A disabled girl on the streets of Addis taught me the revolutionary power of neighbor-love.
When I was a pastor at Beza International Church in 2005, I started a simple practice that changed my life. Rather than taking a taxi to work, I committed to walking on foot. My purpose was to save my taxi money and buy bread-and-banana meals for the street children on Africa Avenue, the road through Addis’s downtown. I wanted to get to know these kids and not pass them by.
As I walked day after day, I met a little girl named Wudenesh, whose name means “You Are Precious.” Wude was always with her even smaller brother Yonas. She walked slowly with the assistance of a clanky cane and sold sticks of gum, tissues, and cigarettes from a cardboard tray. Wude’s legs were badly disabled and her back was deformed.
Seeing this vulnerable little girl working on the streets after dark broke my heart. She was younger and smaller than my beloved niece Kayla back home. But there she was on the street.
I met Wude and Yonas many times on my way to and from church, and I was always taken by Wude. Her eyes had a strength, sorrow, and love that grasped my heart.
After some time (far too long, really), I took another step that changed my life. I asked Wude to take me to her house. I wanted to meet her family and learn her story. So we walked slowly off Africa Avenue, squeezed into a crowded minibus, and carefully struggled down a muddy hill into her neighborhood.
I was astonished by what I discovered.
Her six-member family lived in a one-room mud shack with one bed in the bowels of the Bole Mikael slum – named after the archangel Michael – near a filthy river. Wude’s father was a gaunt, HIV+ man who worked as a security guard. Her mother Itash – beautiful and shy like her daughter – baked injera, Ethiopia’s daily bread. This is how they eked out survival. Wude had another younger brother named Belay (“Great One”) and a little sister named Alemtsehay (“World’s Sun”).
The family had migrated to Addis years before from rural Ethiopia seeking medical help for Wude’s bone TB. Their move was filled with hope and heartbreaking tragedy. Wude was given a bad injection at Black Lion, the government hospital in Addis, and this mistake left her nearly paralyzed from the waist down. After the injection, the doctor told her not to worry; she’d regain feeling in her legs by tomorrow. But her legs never recovered, and her life was changed forever. (Sadly, this nightmarish medical story is all too common in Ethiopia.)
Amidst this extreme poverty, disease, and tragedy, I discovered that Wude was brilliant.
Despite living in a one-room shack, being physically disabled, and working the streets at night, she managed to finish school in the top of her class year after year. Her parents pulled out an envelope and showed me her official grade reports with pride and glowing faces.
As I made more visits deep into Bole Mikael, our hearts were woven together. We became part of one another’s lives. We became neighbors, even though we lived in different parts of the city and communicated across a language barrier. We started celebrating birthdays and holidays together.
Later in 2009, the family told me they were going to be evicted, because they didn’t have enough money to cover their property fees. Thankfully, my friends and I were able to raise the $350 they needed, and their humble home was saved. In fact, we raised extra money, and they were able to build a second room.
On Easter Sunday 2010, Lily and I celebrated our engagement with Wude’s family – a rare year when American and Ethiopian Easters fell on the same day. I wanted them to be the first witnesses of our covenant when I got down on my knee and asked Lily to marry me. They embody for us what our marriage must always be about: neighbor-love with precious but poor people and the hope of resurrection.
Since 2014, Wude’s mom Itash has always welcomed my Wheaton and Bonn students into her tiny but loving home. Itash and her family have become generous hosts and inspiring professors now for over fifty American and German university students. Despite my protests, Itash stubbornly cooks lavish meals for us and shares about her life as we all cram her living room to talk. We have become family over the last almost fifteen years. But I’m still moved every time Itash tells my students about her gratitude for a simple cup of coffee in the morning and how she thanks God for each day of life – and how she prays for me.
In 2016, Wude had major surgery on her back, and she is now able to stand erect, though still with the support of a cane. As I sat at her hospital bed and helped her take some of her first steps, she told me that her life is the story of my PhD dissertation: new beginnings after devastation. Her endurance and determination – one foot in front of the other – endlessly inspire and challenge me.
From the start, I personally committed to sending Wude to a private school on the one condition that she would no longer be sent out to work at night. Unsurprisingly, Wude continued to flourish in her studies through high school, and Wude earned all A’s on her national matriculation exam – a major accomplishment that we celebrated over an Italian dinner with our dear friend Muluken.
Today, slowly but surely, Wude’s dream is becoming a reality: she just finished her first semester as an engineering student at Addis Ababa University, the top program in the country! Wude’s ultimate dream is to lift her family out of poverty with her education and hard work. I believe she can do it. She never gives up.
Why am I telling this story?
Through a simple practice of neighbor-love – walking to work, seeing kids on the street as neighbors, buying them meals, and visiting their home – our lives have been mutually, abundantly enriched.
On the one hand, I got to make new friends, be inspired by their strong faith and powerful endurance, and introduce them to others who have also been inspired and challenged. We share random meals, birthdays, and holidays together. My life has been immeasurably enriched, and Lily’s and my marriage will always be woven together with their friendship.
On the other hand, their house was saved and expanded. Wude got off the streets and has had the resources to make it to university. They have made new friends and had the dignity of speaking as respected teachers to my students. We share joy and hope, tears and laughter.
Our love for one another has gladdened and enriched our lives in a two-way relationship like neighbors do. I needed Wude and her family, and she and her family needed me. And neighbor-love has brought us together now for almost fifteen years.
“What if?” is a powerful question that opens our imaginations to a new future.
What if we saw each and every person on our path as a neighbor, as someone precious, especially the ones that are most vulnerable and easiest to overlook?
What if every follower of Jesus walked their own Africa Avenue and committed to building a loving relationship with just one suffering neighbor on their path?
What if every one of us was graced with the gift of Wudenesh – You Are Precious – in our lives?
What if simple but life-changing practices of neighbor-love like walking to work became the commonsense culture of our faith in Addis, Chicago, and around the world – as commonsense as going to church or talking to God?
This neighbor-love wouldn’t be about paternalistic pity but mutual respect as equal people. It wouldn’t be about savior-complex heroism but small acts of humanity. It wouldn’t be about guilt but the joy of sharing our lives in the ways we can with all of their glory, pain, and ordinariness.
What if neighbor-love?
It wouldn’t always be easy. It hasn’t for us. Mistakes and hard times are inevitable. But our neighbors would suffer a little less, and our lives would be mutually enriched by the sharing of our love – our time, attention, relationships, resources, and much beyond as equal and beloved people.
We might even find that our lives are saved and healed in ways we could never imagine before. Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:31-46). Bonhoeffer said it like this: “Jesus Christ, God himself, speaks to us from every human being.” Neighbor-love is Christ-love, and Christ-love is neighbor-love. They are windows and ways to one another. That has been my experience, and it has been saving.
As I launch my course Neighbor-Love: A Revolutionary Idea that Could Save Our World, I want to honor and celebrate Wudenesh and her strong family – Itash, Tilahun, Yonas, Alemtsehay, Belay, and now Alazar. They have become my teachers and friends. They have become my neighbors, and this course would not have been possible without their love and inspiration over many years. (Itash actually called me while I was writing this story to invite me for coffee at their house tomorrow!)
Together, we can discover the gifts of sacred friendship, new learning, and practical service with and for our neighbors. Together, we can discover that every person is precious, even the ones that are most despised and rejected by society. Together, our love can overwhelm the numbing sorrow of poverty and bring good news to our city.
I’ve seen it for myself: neighbor-love is a revolutionary idea that can save our world.
What is a small step that you can take today to become an ambassador of neighbor-love?
You won’t regret it.
This story was shared with the permission of Wudenesh and her family.