I see it in each of you, too. I fell in love with the BESS School. And just like that, I become that American that wants to save the African school. I can't explain it and I'm not sure I need to. It just happened. But the valid argument was made by a teammate while we were traveling: what about our own neighbors struggling in downtown Columbia? I don't deny that help is needed here as well. But I don't see the Kingdom of God as having a price tag or a form to log service hours or geographical limits. If it hadn't been for this trip to Ethiopia 7,000 miles away, I may not have found the Kingdom of God with in me. I just feel called to do something to help someone. Its not just about saving BESS School. I want to be a better daughter, better sister and a better friend. If you asked each team member about their experience, you would get 13 different answers. Some feel inspired to help downtown. Some just want to feel a stronger sense of community in general. Some want to strengthen broken relationships.

I'm excited about the path that God has set in front of me. I've learned that life isn't easy. I don't think that its supposed to be. No one deserves to lose a loved one or struggle financially or have difficult relationships. Being a good person doesn't dismiss you from hardship. I'm convinced people who make life seem easy have a foundation running pretty deep in their faith allowing them to weather the storm with grace. Without my life’s inconvenient interruptions, I wouldn't have been forced to question my faith and to test just how deep my foundation runs. I've surprised myself. For a while it seemed easier to place blame than it was to be vulnerable. But whenever people suffer, the God of the cross is there.