When I was asked to accompany our Diocesan trip to Ethiopia with Catholic Relief Services and Turning Wine into Water, I thought the theme of the trip was going to be “For I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.” In fairness to me, we were going to see an inauguration of a clean water project!
What ended up happening was something far different, and more amazing than I could have ever imagined.
It started right after I arrived at a Cistercian monastery in a tough part of the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Abba. My Fairfield County bubble had just burst in a spectacular way, and I was visibly anxious. I’ve always been a worrier. I’ve always been hesitant to go anywhere near the borders of my comfort zone, so I was severely out of my element. One of the seminarians at the monastery, who I had just met, noticed right away.
“John! Why are you nervous?” he asked as he was moving me into my room that they had meticulously prepared.
I didn’t have a good answer, so I mumbled something about everything being so new and overwhelming to me.
“No need to be nervous,” he said, “This is home. This is your home. No need to be nervous. We will take care of you.” It was radical hospitality in its purest form.
I nearly cried. Here I was, in Ethiopia, there because I thought God had sent me because of my communications qualifications. I thought I was there to help my brothers and sisters, and I was closed to the fact that they could help me. That was one of the many moments in the trip where I felt like I “woke up.”
Those moments of awakening continuing happening almost every day. One such moment occurred when we were driving into the village of Biliti, hours away from our idea of “civilization,” to hundreds of people lining the streets cheering, clapping, and smiling. I remember the honor guard of motorcycles and donkeys the village organized to greet us, and the abundant joy and love that every single person present poured upon us. We felt the presence of God radiating from everyone we met.
I felt so unworthy. Here were people, who physically had very little, and they were offering me food and an honored place to sit. They were treating me like a family member, and yet, three days before, all I could think about was how nervous and uncomfortable I was.
I could go on (and on, and on), but I am already getting too long for our BPT Reflections, so I will end with this. When I was leaving the Cistercian monastery (after three days) to join up with the rest of the group, I was talking to that seminarian again. His name is Fikadu, and we had become friends.
“Fikadu,” I said, “you guys have gone above and beyond for us. You’ve rolled out the red carpet for us. Why?”
He smiled, as if the question was a silly one, “Because we see Jesus in you.”
All week I thought it was going to be “I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” and that I was going to be the person giving the drink. I never imagined it would be “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,” and that I would be the stranger.