You know you’re skinny when Ethiopians tell you to eat more. And that happened to me twice tonight at a traditional Ethiopian dinner. Ephraim, Paco, Wess, Brian, Evelyn (a Leadership Development student’s sponsor) and I toured Compassion’s country office here in Addis Ababa and then ate with almost all of the country staff.
We sang, prayed, and talked for hours. Ephraim thanked the staff for being the largest and fastest growing Compassion nation on the continent of Africa – over 60,000 children here are cared for by Compassion International. He then reminded them that they set themselves a lofty goal – 100,000 children – and that it was their goal and only attainable if they continued to rely on God and persevere as they have for the last fourteen years.
Then Wess, the president of Compassion International spoke. I love to hear Wess speak because he tells the best stories. He went back to the beginning of Ethiopia’s relationship with Compassion – a story I doubt many of us knew. Wess has worked for Compassion International for 30 years. More than twenty years ago, when Ethiopia was a communist country and religion was forbidden for the most part, Wess came to Ethiopia and met with the underground church. Their church buildings were locked, the doors sealed by the government. Their leaders were routinely imprisoned and beaten. It was illegal to own a bible. Ethiopia was a “closed country.” But Compassion was there. Wess, long before he was president, met in secret, quietly advocating for children, supporting the work of church leaders and making them promises in basements and underground rooms. He promised that when the doors to Ethiopia opened Compassion would immediately enter and help these churches take care of children and families in their communities.
The doors opened. Literally. Church doors were unbarred and Christians came above ground by the millions. During that time of persecution that church had doubled in size. The crowds wanting into the churches were so large that speakers had to be placed outside the buildings so prayers, songs, sermons and testimonies could be heard by the masses gathered outside them.
The first major decision Wess says he made as president of Compassion was to keep his promise to the Church in Ethiopia. Compassion began working here fourteen years ago, and has almost three hundred projects in this small African nation, and the Church has doubled again in that time. Eating with these people and hearing Wess speak, knowing he’s a man who keeps his promises, it’s easy to believe 100,000 children will soon be cared for by Compassion in Ethiopia.
Then Wess introduced Paco and asked him to share a few words with us. He told us about growing up poor in Guatemala and being sent to college to study business. He eventually became the Vice President of a global and well-known pharmaceutical company. And today he is the vice chairman of Compassion’s board of directors. He talked about understanding the poverty in Ethiopia and understanding the business skills needed to run a corporation as large as Compassion. Because of his unique expertise and knowledge of both poverty and business you could feel the pride in the room when he bragged on Compassion Ethiopia’s work ethic, accounting, attention to detail, organization and leadership. I’ve seen the same binders full of numbers that he’s seen but they made sense to him – I trust him when he says Compassion Ethiopia is operating with the greatest financial integrity possible.
During Paco’s speech, Wess looked over at me from across the room and smiled. He mouthed the words, “You’re next” and my heart began to race. I wasn’t sure what he meant but I feared he wanted me to speak. What could I possibly say that hadn’t been said? What could I say that would embolden this crowd of workers? I’m just a singer. I’m not an accountant or a president of anything.
My fears were realized. Wess took the microphone and introduced me, asking me to say something, and as he handed me the microphone he whispered, “Just open your heart and speak to us.” And I did. I almost threw up but I did speak.
I thanked the staff for their hard work on behalf of children and for getting us through third world traffic safely. And I talked about the kingdom, how it comes when God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I thanked them for bringing the kingdom to Ethiopia and for showing it to me this week. And I told them I wanted to change Compassion’s motto. The motto on everything Compassion prints is “Rescuing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” I told them I wanted to add a line. I think under the usual motto it should say “And saving the rest of us from wealth in Jesus name.” I thanked them for rescuing not only children but grown ups like me too. I explained that when someone at my concert is convinced to give $32 a month to save a child in Ethiopia that person is also being saved by that child. Saved from selfish ambition, consumerism, self-obsession, and the belief that what they have is theirs. I thanked them for teaching my children the difference between want and need, between hungry and starving. Sponsoring children, reading their letters, giving them their own money, has taught them that. My children are being rescued from affluence as we, as a family, rescue the poor.
Then we ate and prayed some more and I left feeling what I often get to feel in my work: we’re connected. Like the church underground decades ago, never meeting all together but always apart of each other, we’re connected across oceans and races and denominations. The gifts go in all directions, from rich to poor and back again, from America to Ethiopia and in reverse. I felt that tonight. We’re one. Their children are mine and mine are theirs. And together we teach them all.