Confessions of a Missionary: After 11 months around the world, 10 months back in America & 1 month in Ethiopia
“So, how was your trip to Ethiopia?”
There is always a quick hesitation on my lips as the past month races through my mind with scenes and faces in a blink of an eye, before I say something like…”It was good! It was hard at times, but I met some amazing people and I know that I was there for a reason so I’m glad I went. It was good.”
That’s the short version. And by now it’s been rehearsed over and over because it seems impossible to describe what I actually experienced in that month that felt like a lifetime in another world. It’s easier to give a short blip or summary so that then they might ask me a few questions about jet lag or the food before we move on to talking about the weather and other news.
The short version is easier.
There’s often this glamorized view of missionaries and missions trips. It can be looked at as such noble thing to do, where you go out to save the world, all while having fun and looking good doing it. I wish I could say that I spent every day hugging children, helping solve world hunger and riding elephants with the wind in my hair. But the truth is, in addition to, yes, amazing experiences and small ways of blessing other people, being in Ethiopia for a month was full of emotional, personal and spiritual challenges. These hard-to-talk-about instances are not what people may want to or expect to hear as they await my answer with raised eyebrows and a smile.
The long version, I have yet to fully process or write down. Even now that I’ve been back home for three weeks, everything I experienced in that month has been sitting still and gently on my heart, waiting for me to go back and tap into. If you want the long version, I hope this helps. It’s so much easier to express myself in written word and photographs, and this is actually in itself part of my processing process, so I invite you to join me in my reflections…
In the long version, I could tell you about a beautiful girl whom I met at a time she was skin and bones, and how we took her out to eat and the arcade, about week before she would take her last breath. About how I sat on the hospital bed with her and a Curious George coloring book, speaking in hand signals and the few words we knew in each other’s languages. How I rubbed her back when her eyes welled up with tears because they were forcing her to eat and she didn’t want to. And about hearing the news that she didn’t make it through recovery after her serious heart surgery.
I could tell you about the way her father mourned for her, wrapped in a white cloth sitting on a wooden bench with his back to me inside his house made of mud. How that they shared the same rounded circle eyes. And the way his weaving work hung by off-white string from the ceiling and sticks that made geometric shapes. He made his living that way. A framed photograph of her stood next to one of her mother who had also passed years prior.
I could tell you about the community that lives off of eating trash from the city’s dump and sleeps in tin houses amongst it all, and how over half of them have HIV/AIDS or leprosy. The way their fingers end at knuckles but their smiles stretch across their faces when you speak to them. I saw them spending their days begging on the streets or digging through the literal mountain tops of garbage that gated their homes. I could tell you about the group of women who stood in a line, asking us desperately one by one to sponsor them and their families so that they could be provided food and rent for less than $50 a month.
When I’m asked “How was Ethiopia?”…it’s these next things that come to mind in the midst of beautiful faces and the way hot little coffee cups felt in my palms. It was a whirlwind. It was a month that was full of life, and everything that comes with life, including death. Including highs, lows, confusion, love, beauty, wonder, shock, and joy and tears.
On the first day, I met a team of volunteers who came out to do dental work on those who desperately needed it. I met two of the sweetest boys who lived at a refuge for street kids. I heard parts of their stories and I prayed with them, a hand on each of their bony knees as they sat on a bench. I played soccer with them, right after being on a plane for over 15 hours—and I did it with a joy and strength that was not of myself but of the One who had sent me to be there for such a time.
Slowly but suddenly a heavy reality of the life I was amongst set in like gallons of seawater on my chest. It overtook not only my emotional and mental state, but it struck my spirit in a way I had never experienced before.
(excerpted from journal)
“i didn’t expect this. i don’t know what i expected but it wasn’t this. i didn’t expect to be bawling my eyes out the second day i got here, over things that i knew existed. over poverty that i thought i was used to seeing. over children and babies begging on streets, waddling up to me with cupped hands and wide, dark eyes. they spoke a language i did not understand but it hurt me to the core to have to walk away and leave them empty handed. my eyes welled at the sight of them, in front of the grocery store where i bought food for myself.
i can’t breathe here. literally and spiritually. the air is so thick with pollution, even rolling down the window to get some fresh air leaves me aching for the breeze of the bay back home. as soon as i got here, i felt heavy. and after seeing the way part of the church operates here, my heart is broken all over again. when i saw a young boy wailing in pain and suffering because a priest was violently shucking water in his face for “healing”, my guard went up. dark forces were so present that i could physically feel it in the air. heavy. these people spend their days with flies covering their faces, sitting on rocky dirt in the heat of the sun facing the monastery. even inside the church, which from the outside looks impressive, i felt suffocated. the air was thick with burning incense that saturated my clothes and belongings even until the next day.
it became so overwhelming and i was tired and so, so heavy. i literally couldn’t take it so it just came out in tears. i cried, hard. it was more than just feeling sorry for these people and wishing i could save the world, it was a heart ache and heart-wrenching sorrow that was not of myself. “
Those first few days of feeling spiritually heavy were some of the hardest of my life. It was clear that it was much more than just culture shock to affect me down to my core. It was an overwhelming sense of helplessness and a realization of my place in this world, with perhaps an unconscious (at the time) awareness of my purpose in being there.
I came to Ethiopia to photograph, but also knew as soon as I said “yes” to going that my purpose there was going to be so much more than to document life through a lens. I believe part of the reason God sent me there was to get a grasp of His heart for His people. I know what I felt wasn’t even a fraction of the affection He has for them. And the fact that it overtook my entire being so much that I thought I’d burst (and I did)—when God’s heart for them is that, infinitely multiplied—is nothing short of incredible.
I’ve returned home, having had witnessed a life and world beyond my own. Even after spending 11 months prior to Ethiopia in different third world countries, Ethiopia was one that has impacted me in a unique way. Those first few days would set the tone for the rest of my time there, knowing that each person I would come in contact with was one of immense value, created to have a deep relationship with their Creator. I felt a taste of His heart burning for these people.
This period I’m in right now reminds me a bit of when I came back home from traveling for 11 months on a missions trip, which was a year ago to date. It was a strange re-entry phase, of coming back to “real life” in America when I knew full well that real life was actually happening oceans away.
Now I find myself spending days glued to a chair, working at a computer screen drinking iced coffees and checking Instagram. While I know that I need to take care of life, work and business here– there is a constant mist of memory that hangs in the air. My experiences abroad coat my existence and are consistently a part of everything I do, because they are now a part of me. I have flashbacks, daily, that put me right back in another place, when my daily life didn’t revolve entirely around my responsibilities and obligations here at home. I want my life here to be just as fruitful as anywhere else.
When I went on my first missions trip, I was referred to as a missionary. At the time I thought being a missionary meant someone who wore terrible clothes, lived in a hut and carried truckloads of bibles. I’ve learned though, that being a missionary is simply being mission-minded, the mission being to Love others through Christ.
I am still a missionary even though I am back stateside. This blog in itself is an attempt at a personal ministry that I feel has been birthed as a passion within me. I hope my stories and the stories of those I’ve come in contact with will move you to action, even if it’s as simple as a prayer, or as big as flying to another country, taking a leap of faith, and opening your eyes to a world beyond this one.