How compassion wrecks me

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.img_4628

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.

8 thoughts on “How compassion wrecks me

  1. Maresa DePuy

    Sue, My eyes are brimmed with tears as I read and my heart is nodding yes. We sponsor a young man in Uganda whom we’ve had the privilege of visiting twice. Words cannot express the joy of seeing him and hearing him call me mum and my husband daddy. These words: “My soul began to crave Desse and the boy who lives there” are so familiar to me as my soul began to crave Africa long before Uganda began beating in my heart. I lift up a prayer today for you and your sponsored son. May God give him a quiet confidence that his mom longs to see him just as much as he longs to see her, and one day soon you will meet face to face. Thank you for sharing your journey!

    1. Sue Schlesman Post author

      Maresa, thanks for sharing! I’m so thrilled for you to have met your sponsored child. I hope I can write the same thing one day. Thanks for your encouragement!!

  2. Peyton Harris in Istanbul

    I understand the sadness that comes with such decisions. The longing in your heart to meet your Ethiopian son can seem overwhelming. I am so thankful that people like you care about those whom you’ve never actually met. And I hope that things will settle down soon enough for you and the team to gather and go. State department warnings and the warnings of those on the ground are important to follow. As I’m sure you know, it is not a matter of you being fearful, it is a matter of following wisdom for this period of time. Knowing that helps our mind understand, but doesn’t always help the heart.

  3. Maggie Ingram

    Very touching and heart wrenching! I had heard that the trip had been canceled and know many people were disappointed! I will pray for your young man and for Ethiopia! This world is shaking everywhere and I know we have to listen to God’s voice when planning any travel these days! Praying that God will make a way for you two to meet!

    1. Sue Schlesman Post author

      Thank you for posting! Maybe this little post will get a lot of people praying for Henok. What amazing things might transpire in his life because more people than me are praying for him! 🙂

  4. Jen Gentry

    Your story has touched my heart and stirred up the spirit warrior inside of me. Your longing to see the boy who bacame a man undet your sponsorship is heartwrenching. I always ask the Lord what purpose does this suffering serve, Father? Your suffereing touches hearts like mine and makes us pray. Giving rise to a spiritual battle for Ethiopia. Ethiopia has long been a spiritual and strategic battleground. I know the Lord has great plans for Ethiopia. I am praying. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Sue Schlesman Post author

      Jen, thanks for your response. I am not suffering, but I know that the children in Africa do suffer. It’s hard to imagine what life is like for them. I hope to experience it one day. Thanks for your prayers for Ethiopia!

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