By Andrew DeCort, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology
For three consecutive years (2014-2016), I had the privilege of designing and co-leading the Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia (AAE) program at Wheaton College. The first part of AAE revolved around a 16-week academic seminar that immersed our students in primary and secondary Ethiopian sources. These interdisciplinary readings focused on (1) Ethiopia’s governing narratives shaping self-understanding (“authority”), (2) constitutive practices and institutions that organize body and society (“action”), and (3) systems of evaluation for critiquing and reimagining authority and action toward a new future (“ethics”). AAE became a framework for interpreting and engaging human identity and society with the goal of cultivating responsible Christian leadership across cultures.
The AAE seminar was designed to prepare our students to travel to Ethiopia itself for eighteen days during the summer. Our goals for this extended “site visit” – what I called a Pilgrimage of Theological Humanism – were fourfold: (1) to be deeply present, (2) to listen closely, (3) to observe carefully, and (4) to undergo transformative learning. We didn’t travel to Ethiopia with the usual foreign agenda: to tour, teach, and “change” people, or even to do academic “fieldwork” per se. We went to Ethiopia to be with Ethiopians and to learn from Ethiopians in their own spaces, with their own problems and possibilities, having done as much homework as 16 weeks would allow.
Thus, we embarked with a deep sense of expectation, seeking to reimagine our visions of authority, action, and ethics through intensive, often intense encounters with Ethiopians, their vocations, and their implicit and explicit “AAEs.” During our pilgrimage we engaged nearly thirty visits/seminars with diverse local leaders, including Abuna Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewehado Church; Dr. Betta Mengistu, a founding father of the Pentecostal movement; Professor Abdulatif Khedir, a Muslim intellectual who teaches law and human rights at Addis Ababa University; Blen Sahilu, a feminist activist promoting women’s wellbeing against gender-based violence; and representatives at the African Union.
The AAE program was recognized for excellence by the University of Chicago Center for Teaching, won praise from the President of Wheaton College, and many of our alumni commented that this program was the most formative academic experience of their college career (see here and here). In the remainder of this reflection, I will briefly describe two of our many site visits and then meditate even more briefly on three factors that made this pilgrimage so rich for our students and so respectful for our hosts.
Our first “site visit” was perhaps counter-intuitive but crucial for our pilgrimage. I took our students to visit an Ethiopian Orthodox family living in a tiny mud house in one of Addis’s slums. I have built a close relationship with this loving family for over ten years and brought my students with their permission. This family, like so many others, has persevered through intense hardship: rural-urban migration, HIV, a bad injection at a government hospital that left their daughter nearly paralyzed, the hard work of making ends meet in a city with massive unemployment, and the daily life of seven people living in a single room with one bed.
Before our visit, I began by reading a narrative essay to my students describing this family’s history, their incredible strength and religious devotion, and why I wanted us to visit their home at the beginning of our pilgrimage. We then traveled to their neighborhood, walked deep into the slum, and crowded into Itash’s home. Many of my students commented that this “site visit” was the most impactful during our time in Ethiopia.
With Itash we discovered radical hospitality. Itash warmly welcomed us as family and invited us to feel at home sitting on her family’s bed. She cooked us a lavish meal of delicious injera-be-wet (traditional bread and stew) in her small kitchen. She then served us home-roasted coffee as she told us about her life, how she practices gratitude each morning as she prays and drinks coffee, and how God is faithful as she bakes injera and supports her family amidst the suffering that life brings.
This preface to our pilgrimage was not poverty porn or a call for pity. It was the attuning paradigm for everything that followed: Itash is a powerful author, agent, and ethicist – an exemplar of radical hospitality, sacrificial generosity, and humane leadership. We came to be present, listen, observe, and learn with her as our professor, in the midst of her neighborhood, which is daily life for so many millions of Ethiopians and others.
Without sanitizing the injustice of poverty, that slum and Itash’s home became a sacred space of human encounter, religious reverence, and practical learning about a deeply good life amidst lack, sickness, and tragedy. I wanted my students to learn from the very beginning of this “site visit” – this pilgrimage – that we came to learn from everyone, everywhere, in every circumstance of life, starting with this strong woman and her resilient family. (Later on the trip, we fasted a meal, and the savings were privately given to Itash to express our gratitude and make sure her hospitality did not take away from her family’s needs.)
Year after year, I have been astonished by Itash’s generous welcome and the enduring impression she made on my students. Long after we returned home, students commented that they still think of Itash each morning as they drink coffee and reflect on the meaning of gratitude and the demands of responsibility in a world with so much goodness and grief.
Lalibela’s Rockhewn Churches
Later in our pilgrimage, we took a plane from Addis to Lalibela, a rural town in the northern mountains of Ethiopia with eleven rockhewn churches dating from the 13th century and before. Lalibela is described as Ethiopia’s Jerusalem and “the eighth wonder of the world,” a former capitol and continuing pilgrimage site where millions of Ethiopians have traveled to celebrate the birth of Jesus for nearly a thousand years and still to this day.
As our guide Gashaw took us deep into these ancient stone sanctuaries, he explained the rich theological significance that surrounded us. Again and again, he invited us to remove our shoes before entering to embody our reverence for these sacred spaces. He noted that the churches point to the east, orienting pilgrims in space toward the resurrection and return of Christ. Half of the churches symbolize the earthly Jerusalem and the others the heavenly Jerusalem, with the stream between them named Jordan and the mountain behind them named Herman: this is a sacred city that marries earth and heaven. The stones inside are smooth from the millions of hands that have touched them, the millions of lips that have kissed them, seeking God in the physical mediation of stone dedicated to heaven. The hand drums with which the priests lead the people in dancing and singing boom with the gospel: the smaller, bottom end of the drum represents the Old Testament; the larger, bigger end represents the New Testament; between them is the body of the drum held together with leather straps, which simultaneously represents the womb of Mary and the wounded body of Jesus. With dancing feet, singing voices, and the bassy boom of the drum, the Gospel is alive: resonating between Old and New Testaments, the womb of Mary gives birth to the Messiah Jesus, whose stripes have healed the world and filled it with God’s glory.
Deep in the hewn mountains of Lalibela’s ancient churches, my students encountered a surprising classroom for questioning Platonized Christianity, which emphasizes disembodied propositional beliefs that lead to an afterlife in an immaterial otherworld. There in Lalibela, sacred space is literally carved into rock. The cold of the stone reminds the pilgrims of holy earth beneath their feet. The colorful etchings and icons fire the imagination with divine history. The drum-driven dance of worship booms with an embodied gospel in a sanctuary filled with incense. Worshipers drink holy water and cross their foreheads with sacred ash. Going before us, Gashaw led us through a long, pitch-black tunnel from one church to another, crouching and struggling not to lose our footing – an embodied performance of the pilgrimage from darkness to light that is human history, climactically incarnated in the death and resurrection of Jesus as we walk together.
In Lalibela, we found that Christian believing gets embodied in Christian touching, seeing, tasting, hearing, and smelling – hewn into stone, oriented toward the east, calling humanity into a life of pilgrimage toward the New Jerusalem. My students were provoked and inspired by an unfamiliar Christianity, which is far more ancient than their American Evangelicalism. Authority, action, and ethics took on new dimensions.
Conclusion: Preparation, Expectation, and Reflection
The AAE pilgrimage is not a perfect model of site visits and theological education. But these two vignettes from a woman’s home and a town of ancient churches illustrate the rich learning that led my students to rethink their own authority, action, and ethics and to see this program as a pillar of their undergraduate education. In conclusion, what were some of the pieces that made these site visits so meaningful?
First, our site visits were preceded by thick preparation. Before stepping foot in Ethiopia, we did 16 weeks of rigorous study, dialogue, and fellowship. We cultivated epistemic humility by discovering our ignorance, while actively informing ourselves. We wove a deep sense of trusting community by regular meetings and meals together. We also developed a rich spiritual attunement toward our travel by assigning weekly ethnographic exercises and the readiness to encounter sacred presence with everywhere, in each place, in every circumstance with the ethical ethos “welcome: your coming is good.”
Second, our site visits were energized by a deep – in our case, daily – expectation. Yes, we traveled to learn “academic” material – dates, places, people, causes, complexities, and outcomes. But we went to Ethiopia expecting to be touched and changed by others. AAE was far more than a field trip to collect data. It was a voluntary risk to expose and share ourselves with others and their stories, who generously welcomed and received us, including Orthodox, Pentecostal, Muslim, agnostic, and atheist Ethiopians. Again and again, I invited my students to be deeply present, to listen closely, to observe carefully, and to open themselves to transformative learning. Of course, this spiritual practice requires voluntary investment from each member of the cohort, but we found that this developed organically out of this program’s application process and 16 weeks of preparation.
Third, site visits like AAE require enduring reflection. After we returned home from Ethiopia, the students were tasked with rereading the notes from their ethnography journals taken during our pilgrimage. They were then assigned to write an essay entitled “Paradigms of a Plausible Future” based on W.H. Auden’s poem “The Garrison,” where he writes, “To serve as a paradigm now of what a plausible Future might be is what we’re here for.” In this integrative essay, we asked our students to describe and analyze 3 to 5 of the most powerful site visits from our pilgrimage and how these Ethiopian people and/or places embody “paradigms of a plausible future” for our lives and leadership in global society. Thus, the students were given a chance to formulate how their rigorous preparation and materialized expectation formed into enduring learning about authority, action, and ethics that can be applied across contexts. Our site visits were not left behind like tourism but became part of us like pilgrimage. In fact, upon our return, students were challenged to consider daily life across contexts as an endless pilgrimage calling for their presence, listening, observance, and transformative learning.
Site visits are risky and can easily turn into “trips” that leave hosts feeling like disrespected tools and visitors like extractive tourists. But they can also be transformative and life-changing learning experiences. Across the three years of Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia, we found that our thick preparation, deep expectation, and enduring reflection designed a pilgrimage of learning that made our hosts feel deeply respected (a comment I heard frequently) and our students inspired and responsible.
With my colleague Dr. Matthew Robinson, I look forward to relaunching the AAE program later this year through the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universität Bonn and the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good.