I discovered neighbor-love in all of its agony, urgency, and hope through a suffering boy on the streets of Addis. His name was Eyob (Amharic for Job), and it was Saturday – May 1, 2010.
The Agony of Neighbor-Love
Eyob met me at the best and worst of times in my life.
In the months before, I was gripped by the agonizing grief of suffering and evil. The church I loved and hoped to serve for the rest of my life had excluded me. Lily attended another congregation and wasn’t ready to “submit” to my church’s leadership, so my pastor told me, “Get another job!” and shunned me. It felt like an excruciating spiritual divorce.
During this time, I was unexpectedly asked to preach one Sunday at the International Lutheran Church. Little did I know, that sermon was my first interview. Their pastor had found Addis too hard and left abruptly. I preached on the armor of God (“All is not right in the world!”), and the church’s leadership asked me to become their interim pastor.
The church was on the other side of Mexico Square, so I had to walk through this huge roundabout several days a week. Day after day, I passed so many suffering people laying on the sidewalk and begging for help from commuters – from me.
I so desperately wanted to help. But I felt paralyzed by the enormity of the needs, and I didn’t know what to do. So day after day, I played the part of the priest and Levite in Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan: I walked by and went to church.
As I led this humble congregation, my soul and the world felt God-forsaken. I was arrested by those questions that are as big as the universe and as sharp as razor blades: How can I believe that God is real, present, and loves us when so many people are senselessly suffering around me? How can I preach about God’s love but walk by my suffering neighbors without helping them?
I had a knife in the table next to my bed, and there were moments when I thought about killing myself alone in my room.
That was when Eyob met me.
The Urgency of Neighbor-Love
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I was having lunch with my friends at a café across the street from the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.
A young man wearing a dirty hood approached our table and begged for money. As so often, we politely said no, and he walked away without protest.
But as he turned, his hood slipped to his shoulders, and I saw a horrific wound on the back of his head. A war began raging within me: “Should I continue sitting with my friends and finish my lunch? Or should I get up and help this boy?”
It was one of those strange moments in which I heard God speak to me personally and absolutely: “Andrew, if you don’t help this one, you have said no to me.” So I got up, ran down the road, and found him.
I was devastated by what I saw. Eyob’s brain was visibly pulsating through the oozing wound rotting on the back of his head. The sun was scorching, and he was stumbling through a massive city all by himself.
Eyob had fallen into an open cooking fire as a small child in his family’s home. His head was badly burned, but his wound was never treated, and it kept getting worse. Eventually, his wound became so putrid, that his family removed him from school and hid him in their home for years like a monstrous secret. At last, his family became so desperate that they put Eyob on a pickup truck for Addis to beg for help or die.
And that’s how I met Eyob – begging for help and dying.
On Monday, I took Eyob to the Korean Hospital on the other side of the city. We waited in the lobby from morning until night, but we were always told to come back tomorrow. Finally on Friday night, my anger boiled over, and I barged into the director’s office and demanded that Eyob be seen immediately.
When he was finally admitted, the nurse exclaimed with horror, “In Jesus’s name!” and told me, “Take him back to the streets where he belongs!” I couldn’t believe my ears: a Christian nurse in a Christian hospital was taking the name of Jesus on her lips to tell me to abandon Eyob to the streets like a dog.
But we didn’t give up.
A European surgeon named Dr. Einar intervened and led the extraordinary task of removing Eyob’s cancerous flesh, cleaning his wound, and grafting skin from his arms and legs onto his head. Through numerous life-threatening operations, Eyob survived.
Eyob was tireless. He spent weeks with his left wrist attached to his head, so the blood would flow into his newly grafted skin and prevent it from dying. I had never spent so many hours and days and weeks in a hospital before. But with Eyob I discovered the mysterious truth of Bonhoeffer’s words in his Pastoral Care for the Sick and Dying:
“The person who is plagued by pain or disgusting illness experiences and suffers the world in a special way. He resembles the One who bore all our sicknesses and was so despised that people turned their eyes from him… Among the sick, we are closer to Jesus’s own sufferings on the cross than we are among the healthy. Here we recognize the world better. Spending time with the sick is the proper way for the pastor to spend time.”
Eventually, Lily, my friends, and I heard words from Dr. Einar that played in our ears like heavenly music: “Eyob can live a normal life.” We were elated, and I wrote a Facebook update on June 6 entitled “The Resurrection of Eyob.” Lily and I threw a feast at our apartment after we were married on July 8, and Eyob was our guest of honor.
But a normal life for Eyob was not to be.
As Eyob went through rehab, golf-ball sized tumors started appearing under his newly grafted skin, and the doctors decided that operating on Eyob’s cancer would only increase his suffering.
So we helped Eyob return to his family in the countryside, and Eyob died early in 2011.
Eyob’s life and death taught me the urgency of practical neighbor-love. If someone had acted a few years before, Eyob might still be alive today. But the people around him either looked away from his suffering like I did in Mexico Square or saw him like the Christian nurse in the Christian hospital – as a cursed monster destined for the streets.
Across a decade of suffering, Eyob wasn’t seen as a neighbor in his community, and this lack of vision killed him.
I am struck by a small detail in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus says that all of the characters “saw” the man suffering on the roadside, including the priest and Levite who simply walked by. But the hated Samaritan saw him with esplanchnisthē – compassion in the depths of his being (Luke 10:33). And thus he acted.
According to Jesus, the despised Samaritan was the true “neighbor,” the embodiment of God’s eternal life. How urgent it is for our eyes to be opened with this radical compassion while there is still time.
The Hope of Neighbor-Love
Meeting Eyob shattered my heart. I cannot count all the times that I have wept over his suffering and death.
But through the tears, Eyob has become my witness of hope, what Mother Teresa called a “saint of darkness,” who is “absent from heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” I discovered the truth of Jesus’s words for myself in Eyob: we meet Christ himself when we love the abandoned sufferers around us (Matthew 25:31-46).
Eyob had astonishing endurance in the face of excruciating pain and rejection. He never complained, never pitied himself, and never responded with anger toward others – including the nurse who cursed him in the name of Jesus. On one of the long days when we sat waiting to be seen at the hospital, Eyob asked to use my phone and texted his brother Dawit. When I read his text later, he had written the message of his life in three words: “God is love.”
After his seemingly endless operations, Eyob spent months in the hospital’s burn rehab center. And whenever our friends brought Eyob beautiful gifts, he would immediately get out of his bed and start sharing these gifts with the other children in the ward. His poverty was defeated with generosity.
As Eyob fought for his life, he embodied an unwavering hope. He told me that his dream was to become a pastor and professor – my dream! – so that he could tell his story to stadiums of people and inspire them to love others who suffer like himself.
When I found out that Eyob had passed away a few months later, I knelt down in our apartment in Chicago and wept uncontrollably. But I knew that I had rediscovered my life’s calling: to become a pastor and professor who would teach others to embrace our world’s Eyobs with neighbor-love.
When I walked the aisle to receive my PhD diploma from the University of Chicago in December 2015, I kept Eyob’s picture over my heart in my suit pocket. I told Eyob’s story to our dinner guests and explained our mission for returning to Ethiopia.
When I established the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good in 2016, I named Eyob as the honorary founder of our mission to promote neighbor-love for the suffering.
When I published by first book Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation, I dedicated it to Eyob.
And on the day – the same day! – that Lily and I received a $75,000 pledge, which enabled us to move back to Ethiopia to chase our mission, I was given a video message that Eyob filmed for me five years before in which he quoted Isaiah 45:
“I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord.”
Eyob went on to challenge me with words that I still carry with me:
“My dear brother Andrew, whom I love more than anything, and my sister Lily, we are one in the blood of Jesus Christ. Be strong and work hard, and God will be with you and support you! Till you go to heaven – till you receive the reward from the hand of God – be strong and serve God intensely. May peace be with you.”
As Eyob said these words, I could faintly hear Orthodox chanting in the background of the video, beautifully singing, “The redemption of the world! Jesus, praise be to you, the redemption of the world!”
And thus I have been “working hard” to embody Jesus’s redemption of the world found in Eyob’s neighbor-love in Ethiopia.
I have told Eyob’s story in a lecture at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in 2016, and my student Tsiyon (a nurse studying theology) went on to save the life of a child named Ammanuel. God-with-Us had fallen into a pot of boiling water in his impoverished home and was badly burned like Eyob. But Tsiyon acted immediately and relentlessly. She texted me with joy after Ammanuel’s recovery:
I have told Eyob’s story to a new cohort of Ethiopian doctors at the Korean Hospital, the place that served Eyob, and charged them to care for the Eyobs in our society.
I have told Eyob’s story to a church of 5,000 people in southern Ethiopia just a few miles from where Eyob grew up, fell into that fire, and was ultimately abandoned – urging them to be people of practical love for the countless Eyobs that suffer around us.
And now in my e-course Neighbor-Love: A Revolutionary Idea that Could Save Our World, I have told Eyob’s story to the world.
Eyob, my suffering pastor and professor, has convinced me that neighbor-love is a revolutionary idea that can save our world when we welcome this love into the center of our being.
We must act now before it is too late. We must refuse to say no to God when we see our neighbor’s suffering. But ultimately we must learn with Eyob that our hope is transcendent, hidden in “Jesus, the redemption of the world.” And rather than an escapist fantasy that puts us to sleep, this hope awakens us to Christ in sufferers like Eyob who love and are embraced with love. The hideous wound that would drown us in suicidal despair can become an ocean of healing that points to everlasting life when we love.
Today, when the agony of our suffering world slashes my soul like knives, Eyob remains my saint of darkness who “lights the light of those in darkness on earth.”
Sisters and brothers, let us “be strong and work hard” that others may live. We too can become saints of darkness for the Eyobs and Ammanuels around us.
There is hope when we love our neighbors as ourselves.
“Jesus Christ, God himself, speaks to us from every human being; the other person, this enigmatic, impenetrable You, is God’s claim on us; indeed, is the holy God in person whom we encounter. God’s claim is made on us in the wanderer on the street… ‘Just as you did it to one the least of these, you did it to me,’ Jesus says. I am for you, you are for me God’s claim, God himself; in this recognition, our gaze opens to the fullness of the divine life in the world… God is with us as long as there is community.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon on April 15, 1928
“If all men abandon you and even drive you away by force, then when you are left alone, fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude. Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. And if two of you are gathered together – then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two, His truth has been fulfilled.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov