BY AMOS DISASA Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by the Rev. Amos Disasa, organizing pastor of Downtown Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and a Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary trustee. Amos is also a contributing writer for The Presbyterian Outlook and serves on the board of directors for Transitions, the Columbia Development Corporation, The River Alliance and The Nickelodeon Theatre.
I want to share with you a moment when I heard God speak. Last fall, I went to one of my homes. Home is hard to define for me. I was born in Ethiopia, came to the United States when I was three, lived in Columbia, South Carolina, for most of my childhood, and graduated from high school in Laurens, South Carolina. Since then, I've lived in Brazil, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and back in Columbia. I've been around the world, and learned and forgotten three languages. When people ask where I'm from, I have lots of options. For me, home is not a place with a name. I'm learning to love that part of my story.
When I was very young, I thought home always would be Ethiopia. So last fall I went to the only home I never worried about leaving. The trip fell on the 30th anniversary of our departure from the country, just as the Marxists were beginning to make life miserable and set our country back even further. The trip wasn't what I expected. I anticipated an emotional reunion with a part of myself that I thought I left behind, a part that would complete me. I didn't find it, but I heard God speak in subtle ways. One thing I heard God say was that gifts aren't rewards.
Near the end of our trip, I visited my childhood home in a quiet neighborhood of Addis Ababa. The street wasn't paved, but for Ethiopia, it was as close as you can get to Pleasantville.
Two of my three brothers were with me. One of them moved back to Ethiopia a few years ago to work for a coffee exporter. It was Raaji who led us to our house after a brief taxi ride through narrow unmarked streets. We still own the home. When we left, my father asked his elementary school teacher, Astamari Endashaw, to live there rent-free until we returned.
Astamari wasn't an ordinary tenant. He told my father when he was in third grade that he was smart enough to be more than a shepherd. He challenged him to leave home for more education in a neighboring village with a school staffed by Presbyterian missionaries. So we were going to see our family home, but we were also going to pay our respects to the man who made our own education possible. If not for Astamari Endashaw, I wouldn't have written this devotion.
The visit was good for us, but couldn't end quickly enough for Astamari and his wife. You see, we did not call ahead to tell them we were coming. We didn't give our hosts time to bake bread, roast coffee or prepare a meal. They were embarrassed and ashamed in a way that's particularly Ethiopian. Greeting guests with homemade food and fresh coffee is a ritual that is nearly religious. Honor is bestowed on guests with an open table. It's not unusual for Ethiopians to keep entire meals in their freezers should someone stop by. Our hosts were empty-handed this day. They wanted to honor us with hospitality, but we didn't let them. We insisted that it was all right, no big deal. It was too late. They were ashamed.
As we gathered our things to leave, I saw something strange. Raaji discreetly slipped a handful of bills in Astamari's hand. Astamari didn't protest. He took the money and put it in his pocket.
On the ride home, I asked Raaji why he was so generous. I never heard them ask for money. They lived in our house free. I also asked why Astamari was comfortable taking the money. My brother said, "It's just what you do here. If you have extra, you give it to others who don't."
My brother’s gift was generous, but that's not the only place where I heard God speak. Astamari received the gift freely, even while expressing shame at being a terrible host. He accepted the gift, just as it was. God spoke to me that day. God said don't dishonor gifts by reducing them to rewards. Gifts aren't earned because you did your part.
The grace of God is like that. God speaks grace to us all the time, but often we're more generous with others than we are with ourselves. In her poem “The Seven of Pentacles
,” Marge Peircy offers this suggestion, "Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen…".
So, my prayer for us is that the divine giver will speak up so that we can hear and that our ears, hands and hearts will be open to the word without hesitation.
I may never have an easy response when people ask me where I'm from, but I know where I feel at home - wherever God has something to say.