I started this post over a month ago. Literally a month ago. It has been a very difficult post to write. I’ve rewritten it several times and have never been satisfied. I think I’ve figured out the reason why I couldn’t bring myself to post it. This particular experience in Ethiopia was a defining moment for me. Many of you may have likely had a defining moment or two. Maybe it’s when you choose your career path and the certainty you felt when you knew you would spend the rest of your life pursuing this career. Maybe it was the day you realized your spouse was the one you were meant to marry. Maybe one of your defining moments was the day your faith became real to you or maybe it was the day you held your child in your arms for the first time. What makes a moment a defining one? I think it is when it completely changes your perspective, when you walk away knowing that you can’t go back to being the person you were before. And that is quite possibly one of the scariest feelings ever.
Occasionally those moments scare us enough to make us want to forget about them rather than embrace them. This was certainly one I wanted to forget. I’ve talked a bit about this experience with several people, but never to the necessary extent. It was an emotional experience that I wanted to share with people but not one that I actually want to share the impact on me. That would be far too much accountability. And when you aren’t sure what to do with the feelings and thoughts that you have, the last thing you want is people watching and waiting for you to do something.
What I experienced on Christmas afternoon (Christmas on the Ethiopian calendar) was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I experienced firsthand what most only see in the movies or read about in a newspaper; human suffering so intense and so overwhelming that you cannot grasp the magnitude of it. I’ve seen this type of human suffering in various places and times before, but never so much in one place. I have to believe that even the most seasoned healthcare professional would struggle with this overwhelming amount of suffering and desperation.
Our team had devotions every morning and we were working through the book of Mark. Following this experience on Christmas afternoon, we read Mark 8. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We discussed this verse as a team, exploring the various meanings of denying oneself. One team member said that we followed this verse by coming on this trip. We sacrificed money, time off, studies, etc. to make the trip happen. This didn’t sit well with me. While yes, some sacrifices were made to come on this trip, the sacrifices were minimal when compared to what we gained. I can’t see myself as someone who denies herself or takes up her cross to follow Jesus. I don’t feel that I sacrifice anything that even compares to the sacrifice Christ made for me. But on Christmas afternoon, I did meet a woman that has sacrificed more than I could ever imagine.
Her name was Sister Benedicta. She was a German nun serving for the last 25 years with Mother Teresa’s Missionary of Charity Sisters. If you’ve ever learned or read anything about Mother Teresa (and you really should, she was a remarkable woman) you know that the organization Mother Teresa founded was various homes for the sick, dying, and destitute. She believed in giving the dying a place to die with dignity. The place we walked into on Christmas Day was one of these homes. I use the term “home” loosely. It was a compound that has nearly 1000 patients. Sister Benedicta was one of the 12 nuns that ran this compound. She worked in the mothers and children section. She was responsible for upwards of 200 patients. She had a staff of 10 people to assist her. She worked 7 days a week, morning to night. She has been working like this for 25 years (9 of which have been spent at this compound in Addis Ababa.) Not sure if you got that… 7 DAYS A WEEK. She expressed the frustration of the never-ending cycle, new patients never stop arriving. You release one patient, and there are 10 more waiting. The work is never done.
We experienced this as we walked near the gates of the compound and literally a dozen very sick, very poor people were begging to enter the gate. People with diseases you would never see in the US (at least never on the street): leprosy, tumors bigger than their heads, missing limbs, open sores, etc. It was incredibly intense to walk past these individuals in our clean clothes holding our nice backpacks and water bottles, many of us with some kind of electronic device in our pocket (iphones, ipods, etc) that would pay for a year’s worth of food and clean water for those individuals. When we entered the compound it was fairly calm. Only the guard and one woman stood in the entryway of the compound… but things got very intense, very quickly. As we turned the corner and headed to the first ward, patients trying to sell hats and bracelets surrounded us. They sold these items to raise money to return home or start a life when they left Mother Teresa’s home. Then as we entered the main portion of the compound you saw room after room filled with sick and dying men. They took us to the various rooms and told us who stayed in each room. Some rooms were for those who needed surgery, others for those with cancer, and still more for patients with hepatitis or AIDS. In a few rooms, we would hear a person crying out in pain in a way that you wish you never in your life had to hear.
The compound was very basic. The food they fed the patients was obviously anything they could scrounge up for a small price. It was very difficult to recall our amazing Catholic cathedrals and expensive Protestant churches which took millions of dollars to build in contrast to this organization that is providing for the most destitute of the world yet lacking the ability to provide for basic needs. Not a proud moment to be a “wealthy” Christian.
One of the next places we visited in this compound not only made me question the selfishness of Christians but the goodness of God. We entered the ward for the mentally disabled. My mother has worked with the mentally disabled since she was a teenager. I grew up around those with mental disabilities; my aunt has Down ’s syndrome and is the center of our family. Being around a large group of people that are mentally disabled does not make me nervous or uncomfortable. However, being around mentally disabled who are considered unwanted by society, with no family, no possessions, and no education… this affected me. In one room there were more than 20 disabled children with only one or two workers taking care of them. Many just lay in their beds looking hopeless, others cried out as we entered, begging for our attention. Some lay on the concrete floor grabbing at our feet and arms, trying to receive some form of human touch. One room had a little boy that I will never forget. When I walked over to the beds, the boy (probably 10 years old but the mind of a young toddler) immediately jumped into my arms and clung to me for dear life. He was so excited by being held he began to laugh uncontrollably. I will never forget that smile as long as I live. I could feel his nails dig into me as he clung to me, laughing so hard that he began to choke. I just kept holding him. A few of the team members had to walk out of the room at the sight of this child clinging to me as he did. As he saw the nurse coming towards us, he continued to laugh and cling to me even tighter. His choking on his own laughter became so intense that the nurse had to pull him off of me to calm him down so he could breathe regularly again. He was a child that received so little affection and did not want to relinquish the human touch. It is not the fault of the overworked and understaffed nurses that these children are starved for attention, there simply are too many patients and not enough help. When she took him off of me, I respectfully left the room; I could see that I was causing more disruption than help. Walking away from that little boy was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I wanted to stay and hold him. I wanted to stay and calm him. I wanted to take him home with me and love him every day of his life. But instead, I had to walk away. I had to leave someone’s little baby, forgotten by society, to be touched only a few times a day. Those are the moments that you feel that you have no control. Those are the moments that you question where God could possibly be in this. Those are the moments you realize you are selfish and horrible as you are absorbed in your day to day “troubles” while suffering like this occurs for no real reason. My stomach turns even now as I write about this experience; this is the first time I’ve even allowed myself to think of it since I’ve gotten back. Sometimes you just want to forget things, but that’s my selfish nature. The experience was uncomfortable. The memory is uncomfortable. But forgetting does nothing for that little boy or the thousands just like him.
Sacrifice is relative. A trip to Ethiopia requires some sacrifice, but very little in comparison to the sacrifice that Sister Benedicta makes every day. In this world there are selfless individuals who redeem the rest of mankind. They are those who give their lives to serve others. Not an hour a week, or a couple weeks a year, but their entire lives. We should not forget or overlook their commitment and sacrifices. When interviewed about the compound, Sister Benedicta’s response was the quoting of Mother Teresa, “We can’t do what you do, you can’t do what we do; but together we can bring about something beautiful.” We NEED the Sister Benedictas of the world; we likely need many more Sister Benedictas. We also NEED those of us at home, growing our careers, providing for our families, and helping our community. Those of us have a responsibility at home, not only to do the best with what we have been given, but also to sacrifice something for the benefit of others. But as we live our lives at home, we cannot forget about the Sister Benedictas and remember that it is our job to make sure they can feed the hungry, love the unloved, and provide adequate medical care to those who would otherwise have no hope. We must support them, in our prayers, in our thoughts, in the education of the children, and in our finances. We would all agree Sister Benedicta is an amazing woman who gives selflessly, but do we appreciate her sacrifice enough to sacrifice Starbucks for a week to support her ministry? Just as Mother Teresa says, we cannot do what Sister Benedicta can do, but we do play a part.
After this experience, my perspective shifted. At times I want to forget about what I saw, felt, and learned. I cannot think about the compound without tears welling up. My stomach turns every time I think of that little boy. It would be easier to forget. But I’m reminded why I can’t. I had a dream last night that I was at the Grand Canyon with some family. They had never been to the Grand Canyon before. But they were tired and preferred to sleep rather than go outside and see this incredible landscape. I was incredibly frustrated. I knew what was out there. I had been to the Grand Canyon a half-dozen times. I wanted them to see what I knew was out there. I wanted to share the beauty of the experience. But they could only listen to their tired bodies. A friend was there with me and he said, “Let’s just go anyway. No point in missing it because they are tired.” So we went to the Grand Canyon and hiked for hours. (There was a random water balloon fight in there, but it was a dream and not everything makes sense.) How easily we miss out on some really fantastic things because our bodies or minds tell us don’t bother. Now many people would sleep through the Grand Canyon (though I do recall having to argue with ministry students on our trip to Phoenix that the Grand Canyon was actually very much worth the drive) but we will miss out on a lot of other things. Mother Teresa’s home wasn’t beautiful in the same way that the Grand Canyon was beautiful. But the impact it makes on the lives is incredibly beautiful. Right now, I feel like I am choosing to sleep through that scene. I am choosing to listen to my thoughts reminding me of all the things I have to do here in Savannah, with my church, my job, my family, etc. But life is more than this. There are incredibly beautiful things happening around the world that I am missing because I see the sacrifice as too great. In my dream I had a friend that took my hand and told me don’t miss out because of what others were saying. I had so many friends like that when I considered the trip to Ethiopia. I’m surrounded by people in my life who encourage me. But it has to come to a point that you choose the sacrifice based on what you’ve been shown in your journey. Mother Teresa’s was a defining moment for me. I’m meant to do something more than my everyday life. I’m meant to be a part of something as beautiful as that home. I may not know exactly what that is, but I know that if I sit and wait for it to happen to me, I will be waiting a long time. Just as the Grand Canyon won’t come get you out of bed, figuring out what your life is meant to be won’t show up on your doorstep in the form of a map. It is only found by searching.
Sacrifice is relative. Everyone’s sacrifice will look a little different. For some it will be writing a check, even when their mind is telling them they shouldn’t. For some it will be a short-term trip to a developing country. Still others, it will be a complete change of lifestyle. Regardless, the important thing is that you don’t wait for it to happen to you. You make it happen. Sacrifice can begin now. And if you have trouble finding what to sacrifice, give me a call, I will help you out. J