My neighbor’s door is well watched. She is loved by many. At 96, my Ethiopian friend lives quietly, almost secretly for more than 30 years in a small apartment after fleeing her country during the late 1980s. I knocked on her door. I knocked again.
My Neighbor’s Door
Then again. Concerned, I knocked louder. There was no answer. This was not the first time. I noticed that her door had been still for days. I felt alarmed. Her health has been precarious for several years. She is precious to me. I feel like my heart is attached to her. I can’t answer why. I love her and this love has formed over years of witnessing her strength and the beauty of her soul.
She is my neighbor. The last time that I visited with her I gazed into her wondrous brown eyes with light blue rims. I remember feeling concerned about her health because of her increasing weakness and inability to eat. I prayed that we would have many times together in the next year but worried, even wondered if she would live until Christmas of this year, truly she seemed so frail. I had learned that she had been challenged by cancer for the past years and season after season, she survived- she regained strength. I was in awe of her ability to challenge life. There was a secret to the strength within her. I knew that.
I went to another neighbor and knocked. I was welcomed into a room filled with more familiar faces, friends all. They sat together sharing the custom of gathering to pray, listening to Ethiopian teaching, news from home and community news.
A Sea of White
Here was a sea of white, each wearing the traditional orthodox robes of their country. Though I looked and spoke differently, I was accepted and known as “friend”. It felt like an honor. I touched my hand to my heart as a greeting that they understood.
One spoke as an interpreter for me. As I asked about my neighbor and her whereabouts. I was told that she was alright, that she and her son had gone to Ethiopia and would return soon. “Really, I said?” I asked several times. I needed to be certain that this was not a cultural way of saying that one’s spirit had ‘gone home’ to God!
From traveling I knew that sometimes I was told things in a metaphor or in what I would call the “gentle truth”. After hospitality from the group, I greeted the host who I discovered last in the corner gazing out at me. (a friend of my neighbor’s from the same holy region of Ethiopia). I bent towards her, held both of here hands in mine and looked into her eyes. They smile with stories of God and life inside.
Stories of God and life inside
I returned home with the hope that my friend would come home again but I was not completely certain. My heart is one that needs reassurance. I am still on the learning curve of trusting God with full and complete holiness, aren’t we all?
For a week I had watched my neighbors’ quiet door. I remember thinking that I did not want anyone else to live there, not in her lovely space. This is a remarkable woman. She and her friend both are from a wondrous part of Ethiopia. It is called Aksum. It is called the Holy City. This is where Biblical scholars say the ark appears to have been lost sometime between 955 B.C. when Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem to house it, and 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed the city but, according to the Bible, did not find it.
This was her home
To Ethiopians, this is like a Jerusalem. When I found out that my neighbors were born and raised in this Ethiopian Holy Land, I wanted to read about it. I soaked up the rich history of the lost Ark of the Covenant. It made my heart marvel. I understood her devotional nature so much more. This was her home. She was here only since being displaced from the conflicts of the 1980s. I understood the longing to be home, to go home.
The last time I saw her, I looked into her eyes. I saw something different in her gaze that worried me. When I looked into her lovely face, I saw something that seemed to recede, to almost back away despite her courage. “What are you seeing, she asked?”. I told her that her eyes were very beautiful. They are. Large and brown with light blue rims around the edges. I have not seen blue around brown, how can that be, I remember wondering.
I thought to myself, “This is a woman that loves Jesus deeply. When she goes to Heaven, there will be very much Joy, and someday- I will see her again.” I watched her bravely challenge pain and weakness through many seasons. I also saw that she always lived with hope and patience. She never wished for more than she had at the moment. Once I asked if I could offer her a fan in the summer when we had excessive heat. She smiled and refused. I realized that it was not to be stubborn, it was a gospel “no”. It was because accepting the fan would be saying that the moment was not good enough as it was “from God”. She accepted everything with endurance and patience and trust.
Everything is from God
This was an enormous lesson for me, even as I returned to my own apartment and was still unwilling to let go of my own extra fans and tools to stay cool!
Doesn’t God put teachers in our lives all the time? We need to be attentive and watchful to see them. Often we can miss the wise ones that are in our lives.
Often in the mornings, I would see her at an eastern window placing herself near a ray of the sun so that her back could catch the warmth of the light. Patiently and with trust, she would sit peacefully and allow the light to enter her body and heal her. I would wonder with my Western thought, “But how can the sun heal through the double panel glass? Don’t we need direct access to get the real benefit?” But she trusted her way. The natural warmth was enough. She never uses anything artificial.
Now it was weeks later. I missed her. Again I habitually scanned out of the corner of my eye to see who was near. Was my friend home or was this the other kind of trip “home”? Then my heart jumped. I saw her two sons outside of her door turning the key and another neighbor smiling and heard her congratulating one of them on the return from Ethiopia. She was back!
My Neighbor Returns
I asked for permission to visit her from her sons. He said that she was well and would be delighted. When I entered I was very surprised at what I saw.
My dear friend was joyfully leaning forward with a grand smile. She extending her arms to greet me. Though she was fragile to behold as always, her appearance was completely altered. The real sun had touched her life, her heart and her whole self with healing. A vibrancy lit up her face. I pointed to the photo of her on the wall when she was in her 20s and said, “You look like this woman!” It was remarkable. This was a renewal in front of me.
“What have you done!” I teased her. “You went to Ethiopia and the whole country almost had another revolution while you were there.” I had checked the news as soon as she left and found out that there was much upheaval that began around the day that she left. See Ethiopian News- Ethiopian Assassinations, Arrests push towards Ethiopia’s fragile push towards Democracy
Renewal in Ethiopia
She smiled, denying any relationship to such things saying no, that she had been in the Holy City; in Aksum, where it was peaceful. But this morning I read online that Ethiopia was generally safe today except for Aksum. Goverment Travel Advice /Aksum
I have been witness to violence and war in other parts of the world; in places that where many generations have lived inside of historic, cultural and political environments that seem to be hosts to unfortunate conflicts. The victims are the hearts and minds that need to see life in new ways and with new possibilities.
Perhaps in places where there conflict has bred violence, minds and hearts become accustomed to it over time. It becomes the norm, like a climate. Generations sadly learn that it is a way to form change. And sometimes desperation erupts from the sense of feeling imprisoned by circumstances. It can lead folks to the reasoning that this is the only way to break free when surely it is not.
The juxtaposition of such rich history and holiness in Ethiopia with the current urgent outcries for change give me many reasons to pray for this special place and for these people longing for democracy and freedom.
Yet my friend’s heart was free. She had always been free. Now as I looked into her joyful eyes, there was new life. She looked like all illness had been lifted from her. Looking into her shining brown-blue-rimmed eyes, I knew that she had experience a remarkable renewal. Her hair was whiter, longer (is it my imagination?). Her skin was darker, touched by a strong sunshine.
She was eating an orange. It was the first time that really saw her eat. She noticed that I was viewing the orange. “Please take one, have a banana, take several for yourself”, she kindly gestured at the bowl of fresh fruit on the table.
I could not refuse an orange! Taking one, I said, “Is it from Ethiopia?” With a pearly white smile, she answered, “No, really. No.” Then I took it like a baseball into my hand and pretended to hurl it out of the window, “Well then, I will send it all the way to there!”, I said, “There it goes!” We had a good laugh. Culture to culture joking is an art. Later, I savored that orange and thought of her. It was sweet.
The holiness of Love, God is With Us
I said to her, “May I write about you, may I write about your joy? Today I see you with your arms raised up high, with your face looking up to the sky, basking in the light of the sun. You are so happy. You feel God, you know that He is with you, near you. His Kingdom is near. Is that right?” “Yes,” my friend said with her lovely eyes enjoying the image, “This is how I feel. This is how my heart looks. You may write about me.”
I took her hands into mine and looked into her shining face. “I have to go now. Thank you so much for letting me visit you. I love you so much.” I said. “I love you too”, she said. I let myself out knowing that soon her son would be back to care for her that night. She is never alone.
She is blessed. She is free.
© 2019 Linda Willows