There have been days since I came home from Ethiopia when I have wondered why I went in the first place. There are days when I feel as though my time there was pointless…I spent three years working for and with people, only to see that I was unable, as far as I can tell, to make any kind of difference in their situations. I couldn’t heal their sicknesses. I couldn’t provide homes or food for all those who needed them. I couldn’t guarantee that they would be able to continue their education. And, on top of all these things, I was able to leave that environment and return home, at the cost of leaving the ones I love so dearly there. I have, and will continue, to struggle with these realities. I carry the cross of love – the burden of knowing and caring for those whom I cannot save.
This week, I received the news that one of the boys who I loved so dearly has passed away. Although this is something that I experienced several times while I was in Ethiopia, this particular case was a new kind of tragedy for me. I have stood at the funerals of children who have passed away from AIDS complications and deprivation and car accidents. This time was different, and I shattered.
What good was I, if by being there with these children and loving them, they still had so little hope in their situations? Was my time, my energy, my love, worth anything? Why was I there?
And there was my problem. That word “I”. It was never about me. Before I left for mission, I wrote my reason for going. I found that writing the other day. It said, “I am going so that I can, poor as I am, reflect in some small way how much God loves these children through my actions. My hope is that each child I work with will know, without a doubt, that they are loved.” It was always about them. And, as sad as I am, as angry as I am, as frustrated and frightened as I am, I know, in the depths of my soul, that I did this. My kids, my boys, my students, know that I love them. They knew I loved them then, and they know that even from 10,000 miles away I love them still. I can’t save them. I am not God. I can’t change the culture into one that will care for them. I can’t change society so that they will have a fair chance.
But I can love them, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
While I am 10,000 miles away, I still fight for them and love them. And one of the ways that I am going to do that now is by telling you, the ones who never knew him, about one of the bravest young men that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I can tell you the story of a boy who, before the age of 10, through no fault of his own, ended up homeless on the streets of Addis Ababa. Without role models and caring relationships, he fell into desperate and hurtful circumstances. If there is a vice, he has tried it. When I met him, he was still so far under the influence of drugs that he could hardly maintain eye contact with me. Skinny and starving, covered in sores and insects, unable to smile.
He was brave. It takes courage to admit that you need to change, and humility to work towards that. His road was not easy. Withdrawal was brutal, temptations and addictions haunted him, and his own culture constantly reminded him that he had little value and too many sins to be forgiven. He carried his guilt with him – constantly. Adults he should have been able to turn to for help only reminded him of his place, his past, and his faults. And yet, he still tried to change.
I remember the struggles. The arguments we had over washing his clothes, doing his homework, making his bed, speaking politely. He resisted these things, mostly because they were unfamiliar and overwhelming and frightening. And I remember the day that he called me to show me that he had washed his clothes properly all on his own; and I told him he did a good job. The day that he completed his homework and read 10 words on his own; I drew a star and a smiley face on the page, and after that he wanted drawings every time. The first time he ever came and asked, humbly, for help; and I spent four days repairing the most tattered, threadbare jacket I have ever seen.
So now, I am telling the first time he ever came and asked, humbly, for help; and I spent four days repairing the most tattered, threadbare jacket I have ever seen.
I remember how gradually, he started to be able to smile. He stopped flinching when I raised my hand to place it on his head or shoulder. He would come to help me with chores, unsolicited, and chatter with me all the while we worked. I remember taking him to the hospital when he was sick, and how, when he woke up, he held my hand and promised that he would be okay for me. I remember the day he reached out and hugged me for the first time, so nervous, expecting rejection. And I remember how that grew, until he always knew that he would be welcomed to sit with me, talk with me, play with me, ask questions.
It was a long road.
So now, I am telling you. How you treat others, matters. How you forgive and love and encourage others, matters. How you fight for others, matters. Your life isn’t about you. It isn’t about what you can get, or what you can do, or how you can live. It is about how you use what you have to touch the lives of others.
Yes. I could not save the ones I loved so dearly. I am not a savior. I could not change a country to make them accepting and forgiving of the least among them. I could not provide everything that my loved ones needed for survival. Most likely, I will never know what effect my time and love and effort had. But I believe that God can use my meager gifts to influence others. If others learned patience, or acceptance, or love, because I showed it, then perhaps they can reflect it to others. If by being different and strange, I challenged traditional conceptions of love and worth, service and care, then perhaps others will begin to show that too.
I did not change the world. And that was not my job. My job was to love those in my life, and to be sure that they knew they were loved. And as for me, that I know I did, and continue to do. And that is why, 10,000 miles away, I mourn for a boy who died much too young, in circumstances that no child should ever face. Precious as he is, he is worth every tear.