This July, I had the unique opportunity to go straight from studying abroad in Italy, to traveling in Europe with my family, to then flying to Ethiopia where I spent two weeks with Young Life Expeditions. My first few days in Ethiopia were full of culture shock and difficulty making sense of the realities before my eyes. I couldn’t reconcile the wealth of the cities I visited in Europe with the apparent poverty before me.
Not far into the trip, however, I discovered that there are more similarities between Italy and Ethiopia than I may have expected. Some of you history buffs may know that there have been two Italo-Ethiopian Wars. You can still see traces of Italian influence, from local gelaterias, to pizzerias, to cappuccinos and the like. However, for me, the connections went beyond visual or culinary similarities.
In Italy, my professor emphasized the idea, “What is the hidden subject beyond the apparent reality?” It is essentially a charge to move past the surface of things and seek the truth of a place or experience. This idea was defining for my time in Italy, and it carried over into Africa.
In Addis, my eyes were at first stuck on the surface: muddy sidewalks, plastic shelters lining the streets, unpaved and bumpy roads with occasional goat or cattle crossings. However, the more time we spent in the city and with the Ethiopian staff, the more I was able to find the “secret center” of the place.
One of several examples of this occurred at a coffee ceremony. Feresalem, one of the YLA Regional Directors, explained to us the significance of this ceremony: In Ethiopia, you never drink coffee alone. Every morning, someone roasts a pot of coffee and then invites their neighbors over to drink it. There is a distinct beauty in this culture of community and hospitality that I think I often miss in my individualistic American context. As we sipped coffee together, I felt more like part of the community than anything else. This sense of interwoven community carried forth the remainder of the trip and was a beautiful part of Ethiopian culture to experience.
I also saw the hidden subject as I increasingly saw the ways in which the gospel was rooting in Ethiopia. In recent years, Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency three times. Through this, the staff have prayed into where God is leading them in ministry. His answer was clear: reach out to the orphans, prisoners, and street kids.
What may on the surface look like a country of political turmoil and economic problems, underneath you find the gospel weaving itself out through God’s willing servants.
At first glance you may simply see an old high school, or an orphanage, or a trash dump. Yet once you enter into these places, you will run into Ethiopian Young Life staff members who are burning with the love of God and have dedicated their entire livelihoods to helping others come to know Christ.
With the charge of my Italian professor in the back of my mind, I was able to both make connections between Italy and Ethiopia, as well as move past initial reactions and surface encounters in order to experience Ethiopia in a beautiful and moving way. As I linked ideas from my semester abroad and into Africa, I gained a deeper sense of how God’s spirit is moving globally: God is working throughout all time, countries, and cultures to unite us all in one Church, and we get to be a part of this mission.