It’s often endearing to hear non-native speakers try to communicate in English. Often their childlike word choices are actually quite communicative, yet in ways that we don’t expect.
On my latest trip to the Afar desert, we received the obligatory overview briefing from the field workers before visiting the project sites. I was pushing the staff to keep this short — the travelers are often fighting jetlag just to stay awake, and making them sit in a stuffy room after breakfast and follow a too-technical PowerPoint presented with thick accents often brings slumber to the even the hardiest among us.
Buried somewhere in this presentation was almost a throwaway line that sounded so odd that I wrote it down. (My thumbs get a real workout on these trips as I type furiously into my smartphone.) We heard that people living with the virus that causes AIDS had been “raised from their beds.” It struck me as a phrase that only faith healers and pitch men would use in this country, but it was spoken with humility and without any claims of superhuman power or braggadocio.
We heard a great deal more, and then proceeded to make several project visits. The next day images, not words, flooded into my mind. And then those words made sense…
The faces hang on the wall in my office. And they live in my laptop. But otherwise, I assumed they were faces of those long since dead. I can “see” them clearly in my mind just writing this, the nameless man and the woman whose photos I’d taken five years earlier during another HIV Support Group meeting in Afar. Their faces were so gaunt, eyes pleading and almost visibly losing their light… I would look at the photos and with a little sigh and sense of empathy I’d wonder: How long ago did she/he die? I didn’t see them when I returned two years ago. I was certain these two had succumbed to the virus and I was looking at “dead men walking” on my wall, almost like seeing a photo of JFK smiling and waving as he drove in his motorcade in Dallas, or Dr. King standing on his motel balcony in Memphis.
Two years ago, in 2010, it was rather shocking to notice the faces I didn’t see from my 2007 visit. So I was hopeful that due to better treatment — thanks significantly to President Bush’s AIDS Initiative — that there wouldn’t be so many additional missing faces this time.
Then as soon as I walked into the dimly lit room, I recognized a man. But not a face from 2010. Though he was older, I’d seen the photo so many times that I was rather certain his was one of the faces on my wall. “I’ve… met you, haven’t I?” I asked him, still unsure what more to say. He nodded.
We sat down and went through the usual formalities and introductions. Then we were invited to speak or ask questions. Whenever they are willing or can be coaxed into it, I try to let the visitors speak for our group, but this time I felt strongly that this was my turn, and my legs propelled me upward almost involuntarily.
Yet I could hardly speak. I didn’t want to offend or say the wrong thing, but I felt I needed to tell the story. Trying not to choke up, I began a public conversation with this man who was now five years older but who looked younger and healthier than when I first met him in 2007. I expressed my joy, my wonder!, at finding him alive when I was certain he had passed away. We hugged and took pictures, I found out his name–Saeed Mohammed, and I sat down having had what became my most memorable and poignant experience of the trip.
We then heard several stories from HIV sufferers who had taken small loans averaging about $80 to start businesses, thanks to a $1000 loan pool our 2010 team had donated for this purpose before we left Ethiopia. It was a real delight to hear the stories of how the loans were being put to use…
One man, Alem, had no source of income. With his loan for $80, he rented a fridge and started selling soft drinks. “Today, I can pay for my children to be in school.” He even saves about 50 cents each day.
A woman, Amenot, received a loan of about $100 to start a charcoal business. She told us that because of heath limitations and discrimination, “Before this, I didn’t have any work.”
A moment later, as I was scanning the others in the room during the stories, there at the farthest point across the round thatched-roof room was another face…again different but distantly familiar. I asked and found out that she was in fact the woman from the same 2007 visit—the other face on my wall! “Ergo” is not only still alive, but her children are now in school.
It’s difficult to articulate the feeling I experienced, and I certainly had great difficulty expressing it that day. But I now have a small understanding of the feeling of those who witnessed Lazarus come walking out of his tomb. Truly, I had seen first-hand that people were honestly being “raised from their beds.”
Maybe it’s a good reminder to me to take it easy on the writers of the gospels when their human words seem to fall short in communicating works of God. That day, I felt that I too was witness to a work of God, a modern day resurrection, and I was speechless.