An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part One

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia--right around 11,000 feet!

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia–right around 11,000 feet!

I recently returned from my first trip to Ethiopia, and I have been wrestling with the experience. Just about every aspect of the trip conflicted with previously held standards, opinions, and methods of ministry. It was uncomfortable, and for me to claim discomfort…well, then it’s real.

I don’t mean uncomfortable in the way you might think. Yes, I slept outside, dangling from the branches of an acacia tree in my little green hammock (which was really much better than it sounds, after the first sleepless night. more on that later). Yes, I learned how to poop on the backside of the building (while making eye contact with nationals, I might add). Yes, I ate more goat than any one human should ever eat in a lifetime (to answer your question, it’s like eating cheap, slightly overcooked beef). Yes, I dealt with the stigma of being a ferengi, a foreigner, an outsider, and the ensuing scrutiny by tribal leaders. So maybe those things weren’t the most comfortable aspects of the trip, but they were nothing in comparison to what made me the most uncomfortable:

I couldn’t identify with my Creator.

For most of the trip, I couldn’t speak the name of Christ; I could not read my bible openly; I could not sing any of the many children’s songs I know because of their spiritual content. I could not lead worship. I had to make sure my tattoos, all of which relate back to Christ, stayed covered. I couldn’t live out loud the way I am used to, or be myself “in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:13, MSG). I had been warned that we would have to censor some of our ministry…I guess I didn’t understand that we would have to censor our entire ministry not only for our safety, but for the safety of the children with whom we would be spending our time. I don’t think I have to mention the fact that, if it were only my safety in jeopardy, I wouldn’t have censored a dang thing. The Gospel would have been proclaimed far and wide at the top of my lungs…but, since the lives of innocent children were at stake, I gritted my teeth. clenched my fists. and loved with open arms. I taught English–the parts of the body, various animals (taught by playing charades! so fun), articles of clothing, the literal way in which light pierces the darkness of this world. We taught songs, we played soccer and dodgeball, we painted a giant picture on a canvas drop cloth.

The language barrier was far greater with the tribal kids than I’ve previously experienced with the kids at Njojane, so fortunately for me, I didn’t have to answer questions like, “Why are you here?”…however, it was still incredibly painful to see beautiful smiling faces and squeeze tiny hands and hug malnourished bodies without being able to whisper in waiting ears that Master of the universe, the Creator of the world loves you so very much. Unfortunately, upon my return, I cannot give specifics about the tribal area in which we worked; I cannot post pictures of the children’s faces due to the unique bone structure of the tribe…doing so would give away the location of our ministry and put the safety of the children in jeopardy.

Never in my life have I had to keep quiet about my faith. Sure, as a child and early pre-teen, I was not so boisterous and boastful about the grace and mercy I’ve received at the hands of my Father; in fact, if you told little Joey that I would one day be traveling all over the world to preach the Gospel, I would have laughed in your face. Since my initial collision with Christ, I have found the strength to boast in my weakness and I can’t stop. While I was in Ethiopia, I discovered that not only can I not stop, but I don’t want to stop…but more on that next time.

The Interim

I have been struggling through the aftermath of this year’s Swazi experience. It was much different for me than previous trips; living arrangements were different, the people were different, my expectations were different. With very limited access to the internet and longer work days, I was unable to write much of anything worth writing. I have pieced together a collection of anecdotes detailing some of the individual experiences, to be posted in a few days. I’m still mulling everything over, trying to glean as much information as I can from this trip before I am too far removed.

One note of concern I had early on in the trip was my lack of emotional response (aside from a handful of small experiences to be shared later). The shock factor of the various care points has worn off; I didn’t feel the same stretch and pull or the nudging of the Holy Spirit that instills growth and reveals the lessons that God has prepared for me. I’ve been patient. I patiently waited out the 355 days in between trips. I patiently waited in line for airport security. I sat patiently through the 16 hour flight and the 6 hour drive to Mbabane. I waited patiently through the first morning at Njojane, playing with the preschoolers, helping dish the meals, singing songs…all while waiting patiently for my babies to get back from school. Finally, I saw Tengetile coming over the hill, dragging a piece of firewood behind her–kids eat for free as long as they bring a stick to keep the cooking fire burning, that’s the deal–as she approached the stick pile, we made eye contact. She dropped her stick and ran full speed at me. I picked her up and hugged her…but there was no spark. Even when Khetokuhle got to the care pointe and sought me out, it didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary.

I wrestled with this for the first few days. It took some thinking and praying and talking to my team leader, a 4-trip veteran, to realize why I wasn’t experiencing an emotional response:

I am home.

Home is a place where you are welcomed and comfortable. It’s warm and there is lots of hugs and laughter. Home is where you’re feet feel happy upon the familiar ground, there are games to be played and stories told. Its a place where no one is afraid to be himself or herself, where bellies can be filled and spirits lifted. Home is where the language of love is spoken, through smiles and hands held. It’s a resting place, where you are comfortable in your own skin. I don’t get emotional when I come home at the end of a semester, because it’s home. Its a special place, but comfy. Familiar. It’s not exciting, but it is a place I belong.

I keep coming back to the word comfortable, which is funny to me. If you ask anyone that has ever been to Africa on a mission trip, they will tell you there is nothing comfortable about Africa. We are forced to grow in faith and in spirit, in strength and in courage because of the people we meet and the things that we see. There are too many heart wrenching sights to grow comfortable in a place like Swaziland, but nonetheless, I feel comfortable. There is nothing comfortable about carrying around two toddlers while others pull at your arms and legs. There is nothing comfortable about bouncing around in the backseat of a khombi on dirt roads, hitting potholes the size of a small sedan. There is nothing comfortable about sending children home loaded down with a backpack full of the bare necessities, hoping an older child or adult won’t rob her of your gift on the walk home. There is nothing comfortable about watching your sponsor children sob at the sight of the khombi pulling out of the care pointe for the last time. These things are excruciatingly painful, both physically and emotionally, but these are the things I am dedicating my life to so that some day, no one else will need to.

text message

This is the very greatest compliment I could receive. I got this text message yesterday from one of my very first babies–the young ladies in the small group I had the blessing to lead while I was in high school. She is now finishing up her freshman year of high school, and is making me so proud in everything she does. She is currently leading a group of third and fourth graders at summer camp, and this is what she shared with me. I can’t think of a single third or fourth grader I know, but somehow, he knows me and my heart well enough to identify the Guatemalan equivalent of me. My cup and my heart are so overflowing.

5 days, 14 hours until Ethiopia.

Days 1 and 2: In Transit

From the plane: 8 hours and 47 minutes to Johannesburg

I am sitting now in the dark as most of everyone is asleep, save for a few night owls like me, and we are nearly halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. Earlier, before the sky had evolved into a pitch black dotted with innumerable stars, it had been a deep, deep periwinkle color that reflected into the clouds and water below me. It blended so well, in fact, that I could not tell where the horizon fell and where the sky began and it made me feel so very, very small in the hand of our Father.

From where I sit, I can see Orion, his belt sparkling brilliantly at this altitude. I looked up just in time to see a falling star streak across his chest in the same manner a hand would to sign the word Lord in sign language and I do not feel so small any more. As I sit here and stare out my little window, I catch a glimpse of the fullness of God’s creation that is awaiting me on the ground. The sun is just barely starting to think about rising; I can see some pink tendrils of light poking through the horizon. The anticipation is keeping me awake. I can merely sit here with eyes closed, burning from exhaustion, unable to do much else but count down the very minutes until I land. I am coming.

After touchdown in Johannesburg, Monday, May 19, 2014.

22 total hours of transit and a six hour time change. An hour-long adventure trying to find out hotel in the dark.

257 songs. 6 movies. 3 meals. 2 sleeping pills. 1 trip to the bathroom.

I do not sleep on planes; I have been awake for nearly 60 consecutive hours. I am tired. The silence as we stood in line at a busy airport in Joburg struck me as eerie as it did one year ago, but is oddly comforting. I keep finding myself smiling like an idiot for being so excited. I’m getting weird looks from strangers and it’s official: I’m a weirdo on two continents. The man who checked me through customs said to me, “You are 18. When are you going to have children of your own?” …what.

Thinking about this time one year ago makes me laugh: I was super salty after being awake for so long. Dinner was great, but I nearly froze to death because I didn’t come prepared for African winter without heaters, which added another sleepless night to my tally; I took a cold shower during a blackout….all within my first 12 hours in Africa. It was not a good start. 

It drastically improved the next day, but I needed to be taken down off my American high horse and Jesus really knows how to push my buttons and he’s doing it again. I watched the movie rendition of one of my favorite books, The Great Gatsby, as I ate a dinner on the plane and during my initial period of almost-sleep and something odd happened: the grandeur and opulence of the Gatsby lifestyle, the attractive nature of 1920’s life that so often leaves me with a sense of nostalgia for a time I wish I’d known instead left me with a sense of disgust. I realize the movie was incredibly over the top and that life was not as lavish for the vast majority of the world in the 1920’s…but I still found myself shaking my head, thinking Really? A strand of pearls worth $350,000? That could send me to Swaziland 100 times with money left over.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The last two days were very long, sleepless days; we have already had our first adventure, as it took us an hour and a half to find our hotel (which is only about 15 minutes from the airport…oh well!). Upon arriving, we stuffed ourselves with pizza and retired to our rooms. It was another long, almost sleepless night…luckily I got in about 3 hours and then 3 cups of very strong coffee at breakfast. I am more than ready for the drive to Swaziland. Let’s do this.

Day 1: Before I Go…

It’s today. So many feelings this morning. So many instances of nearly crying in the middle of church or driving home or talking to people, asking me how many hours until I leave, because they know I am keeping track.

I have eagerly been counting down the days since I last found myself in the Indianapolis airport. My mom came to pick me up, and she asked how my trip was and I broke down crying. The only words I could fathom were, I have to go back. I have to go back I have to go back I have to go backI am going back. It’s right now. This is happening. I am sitting in the Indianapolis airport waiting to board the first plane and it is taking everything in me to not jump up and down and yell “It’s today it’s today it’s today!”

Just this morning someone asked me if I was ever afraid to go. I have heard a lot of variations of this question: Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t there disease? Isn’t it weird to have strange children crawling on you? Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable to be stared at because you’re white? Do they have real toilets or are you going to use squatty potties? What if they don’t like you?

Doesn’t it scare you?

The answer is yes. Yes, it scares me very much. It is terrifying to be so incredibly in love with something that I can’t get it off my mind and to know I am risking my life. It is terrifying to be so scared of this passion so deeply rooted in my heart because I don’t get scared of things. But I know that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is one of the most elemental truths of my entire life, and I am so, so grateful for this.

However: the people I am leaving behind don’t feel this. They can’t understand how fulfilling it is to rock a colicky baby to sleep while her mother cooks, or the overwhelming feeling of having kids fight over who gets to hold your hand while walking from place to place. They haven’t experienced this raw, unadulterated joy; they see only the risks. I have several friends and family members that adamantly oppose this trip and the plan to go back long term, and I can appreciate their opposition. It is out of genuine concern, and lack of understanding. It is for them I have these words:

“And I will be to her a wall of fire all around,” declares the Lord, “And I will be the glory in her midst.” Zechariah 2:5

“God is within her, she will not fail.” Psalm 46:5

I’m a little nervous to step on this plane, but I’m not afraid for myself. I know that I will be taken care of, that I will be safe, that everything that happens on this trip will be nothing short of God’s glory and his plan for my life.

Goodbye, America. See you later.