On the way to the restaurant Wess (the president of Compassion International) told me a story. In the 1980’s, when Ethiopia was under communist rule and the Church was forced underground by intense persecution, Wess held covert meetings with Church leaders to discuss future plans to bring Compassion’s ministry to their country. On one of those visits Wess was speaking to a pastor and was interrupted. “Look who it is!” the pastor shouted. “You are seeing a dead man,” he explained as a waif Ethiopian walked toward them.
This man, also a pastor, had been arrested two days before for preaching at a funeral – a public display of faith in God.
The prison officials decided to make an example of him. They dragged him from his cell and wrapped his wrists in exposed wires that hung from the ceiling. They preached communism to him, commanded him to renounce Jesus. He refused. So they gave him a moment of silence to contemplate his death and then ceremoniously threw the switch.
The lights went dark. The power in the whole region went out. And the guards threw him back in his cell.
The next day, with the power repaired, they once again dragged him from his cell, wrapped his hands in exposed wires, preached communism to him, commanded him to renounce Jesus, gave him a moment of silence and threw the switch.
The lights went dark. The power went out. And the prison officials, certain they’d scared this pastor into submission and silence, beat him and let him go. He walked toward home – to preach at another funeral – and met Wess and his pastor friend on the way.
Hearing the story of his last 48 hours, Wess wrapped his arms around this brutalized pastor and told him American Christians were praying for Ethiopia. “I am praying for America too,” he said, and walked away.
Wess asked his pastor friend to call the man back; he had a question for him. Wess asked the man, “When you pray for America what do you pray?”
“I pray that God saves America from it’s hardships.”
Wess made a face that must have communicated how confused he was by this answer. What hardships? Wess thought.
The man explained. “Here in Ethiopia we have famine and persecution and injustice but America has bigger troubles. In Ethiopia I must fellowship with my Christian brothers every day or I feel I will die. I must do this. But in America we hear there are churches everywhere and you are free to go there yet many Christians do not go to church everyday and some do not go in a week. Is this possible?”
“It is,” Wess said.
“And in Ethiopia I must pray all day, every day, for food and for life. I must do this. But in America we hear there are some Christians who do not pray every day and some do not pray in a week. Is this possible?”
“It is,” Wess said.
“This is bigger problems. So I pray for America.”
Wess finished this story just as we got out of the car. As we walked into the restaurant he told me I was about to eat with a room full of Christians like this pastor. We entered the large room full of tables and took our seats among the leaders of the Ethiopian churches, pastors and presidents of denominations. Men and women who once preached underground and in prisons. People who still worship together or they fear they’ll die. People who pray constantly for food, the sick, safety. All of them lived through the persecution dished out by the communist regime. And all them live with persecution today from the Orthodox Church and Islam. Their churches are burned. Their brothers are beaten. And still they pray for us and our bigger problems.
I soaked up their stories and felt at once ashamed and proud. Ashamed of the American Church and proud of our Ethiopian family. Ashamed at what I call a bad day, a hard time in life, at what I worry about and fight for and ashamed at how little I depend upon God and people. Proud to work with Compassion International, an organization that partners with – not leads – these wise people to save their children and rescue their nation from poverty.
Wess got up to speak tonight and his words said what I felt better than I could. “I feel like a child in a room full of adults.” I never amen, but I did at that.
After the meal and the speeches I met a woman who is the president of a University in Ethiopia. She’s round faced, gray haired with coal black skin and light brown eyes and full of stories. She told me about how she was imprisoned in 1973, the year I was born, for speaking about God at a university. The communists threw her in jail and told her she would soon die. So she preached. She preached to a murderer, a man who trained children to steal, and other criminals. All of them became Christians that night and she was set free soon after. She knows the names of these men she told about Jesus in jail. She knows where they are today. One teaches at a University and sings in his church’s choir. Another owns a construction company and uses his money to help the poor. On and on she went, telling us what each of these men became.
I told her persecution of course isn’t something I wish on myself or anyone else but I wonder if there are some miracles that can’t happen any other way. She smiled and nodded, and put her hand on my arm. “I do not wish this pain for you but if it comes you know now there is much good in it for God.”
I didn’t say anything else. I just sat and listened to the adults tell their stories.