Next Tuesday, my husband and I are scheduled to leave for Ethiopia, where our missions team should do construction, teach, and minister in the town of Debre Birhan, near the capital of Addis Ababa. The area has changed dramatically over the 10 years that our church has been sending teams there.
The lone dirt road toward the capital is now paved, although still dotted with checkpoints and armed police. (Typical, safe Africa.) The small frame of a church has developed into a large, modern building commanding the street, with an inner courtyard and lots of classroom and community space. The work has progressed under the missionary’s careful leadership and the countless volunteer hours from Americans and Ethiopians. If the building doesn’t show continual progress each year, the Ethiopian government will seize it, quite happily, for their own purposes. This year’s deadline is approaching.
Another deadline looms, one of a more personal nature for me. For the past 15 years, our family has supported a boy, Henok, who is now a young man. In April, when he turns 21, he will age out of the Compassion program where he is enrolled, just 4 hours north by bumpy road from Debre Birhan to his town of Desse. There Henok goes to school (he’s learning to be a mechanic), goes to church, and writes me letters. He’s been asking me for years if I would come visit him.
When he asked the first time, I laughed to myself. After all, my $32/month was a stretch for my budget, an additional gift on top of my regular giving and my regular bills. I knew he must think me a rich American because I can afford to support the education and spiritual mentorship of someone I’ve never met. How could he, who has almost nothing, understand the difference between sponsorship and travel? I give him birthday and Christmas gifts and provide his family with groceries and necessities. Surely, I could also visit.
Someday in heaven, I thought. Just not here. How would I find him? Overcome the language barrier? Make all the arrangements? But the idea took root.
Compassion has a way of slipping into the cracks of the soul, compelling you to view things from other angles. Compassion breeds yearning.
I pictured Henok’s life, and my heart ached. What would a visit mean to him, even in his adult life? What would it mean for me to visit a place I can only imagine, to see the impact of so menial a gift on an entire family–on generations of families? To see one life altered from its destined course of poverty and illiteracy?
My soul began to crave Desse and the boy who lives there.
I considered the merging of this goal with the Ethiopian trips our church regularly takes. I debated the enormous expense. Could I combine the journeys? How might serving Ethiopia become a necessary completion to my years of serving an Ethiopian boy? Was this even possible?
With the love and effort of several people, the plan took shape. Background checks. Shots. Interpreter, vehicle, cameraman, money. Then, when it was safe to assume I would get there, my long-awaited letter to Henok. I’m coming! I will get to meet you!
But this week–a week before our flight–we have an emergency meeting of the team. Our leaders present emails from African missionaries, notifications from state departments, and maps of Ethiopia. There is political unrest in Ethiopia, and it’s mounting.
More than the normal issues of Somalia’s influence on the east and Sudan’s influence on the west, now there’s trouble brewing all over the country. An election is coming, and the various factions are antagonizing one another. The army is being mobilized to potentially dangerous areas. Henok’s town is one of these areas. And the one road connecting him to Addis Ababa will likely be closed. Checkpoints will increase. The airport may be next. Communications and electricity may shut down after that.
All the warnings come from non-partisan organizations advising people to minimize travel to the necessary. Large groups of tourists–especially white tourists–are at risk of being detained. Maybe more.
Our team makes the difficult decision to cancel the trip. Postpone, I say to myself. I’m still going. Sometime before April. Will Henok understand? Will he shake his head and think I lied to him? Will he wonder what danger I’m afraid of? Political riots and retaliation are everyday life in Africa. Don’t I know that? If I’m a Christ-follower, what am I afraid of?
It’s a good question I ask myself. What am I afraid of, and what am I willing to risk?
The Hallmark moment I’ve cherished for years plays repeatedly in my head. In a sea of dark faces, I will know Henok’s face. He will know mine, because he’s studied my pictures. We will race toward each other, and to the curiosity of bystanders, we will embrace. We will sob. We will chatter without understanding one another. We will be the strange combination of a young African man and a middle-aged white woman, hugging and crying. Happy.
He is my child, and I love him. And he loves me. That will have to be enough for now.
Until the moment when we meet, I will wait with a mother’s expectant heart, and I will pray for his safety. I will pray for war to miss him. I will pray for another trip, another day, when the dream is realized.
So this is what compassion does. It wrecks you. It’s wrecked me.
But I think God is pleased with the mess.