Count the Concatenation – Exploring Ministry in Ethiopia

Concatenation: the linking of things together, or the state of being interconnected

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:28-33.

Last week, myself, two Allender Center staff members and a director of an Ethiopian ministry met to discuss developing a curriculum to train indigenous care givers in trauma and abuse therapy. This Ethiopian ministry serves street kids and prostituted boys, girls and women. They are a remarkable group and the prospect of working with them is a true honor.  As we spoke, I looked at the faces of my two Allender Center colleagues and I knew they were exhausted. We have been in the start-up phase of our ministry and we are busy preparing for year two of operations  where we will be adding an additional training program for lay people who work with people who know trauma in the past and/or present.

However, both of my colleagues have long and deep connections to East Africa.  They radiated with anticipation and intensity.  I felt old and tired.  But I remembered the fusion of joy I felt the last night I  was in Ethiopia when I knelt with friends on a linoleum floor until the blood in my knees began to drain into my feet and I felt the black hands from 14 nations bless our heads and howl us in waves of dance and sound to the throne of God.

I am bound to the faces of Cherry and Wondi, the two directors of this Ethiopian ministry.  They are two of the most courageous, beautiful, hilarious, passionate followers of Jesus I have ever met.  My heart yearns to be back in their presence.  And I am exhausted and I know every question we ask and the discussion regarding the grave impediments to the project are moving us all closer to the inevitable tipping point where we decide yes or no.  The plot always thickens; the decision congeals.

I was struck with the untenable reality that every decision is a simple yes or no.  But within the decision is the vast concatenation of choice that no one can possibly surmise.  One day you will make a decision and run out the door to get a carton of milk and it will be your last trip on the earth due to the insolent violence of a drunk driver. You will say yes to a ministry opportunity and not be able to calculate the number of hours you will spend keeping the team patched together while addressing the envy, hurt, and misunderstandings amongst your volunteer team.

It is far worse than the future is uncertain.  It is far worse than mere pessimism.  It is utter certainty that the avalanche of new choices will in their own right spawn new decisions that demand a reckless entry into more complexity.  Decisions don’t simplify into an esthetic purity; they propagate into a promiscuous orgy of chaos.

I know the language is extreme.  I also know most people are not foolish enough to start graduate schools or attempt to translate Western trauma care into a context that does not need the patronization of another Western approach to African issues.  Everything about the task feels daunting. In most African languages there are not words to address trauma based suffering and shame.  There is a dearth of expressions to account for the suffering that comes as a result of being a victim of injustice, especially with regard to one’s inner world.  Is that a failure or part of the culture’s wisdom?  Even the answer to that question reveals bias and sets up a series of choices that in turn takes us to a different place.

It would be easier simply to not go; or go and teach what we offer here and let the Ethiopians and East Africans do the translation.  It is easier to plunge ahead and not think or be overwhelmed by the complexity and quit.

Each decision is made in the presence of a veil that is lifted only when one begins the journey–and by then it is usually too late to turn back or change engines mid-flight.  No wonder we are called to count the cost, but every effort to do so only exposes the weight is greater than we can comprehend.

In my soul I knew the moment would come.  Our team was asked if we wanted to participate in a research study to interview and learn from a dozen African leaders who were already involved in trauma care. We had taught this same group 3 years earlier and the study would allow us to see what concepts translated and were helpful and what did not.  The question came as quietly as a soft bird twill on a cool spring wind.  Alluring, easy, seductive.  Thankfully we have no money. Thankfully there is no time.  We are exhausted and there is so much that needs to be done just to keep our little boat afloat.

Faces, sounds, piercing, haunting prayer, hands on my head, the movement of the room and the tears in Wondi’s eyes, the thousands of women, boys, and girls lining the streets feet from our hotel, the injera.

The value in counting the concatenated costs, known and unknown, is that it invites us to move as close as we can to the rumbling and rumination of desire deposited in us by the Spirit.  I don’t know if I heard God.  I can’t at the moment say Jesus told me what to do.  I can say the exhaustion, fear, resourcelessness did not dissipate the desire; it only intensified it.

We said yes–but only yes for now, only for the research, only for this one trip.   We need to know our limits.  We need to be realistic. We need to count the cost.  We need to say yes.  Yes to giving up. Yes to giving over.  Yes.