Tomorrow is Lily’s birthday, and I want to celebrate her infinitely precious life by sharing part of our love story with you. Thanks for sharing my joy; I hope our love story reenergizes yours.
In 2007, I made an unusual choice that changed my life: I dropped out of my M.A. program at the University of Chicago. I missed Ethiopia deeply, and I felt called to move back there for the third time. So I consulted with my mentors, met with Dean Owens, and did it.
On the way, I attended a thrilling philosophy seminar at the University of Paris taught by Professor Jean-Luc Marion. The seminar was thrilling to me for three reasons. First, Professor Marion was one of the most respected philosophers in the world and someone I deeply admired. Second, I was the only MA student accepted into this exclusive PhD seminar. And, third, it was Paris – with a course focused on selfhood and the meaning of love. Oui, oui!
I’ll never forget wandering the streets of Paris after class and seeing couples romancing in the City of Love. It was pure magic. “Non, je ne regrette rien!”
From Paris, I flew to Addis and resumed my work as a pastor at Beza Church. I was also working part-time for a project editing reports on violent conflict in Africa for the United Nations. Being back in Ethiopia filled me with joy, and both work contexts enabled me to meet many new people as my world kept expanding.
One afternoon, I needed to work on my sermon for the coming weekend, and I headed with a friend to Kaldi’s Coffee in Bole at the heart of Addis. Kaldi’s is Ethiopia’s version of Starbucks, and that was the hot spot for hanging out at the time.
But my pious sermon-writing was divinely interrupted. Across the cafe, I saw a table of girls drinking coffee, and one of them caught my eye. But they quickly left, and I kept working on my sermon as I waited for a third friend to show up for dinner.
Thank God, my friend was late! In fact, they were so late that I ended up waiting at the door of the cafe for them to arrive.
Standing at that door changed my life forever. Sometimes frustrating annoyances turn into life-changing gifts, and an ordinary doorway becomes a sacred passage.
As I stood there waiting, I discovered something: the girls hadn’t actually left. They were sitting in their car talking, about fifteen feet away. Not only that: a guy was hitting on the girl who had caught my eye. In fact, he was standing beside the car, literally leaning into her window – apparently trying to get her number.
The romantic energy of Paris was still humming in my heart. So I told my friend, “I’m going to teach that guy a lesson.” And I did.
I took a scrap of paper out of my bag and wrote my name and number on it. Then I walked over to the car, dropped my number over the guy’s shoulder onto her lap, and walked away.
That uncharacteristic act of romantic inspiration also changed my life forever. It was a Beatles moment: “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget / the time and place where we first met.”
About ten minutes later and down Bole Road by what is now Skylight Hotel, my old Nokia phone lit up with a number I didn’t recognize. I picked up, and the soft voice on the other side said, “Who is this number for?”
I couldn’t believe my ears! She called!
Without thinking, I spontaneously answered in Amharic, L’anchi new! — “It’s for you!”
As I listened for a response, the car full of girls erupted with laughter. I then found out that this beautiful stranger’s name was Lily. The conversation didn’t last long. But as good Will Hunting said, “I got her numba.”
The next week, I traveled all throughout Amhara and Tigray — Debra Markos, Baher Dar, Gondar, Dessie, Mekelle, Axum, Debra Damo, Adwa, Lalibela, and many places in between. That highway forms a loop through the breathtaking northern mountains of Ethiopia. It was an unforgettable adventure, and it breaks my heart knowing that many of these beautiful places have been ravaged by Ethiopia’s nihilistic civil war.
When I got back to Addis, the magic of Paris was now mixed with the magic of Ethiopia’s highlands. So I called up Lily and asked if she’d like to go on a date with me.
She said yes, and we met at a dingy Arabic restaurant called The Pizza Heart. That wasn’t my most romantic move; it’s since been demolished and replaced with a high rise. But I’ll remember that place for the rest of my life, and I’ll always be grateful for The Pizza Heart.
I brought two of my friends. Lily showed up with her older sister Lishan, a wise move for a first date with a total stranger – I now know vintage Lily smarts. We ate mendi on the cushioned floor and tried to make conversation.
Lily was shy and didn’t say much that night. My friends and I told endless stories and barraged them with questions. But I remember Lishan doing most of the talking.
Still, Lily’s eyes absolutely captured me. There was something unmistakably deep and profound and full of life in this quiet woman’s soul. My mom always used to say, “The eyes are the window of the soul,” and Lily’s soul was shining. I confess, I was taken by her immediately. Absolutely taken. As Peter Gabriel sings, “In your eyes, I see the doorway to a thousand churches.”
But just like that, the dinner was over. We went outside, snapped a picture with my old Canon Elf, and said good night.
As I walked away, I felt like I was floating on air. Lily!
My friends slept over with me that night at the place where I was house-sitting. Each of us had our own bedroom connected by a hallway. After we got in bed and turned out the lights, we talked across that dark hallway late into the night – about this mysterious girl that I had just met. My heart was racing with — what shall I call it? — electricity – joy – love? Like I said, I was already taken by Lily (says the guy who thought he would never get married!).
For all the firestorm of excitement ablaze in my soul, I still knew that I needed to get to know Lily. So we started meeting for coffees and dinners — at Peacock, Ten Ten, Dembel Dome, Florentino, Pizza Deli Roma, Amsterdam, Safari Grill, and others. (If you’re an Addis Ababan, you know these old haunts – most of them gone now.)
Soon enough, I met her oldest sister Eleni, and I felt so embraced by her kind family. I’ll never forget: it was a cold, rainy day in Addis, and Eleni had warm, cozy blankets on her couch. She also listened to UB40, which was groovy.
With my characteristic OCD intentionality, I kept a log in my journal about each of our dates — from the first, to the seventh, to the eighth, to the ninth. In retrospect, I now know that Lily was talking with her friends and asking, “Is he ever going to kiss me? Does he not find me attractive?” It makes me laugh thinking about how slow I was.
But I was a pastor and a foreigner in Ethiopia. Foreign men were – and still are, sadly – infamous for exploiting Ethiopian women, and I didn’t want Lily to feel like I was one of them. So I resisted my romance and didn’t kiss her.
Secretly in my heart, I had decided that if we made it to a tenth date, then I would kiss her. At the top of the front page of my journal, I literally ticked down the dates to see if we would make it to that tenth, kissable date.
And we did.
Lily came over to the house and made injera for me. I’ll never forget what she was wearing — stylish blue jeans, a white top, and a big red belt. The night was magic, and we ended up watching snippets of a U2 concert from Chicago, which I had attended two years before.
It was getting late – which meant probably 7:30pm. Lily lived an hour across Addis, and her dear dad didn’t know she was dating. And then, as often happens in Addis, the electricity went out in the neighborhood. The house was pitch black, and this was the cue that our date was over.
We called a taxi and started making our way with a candle through the darkness to the door. My heart was racing again. Our tenth date was almost done, and I knew this was my moment. But I was all butterflies.
We got to the door and started to say goodbye. We gave each other a hug. And, at last, I mustered my courage.
In the electricity-less darkness, we kissed for the first time. It lasted a second, but after that kiss, there was enough electricity to light all of Addis Ababa.
An old blue Lada taxi honked outside the gate, we walked outside, Lily got into the taxi, and this woman who had captured my heart drove away into the night.
I went upstairs, sat on the floor of the balcony for hours, and watched the stars in the crisp darkness. I was listening to a Killers song that perfectly described how I felt: “I pull up to the front of your driveway / with magic soaking my spine / can you read my mind?”
A couple months later, it was Lily’s birthday, and we had a magical birthday dinner at Top View overlooking the city lights from the mountainside of Addis Ababa. I loaded my phone up with credit – this was long before WhatsApp – and Lily talked to my parents for the first time. On her birthday, I wanted her to meet the people who gave me to the world.
I then gave Lily the gifts I prepared — a journal full of letters, a CD with our favorite songs, and an Ethiopian glass frame with the picture from our first date inscribed with the verse that filled my heart when I thought of Lily: “Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens” (Songs 2:2).
As we sat in the candlelit darkness, I heard God unmistakably whisper to me: “Andrew, Lily is my good gift for you. Why are you afraid to receive her?” It was a challenging and encouraging message from heaven. I was totally in love with Lily but totally unsure about what our future held.
Lily and I continued building our relationship for the next three years — across town, across the Atlantic, across our cultures, across a devastating breakup, across my church’s rejection, and across the desperate anguish that I’d never see her again. But that word from God remained in my heart, and our love endured through it all.
At last, we were married on July 8, 2010 in the Kolfe Kifle Ketema — almost exactly three years after we first met. My dear friend Hallelujah, Ann Staal, and her husband Tom (then country director of USAID) were my legal witnesses. Lishan was there as one of Lily’s witnesses.
The government office was housed in a metal storage container, and Tom hilariously joked, “You literally shacked up!” For me, that shack felt like a palace. It was a humble day of great joy that changed our lives forever.
And here we are still today, celebrating our fifteenth birthday together in the twelfth year of our marriage.
As I reflect on this day, my heart brims with the same joy that it did before on those days long ago — after our first date, after our first kiss, after our first birthday together, after our wedding. How wondrous that God’s love brings us together — as strangers across worlds, across cultures, across decades.
And with time, strangers become lovers and lovers become family. Our lives become inseparable, and home becomes wherever we are, together — in Ethiopia, in America, wherever we find our selves.
And with time, our differences become treasured gifts, and our lives become richer and deeper and more alive, because we are we. Love — with its pain, its failures, its triumph — becomes our story.
Looking back across almost half of my life, I thank God that an American boy and an Ethiopian girl happened to show up at the same cafe at the same time fifteen years ago.
I thank God that my friend was late for dinner and that I was left waiting at the door only to rediscover the beautiful girl that I thought was gone forever.
I thank God for the Parisian romance that inspired me to drop my number over a guy’s shoulder onto a stranger’s lap in a car.
I thank God that Lily dialed that stranger’s number!
And I thank God that we’re still here, still together, still in love, inseparable and bound together in an intercultural family spanning continents. Together, we are slowly living into the meaning of being human — loving God and loving our neighbor — whoever we are, wherever we are, in whatever we’re doing. We are we.
Our world is full of pain and loss. My soul aches for those places that I visited in northern Ethiopia soon after I met Lily. But our world is also full of divine miracles and the possibility of healing.
When we cross the boundary and reach out to one another — in the wild romance of youth or in the rugged dialogue amidst war — strangers can become neighbors and, if we’re graced, even family.
This — God, our lives, our world — is a love story.
Choose love, even if it feels unbelievable or impossible or unbearable.
Love is the gift of God.
Love is the command of God.
Love is the way to heaven.
Happy birthday, Lily! Lanchi new – always.
“Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens.” Songs 2:2