Yesterday was our third day in Ethiopia. Time is really strange on this trip. I would never have thought it possible that there could be such a combination of feeling like we’ve been here for weeks instead of days yet still feeling like the time is going by far too quickly. It feels like weeks because of all that we’ve experienced in such a short time span, but it’s too fast because we can all feel the end of our 2 weeks here approaching.
Anyway, elastic time aside, I want to tell you a story. It’s a bit long so you might want to get some water and/or hit the bathroom before you dig in. This story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, though there is joy in it. It’s about taking action and unforeseen consequences. It’s about serving people in the face of the enemy. It’s about disappointment and our response to it. And at the end of day, it’s really all about love and what that means when we put it into practice.
When yesterday began, it was much like the beginning of previous days, though I think there was a lot of hope in the house yesterday. After all we were waking up to Addis having fun outside with Jerainya and Misganao, and there was quite literally a miraculous difference in him in less than 24 hours. From writhing on the street due to malnutrition to being a healthy, thriving, and intelligent 14 year old boy. It was amazing.
So, we had our time of reading our Bibles, writing in our journals, and chatting in the morning. This isn’t a dictated thing. It’s just something that’s naturally happened somehow. I think it’s a family thing. And, yes, it really feels like everyone on the team is family. Certainly, as a guy amongst a team of all women (my wife being one of them) except for Noah, I’ve been party to several conversations that I would never expect in such a situation apart from family – and maybe not even then. We breakfasted together on some awesome crepe-like things, finished getting dressed and ready for the day, and then headed off to Shetai’s house.
On day one, Aki took a few of us to visit her. Shetai is a widow with a son named Alaza who is 10 years old. Both have HIV. Shetai’s husband died 10 years ago from HIV when Alaza was only 2 months old. They have been on their own since then. We asked Shetai what we could pray for with her. She told us about her physical needs, most of which were obvious due to the chilly, rainy day. You see Shetai lives in a plastic house. Plastic houses are structures that have been put together with scrap material that have been scrounged together. It basically consists of a few wooden support posts with a bunch of scrap pieces of plastic, tarps, and assorted other material wrapped around the outside. The roof is a few pieces of wood with a mish-mash of more plastic and a few junk pieces of tin. Her physical needs were obvious because on that day it was cold and damp inside her house, and the rain was pouring through places in the roof in the tiny section of her house that served as a bedroom. She also told us through tears that she felt hopeless because she knew that someday she would die, and she feared for her son and wanted him to have a future. Needless to say, that was a difficult experience.
When we told Kate about Shetai in the evening of day one, we began to hatch a plan to at least do something about her immediate physical needs, especially since the rainy season is on its way here. Kate started orchestrating a project to go and do something about Shetai’s house. This included having Shetai go and get approval from the government to actually do work on the house. She did indeed get approval with the stipulation that we couldn’t really change the house. We could only improve the roof.
That brings us back to day 3. We were off to Shetai’s house to get measurements and determine what kind of materials we would need in order to improve the roof. As we stood inside her home and looked at things, it became obvious that we would need to do some major work on the bedroom side of the house in order to make any kind of lasting improvement. We would have to re-enforce the roof on that side so that the plastic could be stretched over it without having the many sagging spots that were causing most of the existing leaks. We also needed to put more of a slope in that side so the water would run off better. We split into 2 teams, one to stay and clear out the house and prepare for the work and one to go and get materials. Those of us at the house started working with Shetai, her son, and some other people from the community to pull everything out of the house. That didn’t take very long. Then we began pulling off the existing plastic so we could re-cover everything in a more durable fashion. The other team arrived with the materials. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to re-enforce the roof without pulling the bedroom part of the house apart, so we did that. We cut new support posts and put them down into holes in the ground, started to frame up the roof, and put some braces in to support the vertical posts to prevent the house from eventually listing to one side or the other. Several people from the community were helping us with the construction as well.
As we were finishing up the roof framing and continuing to look at ways to brace the structure, a woman came up loudly telling everyone that the construction had to stop. Masti, one of our translators, was quite irritated that we were getting interrupted while just trying to help. He went up to the woman and asked for ID. She pulled out government identification, which pretty much meant that we had no choice. We had to stop. We waited for a few minutes while the government official talked to the local police and told them that we had to stop. The police then came and made us leave the site while Shetai, the government official, Aki, and Yosi went down to the government office for this part of Addis. The rest of us, very frustrated and sad at having been forced to stop, left to go get lunch. Personally, I was having a very hard time dealing with things and not being overwhelmed by anger.
About the time our food was coming out at the restaurant, Aki and Yosi showed up with bad news. The landowner adjacent to Shetai’s house had shown up at the government office as well to make the claim that he wanted to put in a gate to his property where Shetai’s house was. He had apparently been lobbying for this for some time already. Since Shetai’s house was basically an unapproved structure on land not “owned” by her (owned is in quotes because land ownership is a fuzzy thing here), the government said that she not only had to stop the improvement but she also had to move out of the place. We had gone from starting a project to help someone be warm and dry in the morning to that person being essentially homeless. For me, it was a pretty dark moment, most certainly the darkest moment of this trip so far.
As we finished lunch, we headed back to the Guest House. Between the restaurant and there, we decided to go back to get the building materials to hold at the Guest House until we could find a use for them. We were also trying to figure out some short-term solution to Shetai’s housing which was obviously not ideal, but it was our only option at that point. Some of us headed back to Shetai’s along with Aki and Yosi to get the materials and to give Aki and Yosi a chance to talk to Shetai about moving into a place where we’d pay for rent for some period of time, at least a month but probably more like a year. Also, around this time, Addis left to take care of some things that he needed to do. That will be important later.
As we arrived, Shetai invited us into the remnants of her house. She pointed out that she’d patched up what was formerly the little divider between her entryway/common space to make a quasi-wall. As we all sat down on pillows and blankets she had arranged for seating, Shetai said that there was good news. She began to share with Aki and Yosi (which they translated to us) that the community was behind her, including the local police force. In fact, the police force told her that she should stay.
So, sitting there in this house that was now half of the already small size that it was before, looking at bare sky through holes in the roof and the very large open spaces left between the existing walls and the roof, Shetai said that she wanted to stay where she was. She said she could tack up some of the plastic material that we bought a little bit along to cover the open spaces and hopefully protect from the rain. She wanted to stay until she was provided with a government house, which would have affordable rent. We asked a ton of questions trying to understand if she was going to be ok. Aki assured us that this was best, and I trust him. But we also agreed that we would kind of wait a couple of days and see what happens and send some food and blankets back to help get her through the night.
Then she proceeded to apologize to us that we had to go through this and then she blessed us. Seriously. She’s sitting in something that barely constitutes a house that is even worse after our involvement and she’s blessing us. The time at lunch, hearing that Shetai was probably out on the street was the darkest moment, but this was the most emotional by far for me. Aki asked me to pray, and I was struggling to even get words out. But I did my best to cry out to God to provide a way forward, whatever that might be.
We went back to the Guest House and gave the blankets and food to Alaza and some friends to take back. After that, apart from showering and giving Leslie the story of what happened, I just laid on the bed and zoned out for a bit. For dinner, some of the amazing staff here cooked a rice dish and Kate invited some of the local children in to eat with us. It being Alex’s birthday, the children also sang happy birthday to her and cake was had by all.
After dinner, it was time to finally process the day. We gathered together as a group and tried to make sense of everything that had happened. The project we’d started at the beginning of the day had backfired, to say the least. Addis had left and had still not returned which raised all kinds of questions of where he was and what was going on. Things just didn’t seem to be going right. We had some pretty fulfilling and deep discussion of things, and then we prayed. We prayed for all of the people we’ve encountered so far individually including praying again for a way forward for Shetai and praying for Addis’s safety and that he might return if this was the best place for him.
Then we started getting ready for bed. Shortly after that, Kate knocked on our door and told us that Addis had returned! I know that every single person on the team was praising God at the moment of finding that out. I certainly was. Not only because it meant that Addis was definitely not out on the street, but also because it gave us something good at the end of the day to hang onto.
I think somewhere far above I promised that this story was about something. That may be unclear so far just based on the facts. But now I want to tell you what this day meant to me and what I came away with. It would be easy in the midst of having things going wrong to question whether we should even be doing this. Was it really worth the risk to help Shetai? Should we have just revived Addis and handed him some food and water instead of investing in him the way that we did?
That’s where the lesson hit home for me. 2000 or so years ago, when Jesus was walking the earth in human form, would he have said no to helping when it might result in failure? Would he have said no if he thought there was a chance that things could get worse? I don’t think so. I think he would have jumped in. But after having jumped in, I know that he wouldn’t give up. The enemy is at work. We know that. But in our American culture, where we are blessed with a pretty neat and orderly life, it’s easy to begin to be blind to that. Just because we suffer obstacles and major disappointments at the hands of the enemy doesn’t mean we stop trying to help. Sure, we didn’t get a nice picture at the end of the day of a completed house and the warm fuzzy feeling that goes with it. But we won’t give up on Shetai. We will keep at it for as long as it takes. We will continue to pray for the best path forward for her, and we will seek God’s guidance for ways we can take action on her behalf.
And we will get up tomorrow and do it all over again because that’s what He did.
John 16:33 – “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”