Blessed are the poor in spirit: Detroiters experience God's love in Ethiopian village

Newly ordained Fr. Adam Nowak, then a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of Detroit, smiles and laughs with children in the southern Ethiopian village of Meki during an immersion trip with 11 other Detroit-area young adult Catholics in May. (Photos courtesy of Beth Allison)

Catechesis, lost luggage and learning a language of love all part of the trip, missionaries say

MEKI, Ethiopia — Sarah Mikota nannies sometimes as a side job, so she's comfortable around children. 

So when she heard about the opportunity to travel to Africa in May to be part of a small contingent of Catholic young adults teaching Bible stories to Ethiopian kids, she couldn't pass it up. 

“These kids were just really excited to meet us and hang out with us all day,” Mikota said. “When we came over, they were so excited to see us, and we were so excited to see them. There was hugs all over, and there was just immediately love.”

The New York City resident and former member of Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Lincoln Park was one of a dozen Catholics who spent a week and a half in southern Ethiopia as part of a project sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki. 

Rather than building structures, the 12 Detroit-area young adults focused on building souls, said Beth Allison, the group's leader.

Twelve Detroit-area young adults spent 10 days in Ethiopia in late May, talking and learning from the native villagers and teaching Bible stories to children. Here, Kurt Hill, Joi Hunter, Demetria Blair and Sarah Mikota pack up a cart pulled by a donkey. 

“This is was an immersion trip, so it's a little different than a mission trip or any other trip,” said Allison, a member of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms. “We weren't going there to do something or build something, but to build relationships with the people there, hearing their struggles and being immersed in their world.”

The relationship approach to spreading the Gospel means living among the faithful, learning their culture, gaining trust and teaching the Gospel message in a way all can understand, Allison said.

The group worked out of Bishop Abraham Desta’s compound at the vicariate’s cathedral, where the 12 Detroiters taught Bible stories to a group of 60 or more children, played soccer and football, drew pictures, jumped rope and spent 10 days learning what the universal Church looks like in Ethiopia.  

“Immersion trips break the mentality that we are going in and trying to save and fix them,” Allison said. “It helps people understand the struggles of the area, how to work with the people who are there, listening to their needs. It’s not about imposing what we feel would be a solution, but really working with them and listening to them.”

Catholics comprise a very small minority in Ethiopia — about 0.4 percent — which is largely split between Muslims and Christians. Ethiopian Orthodox is the primary denomination. In the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki, there are an estimated 22,467 Catholics out of a population of 5,855,029.

“When we made it to Meki, we were staying in the bishop’s compound, and the first step was to be introduced to everybody,” said Mikota, an actress by trade. “It was a really welcoming community from the priest all the way down to the children.”

A young girl jumps rope on the playground in Meki, Ethiopia.
Because of the language barrier, drawing pictures proved a useful means of communication. 

The group spent about a week with the kids, using donated religious books and pictures to teach stories from the Bible, with translators working to make the stories accessible in the native Amharic language, the dialect of the area.

Despite the language and cultural barriers, Mikota said certain elements of human nature transcend boundaries.

“When you are with the kids, you could just tell they wanted to be with us, just as much as we wanted to teach them, so it was an effortless connection,” Mikota said. “It was maybe hard to speak to them in English, so we had to communicate with them without words, especially with the littler ones. The older ones could have conversations with us, but it was amazing how many hugs and high-fives were shared.”

Along with teaching children’s catechism, the Detroiters worked with the adult community — particularly women, who are often neglected when it comes to education in rural Ethiopia. 

In rural Ethiopia, women are often treated as second-class citizens, Allison said, with girls as young as 13 or 14 getting married and starting families. 

“When they do that, they can’t finish their education,” Allison said. “So we tried to encourage them, stressing how girls can achieve an education, achieve independence and improve the greater community. We wanted to show girls they can learn, have a career and then start a family.”

During the trip, Sarah Mikota and Fr. Walta, director of formation at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Cathedral, used projector screens and picture books to teach children about stories from the Bible.

The immersion trip also allowed the American visitors to share technology from back home in service of the Gospel message.

“We had donors give money for a project for the community, which we used to show different Bible video clips on a projector screen,” Allison said. “Over there, they don’t have access to electricity and media like we do over here, so there is a craving for material like this. It’s a chance to show the message of Jesus Christ and use media in a positive, meaningful way.”

Losing luggage, finding peace

While all of the Detroiters learned how to live without the comforts of home for 10 days, for Demetria Blair, the lesson of Matthew 6:25 especially hit home. 

“My luggage was lost by the airline on the way to (Ethiopia), so I spent the first five days in one the poorest counties in the world with nothing but the clothes on my back,” said Blair, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. “I relied on the love and kindness of the people, and they were willing to sacrifice what they had because they said I was in need. I was literally living Matthew 6:25, taking nothing with me and relying on God as my source and my provider.”

For Blair, the experience of being temporarily poor in an impoverished nation was an opportunity to open up to the Holy Spirit and see with fresh eyes.

“I had this moment of, ‘OK, God, what are you trying to show me?’” Blair said. “After that, all of the anxiety I had during the trip was replaced by this comforting peace. There was this sense that everything would be OK, and that it was not about the luggage.”

Missionaries pose for a group photo with the children of Meki, Ethiopia, during an immersion trip in late May.

With Mass in a different language, the Detroit missionaries got to experience worship in Ethiopia through their other senses. For Mikota, even the worship experience was a learning opportunity.

“I think I grew a lot spiritually particularly because of the trip,” Mikota said. “I’d never been to a Mass that was longer than an hour and a half, but the Friday Mass with had at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Cathedral was four hours long. It was just learning to be patient, that things take as much time as they need, and every aspect was just so important to them.” 

For Mikota, learning “how to just be there” and appreciate the liturgy gave her a new sense of the richness of her Catholic faith. 

“It really taught me how to focus on the smaller things, to stop and smell the roses once in a while,” Mikota said.