Having never been outside the United States, I could hear my grandma’s voice in my head saying “Just don’t go to Africa,” as I shakily wrote a “Ethiopia” as my number one outreach location choice for my Discipleship Training School. It was just after our third week of lecture, and God had increased my perspective on the rest of the globe and how there were people everywhere that needed to know about Jesus. My grandma and the rest of my family eventually got on board with my decision, and I was full of excitement and anticipation over what would happen for us in Africa.

A couple of months later and I’m living life in Ethiopia, sitting on a brightly colored, plastic stool with a woman who ran a small fry stand. She’s fanning the small fire that’s pan-roasting fresh coffee beans. She’s making us buna, which is Amharic for “coffee,” and listening to our translator tell her how we are so thankful to be in her company. She later tells us that she and her sister fled their village because it wasn’t safe to be there as young women, so they didn’t have many friends in their new home. It didn’t take much convincing after hearing that for us as a team to dedicate as much time as we could to being their friend. We spent all of our extra money on coffee and fries just to stay as long as possible at her stand. We listened as she and her sister shared stories of their village, their family, and their life before this stand. It became apparent through building this relationship that these two were at risk for trafficking. When we were there men would come by asking how long it would be before we left. Clothes would be adjusted and smiles fade when this happened. This was the first time I questioned if what we were doing was helpful or harmful. Were we hindering them from making money to eat? Were we ruining her reputation by being Americans that were there too long? Were we putting her in danger of being robbed of the money we were giving her? I started to fear for these sweet sisters that our presence was more of a burden than a blessing, and selfishly, that I was witnessing more than I could help with. 

These questions circulated around my mind until I took the time to ask God about His heart for our friends. I was reminded that sharing Jesus, and showing them that they were worth knowing and worth spending time with, were ways to open their eyes to how God was calling them into an invitation. This is how they got to see the Father’s love for them, displayed brightly in our pursuit of God by loving His people. Not only was it this culture’s way of expressing community and love of others, but also the Kingdom-minded way of expressing community. We built relationships with them and got to bring gifts during Ethiopian Christmas. We made bracelets with them, shared laughs and stories, and made long-lasting memories. Through becoming their friend, we had opportunities to ask deeper questions and be a safe place for them to share about themselves. We saw God’s faithfulness in having open conversations where we could affirm the truth of who they were, even if they didn’t fully understand it yet. I remember telling the older sister that she was beautiful. She immediately shook her head no and looked down, as though she was ashamed. The few of us on those plastic chairs that day were able to shower her with specific things we saw as beautiful.  After hearing about the warmth she shared in inviting us in, and the radiance we saw every time she laughed, she looked up and smiled brilliantly, saying “Amasaganalo” – thank you.

 It was mind-boggling how hard those goodbyes were; how deep relationships can happen over a few weeks and limited communication. Two and a half years later, I still think about these sisters and the many other friends we made. I wonder how they’re doing and if they’d still be fanning a fire while prepping buna for one of their friends. 

Living out the love of God to people, and spending time affirming who they were, was more impactful than any teaching I could have come up with. Outreach was full of these opportunities to show people the reach of God’s love for them. Because living out the Gospel is a lifestyle of inviting people into a relationship with me, just as God has invited me over and over to enter into a relationship with Him through the greatest gift of Jesus.