By Andrew DeCort
On May 1, 2010 I met a stranger who changed my life forever. I consider this unexpected encounter to be one of the decisive events of my adult life. It is to this day that I trace the birth of ICCG and its mission.
The months leading up to May 1 were some of the most difficult and painful in my life. I had walked through a painful separation with the church I was serving in Addis. Then I began serving as the interim pastor of the International Lutheran Church. In my sermons and private life, I found myself interrogating again and again the true meaning of following Christ.
My mind turned repeatedly to Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. In Luke 10, a religious expert asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus eventually responds by telling his famous story. A man is robbed and left for dead on the roadside. Two religious leaders see the man in his desperate suffering, but they cross to the other side and leave him for dead. A third man – a hated ethnic minority considered condemned by God – stops and helps the man left for dead. Jesus concludes, “Go and do likewise.” This was Jesus’s answer.
The problem that vexed me was that I usually “went and did” like the religious experts. My work required me to pass through Mexico Square several times a week, and Mexico was a place where many of the city’s poorest and most maimed people gathered to beg. Like the man in Jesus’s story, they were seemingly left for dead on the roadside. As I reflected on Jesus’s parable, I desperately wanted to follow the example of the Samaritan Jesus praised, and yet I repeatedly played the role of the ones Jesus condemned – the religious leaders who had something more important to do and thus passed by the suffering man on the other side. This deeply troubled and disturbed me.
Then on Saturday, May 1, I was having lunch at a roadside cafe directly across the street from the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST). I was eating and talking with a few friends, who were students at EGST, when a young man approached our table and begged for help. As so often, we respectfully indicated that we were not going to give anything, and the boy turned away.
But when he turned, the dirty hood he was wearing slipped off, and I saw that he had a terrible wound on the back of his head.
Immediately I found myself wrestling with inner turmoil: Should I stay seated and continue eating lunch with my friends? Or should I get up and help him? I’m not sure how long that inner debate lasted, but I quickly became certain somehow that if I didn’t help this specific person right now, I would be rejecting God’s direct call to me. Somehow I knew must act.
By this time, the boy was some ways down the road, so I got up from the table and started running after him. When I caught up to him and said hello, I saw that he had a condition unlike any I have ever seen before. Approximately the back sixth of his head had rotted away; the bone of his skull was gone and his decaying flesh was exposed. I could literally see the boy’s brain pulsating through his monstrous wound, and I could see that he was in excruciating pain. I was horrified that he was stumbling through the streets begging for help by himself in this critical condition.
His name was Eyob – the Amharic name for Job.
Eyob became for me what Mother Teresa called a “saint of darkness,” a God-sent witness of goodness, love, and hope in the midst of the most horrific suffering – realities that sometimes tempt me to despair that life is meaningless and without redemption.
As I fought for Eyob’s life with the help of many friends and sat with Eyob for hours and then days that turned into months in the hospital, I found out that Eyob’s dream was to become a professor and pastor. Of all the possible young people in Ethiopia, with all the possible dreams that I could have met on May 1, 2010 – sitting across the street from the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, a place for training Ethiopia’s future pastors and professors – Eyob’s dream was my dream: to become a professor and pastor.
To shorten a longer story, we tried our best to save Eyob’s life. Generous friends from around the world contributed money, and Eyob underwent numerous grueling surgeries and skin grafts. Throughout, Eyob maintained his extraordinary strength and cheerfulness, and the surgeon promised that Eyob was cancer-free and would live “a normal life.” But that was not the case. Eyob’s cancer returned over the next few months, and he died in February of 2011. His death came just a few months after I started my Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago – the final step of my training to become a professor.
Ever since I met Eyob and then even more intensely after his death, I have attempted to live with him in my heart. Having finished my education and professional training, the work of ICCG is meant as my attempt to devote myself to fulfilling God’s call on Eyob’s life that death cut short, starting in the very place where I met Eyob years ago: the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.
In Jesus’s teaching, the questions “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” are inseparable. For Jesus, salvation and the way we respond to the sufferings of others are inseparable. According to Jesus, in the response of compassion for the one left for dead, the love of God is revealed, and the way of heaven is opened.
I experienced this with Eyob. A young man, who physically embodied what I hated about the world and what drove me to question the goodness of God, became for me a powerful witness of God’s love, kindness, and goodness. A time of death became a season of new birth in my life. I discovered in Eyob’s character and way of life a kindness, generosity, and care for others – especially for other suffering children in the burn ward of the hospital – that acted like a window into the heart of Jesus despite his horrific appearance. Eyob, the embodiment of the problem of evil, became for me the embodiment of God’s promise of redemption and resurrection.
ICCG aims to inspire and empower Christian leaders in Addis Ababa to study and practice the connection between God’s salvation and the suffering neighbor, neighbors like Eyob. In all of our work, Eyob will always be the founding pastor and professor of The Institute for Christianity and the Common Good.
As we attempt to share presence, strengthen theological education, and promote neighbor-love for the suffering in Ethiopia and beyond, we seek to continue the work that Eyob started.