Ethiopia Visit: Learning Lessons from a Homily

Deacon Bill Heiman is a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. Deacon Bill is participating in the Global Fellows immersion trip to Ethiopia.

After being awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of night by fireworks celebrating the 20th anniversary of the downfall of the Derge, the CRS Global Fellows Ethiopia immersion trip left the hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa for Lalibela. However, before we could leave behind the two-day immersion experience with the Daughters of Charity and Missionaries of Charity, I recalled how I looked out the past night from the Ethiopian Catholic Association balcony window.

In one direction I saw soldiers lining up for a marching parade under the color of fireworks. Then I looked to the other side and noted those unlucky and unfortunate few who were not being served by the caring missionary sisters and instead were trying to sleep in ditches and storefronts. The message of our immersion experience was never more visibly demonstrated than by that dual view.

Ethiopia church

The Church of St. George in Lalibela is one of twelve ancient churches in the area. Photo by Mikaele Sansone/CRS

As the bakeries were opening for lines of woman waiting for their daily bread, sheepherders were moving their animals down the street to market and street cleaners using tall palm-like tree branches were clearing off the main street for yet another anniversary parade. This morning we were off to focus on another CRS Global Fellow dimension – spirituality – in what many refer to as the Eighth Wonder of the World: Lalibela.

To many, Lalibela is known as the “new Golgotha.” Since the 16th century travelers have tried to put into words their experience in Lalibela by simply referring to it as a New Jerusalem. Home to the rock hewn churches which are indeed the miracle churches of the Fourth Century, there could be no better place or opportunity to discern our present and future experiences. Now, as we CRS Global Fellows tried to spiritually understand the impact of our own call to social justice through what we saw, smelled, felt and heard over the last 48 hours with the sisters, the saturday of the Fifth Week of Easter message became clearer to me as I prepared the homily for our daily group Mass.

Day after day the churches grew stronger in faith and increased in number because faithful apostles like Paul and Timothy had been ‘chosen out of this world.’ We learn yet again today that we do not belong to this world, but have been chosen to be out of the world. We learn through our readings that when we act out of believing and living that we do not belong to the world we do indeed change the world!

So, as we truly witnessed today the efforts of many faithful people from long ago, and a great source of national pride for the Ethiopian people, my message today is not one of the grand majesty of what we saw and experienced. Rather it is what happened to me as we returned to our lodging and stopped outside the gates to barter with several local merchants. We had been told that bartering was part of the process, and as I enjoy the ‘art of a deal’, I had set my sights on a small icon of a wonderful Lalibela remembrance.

As I focused in on one particular icon, the merchant and I began the negotiation process. I let him establish the price range (I had asked his competition for their prices) and began to haggle. While he was very friendly, I could tell he was not actively engaged in our negotiating process. In no time I was able to reduce the original price by 75 percent! I was quite happy with my bargaining, and readily agreed to the purchase. And then out of the clear blue sky, as I prepared to hand over my birr (Ethiopian currency) to him he nonchalantly asked me if I could increase my price by including any extra clothes in the deal. Not quite understanding (or acknowledging) what he was asking, I quickly responded that the only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing. I was astounded and overwhelmed by his request.

As I returned to my room I thought more and more about his simple request and how my well worn clothes (I had been wearing that pants and shirt off and on for 5 days) would fit him perfectly. The Gospel message of the day never became so clear to me in such a short time. As I returned across the street with my old clothes in hand, I learned a Global Fellow lesson: that my spirituality becomes most evident when I do indeed act out of believing and living the Gospel message that we do not belong to the world and we can indeed change the world!

May God continue to bless our sojourn of living and learning experiences!

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