One morning in Ethiopia, the women’s team broke into smaller groups to make home visits to bring clothes and supplies. Guides from the ministry led us through these visits -- I mentioned them several blogs ago—a remarkable group devoted to helping HIV-positive individuals. Our team made two visits. The first was to a gentleman, and the second was to a woman and her sixteen-year old daughter. All three had been diagnosed with HIV (the daughter was born with it). After our bus let us off, we found the remaining journey on foot to both residences challenging. We balanced on rocks and waded through mud. The walks, however, were worth the effort. In both instances we were warmly welcomed with smiles and hugs. In both instances they were anxious to share with us their stories. We huddled around them and they began. Their stories were difficult to hear. Our sweet translator had to stop repeatedly in order to hold back his own tears. We were not as successful. How do you hold back tears when someone tells you that they were thrown out of their family home because of their illness? How do you hold back tears when they tell you they were stoned by their family because of that same illness? How do you hold back tears when a young girl shares a poem she has written about her life that included being mocked and ostracized at the government-run school? How do you hold back tears when you learn about the pain and suffering they had all endured, because of both their illness and the abusive nature of individuals they encountered? We could not. We entered their pain as we listened. But through my tears I was not blinded by one remarkable feature of all three of them. As I looked at each one, in the midst of their narratives, I knew I was looking “joy” in the face. Bitterness over their past was absent. Hope and encouragement characterized these individuals, and yet by any standards they were still living in poverty. And while they had been treated, they still had the disease. How could this be explained? The woman repeated something several times as she shared. “I chose Christ.” She wanted us to know for certain that the choice to believe had been her own. It was the choice that each person had made that changed their countenance from despair to joy. It was that choice that made all the difference.
One of the challenges of sharing about God and His love to individuals in a very hard place, such as the situations we witnessed in Ethiopia, was that at times, I feared the words would come across as empty: God loves you. God sees you in your circumstances. God wants to comfort you. What could that practically look like in their lives? Would believing this change their situation? Would it pull them out of poverty? Would it guarantee them a job, education, or health? Not necessarily. But when I looked at each of these individuals, I clearly could see why knowing Christ makes a difference. Spending time with Him, and understanding His eternal promises, literally changes one’s face.
“Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.” Psalm 34:5 (New Living Translation)