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The children are stunning! In many ways, they stun our senses.

First thing in the morning (after the public address systems of the Mosque and the Orthodox Church finish their call to prayers), as the children arrive at the Dessie School of HOPE Enterprises, our ears perk up to the sounds of laughter, calls of friendship and recognition, and, as we awaken and make our way outside, to shouts of joy and of names of people from past trips: “Dave and Kristina?” “Ron?” “Laura?” “Tom and Courtney?” “Grace?” and of course, the two names mentioned above all others, “Emily and Sara?” Our ears are overloaded as the questions ensue: “My name is?” (the poor English manner of asking your name). “Will you sponsor me?” “Will you help me come to America?”

Second, our senses are stunned by the sights of the beautiful mountains, of the school, with its pink and white summer flowers in bloom, and of the beautiful, beautiful children, with almond eyes, dark skin, and (yes, believe it) purple and red uniforms. The sights of this hilltop school, the compound that serves as a “hopeful” refuge for these children, is beautiful beyond words. “Konjo!”  (Ethiopian for beautiful.)

Other senses are also stunned: the smell of the morning coals making the “buna” (or Ethiopian coffee), and sometimes the ripe and somewhat pungent smell of the children. The taste of the food, so tenderly prepared by Beza, a HOPE graduate and now nearly full-time cook for HOPE at various locations. The constant and sometimes overwhelming touch of the students – grabbing our hands, our shirts, our shoulders, for a little attention, and also stroking the hair on our arms as a way of understanding our differences.

We seek also to understand our differences with these children; for example their poverty and our richness. Why does this exist in the world? Why are we, in a country of such plenty, so often focused on our own, fictional, relative poverty, and so ignorant or paralyzed by the real, harsh, daily and deadly poverty in which these students live?

Of course, this type of understanding comes with pangs of guilt. And so, our team enters into discussions of contemplation, where questions without answers are posed: “What is God up to?” “Why did He really bring us to Ethiopia?” “Why this team?” “Why now?”

Our team also struggles, just as teams have struggled many times before, to live within the boundaries of good stewardship we have studied – keeping our gifts to those given to our ministry partners, rather than direct gifts to individual students and their families.

“Why?” you may ask?

We give only through our ministry partners as a way of empowering and affirming them as the solution for the great need on the ground, rather than something from the outside. We also give through our ministry partners, rather than directly as we see individual needs, in order to reduce the dysfunctional idea among many Ethiopians (and many Africans) that, “if I behave just so, if I ask just right, maybe, just maybe, this “foreingee” will help me.

In preparing for our time in Ethiopia, we have studied the idea of servanthood in the following way:

Serving is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives. Serving is “breathing bigness” into others. The servanthood model we studied progresses along the following steps: Openness, Acceptance, Trust, Learning, Understanding, Serving. But the easiest way of understanding the model is to look at the steps backwards to see how each depends on the previous one.

Serving: You can’t serve someone you don’t understand. At best you can only be a benevolent oppressor – like forcing someone to say “I’m sorry” when that is an unnatural way to apologize.

Understanding: You can’t understand another person until you have learned from them and eventually with them. A learning attitude signals humility and willingness to identify with a person. A teaching attitude stresses the arrogance of hierarchy, and a lacking in trust.

Learning: You can’t learn from another person until you have built trust with them. People won’t share important information with someone they don’t trust, especially cross-culturally. Nor will they share honestly, if they believe that doing so will interfere with gifts we might have to bestow, for fear that the authentic and real person, cannot or will not be accepted.

Trust: You can’t build trust with another person until they feel like they have been accepted by you – until they feel that you value them as human beings, wholly and fully as made by God – including all the failures.

Acceptance: You can’t communicate value and esteem to others unless they feel welcomed into your presence and find themselves feeling safe. In some respects, this seems to be a key element – the power of acceptance and rejection are so well known, even by us in our culture, but for these Ethiopian children (many without parents or from large families with no steady income), we cannot imagine the ways in which they are not given the self-affirming, intimate love of acceptance. Perhaps this is why they crave for us to remember their names, and to know that others who have visited them, remember them.

Openness: Openness with people of another culture requires a willingness to step out of our comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationships in a context of cultural differences.

Each element builds upon the other to help mold us into humble servants, just as Jesus Christ modeled while on earth.

And so, today we reached out with a little puppet named Haile who summarized a lesson that “God is love.” We emphasized how everyone is accepted, in God’s eyes, even those from Ethiopia and those from America. And we played with the kids – “fütball,” volleyball, taking pictures, counting, braiding hair and all the other ways kids all over the world play – in an effort to open up relationships and let them know they are accepted.

And we prayed to God that He would use us!