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Build a bigger table, not a higher fence
As a child of the 80s, whenever I hear Band Aid’s infamous ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ blaring out from the radio as I traipse around the shops on last minute gift-buying expeditions, images of 1984 famine-struck Ethiopia fill my mind. This irritates me, because as much as I know this is an involuntary reaction to this song, Ethiopia is country I have now had the privilege of visiting four times and this depiction of the nation is an unfair stuck-record. My fourth visit to Ethiopia earlier this month was punctuated with coffee, ceremony and kindness.
The mountains and valleys of Central Ethiopia where All We Can supports communities can be an unforgiving and harsh environment, but the welcome extended to the weary traveller in these villages has, for me, always been one of such exceptional warmth. In the UK at Christmas time we not only reflect on the miracle of the Christmas story, but take time to gather with those we love around tables full of food. We speak of the generosity of Christmas time, and yet I imagine I will not find generosity of spirit in any measure that comes close to that experienced in the humble homes of Ethiopian shepherds and farmers in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Sat on mud and dung sculpted benches covered in swathes of sheep skin, families opened up their homes with joy at the opportunity to host. Fresh milk poured into a glass, rich coffee splashed out into tiny cups, injera sourdough baked and served up in abundance… If the people of Ethiopia I have met on my past four visits should be labelled with any stereotype, it should be that of the consummate host.
My Ethiopia experience challenged me. I have started to ask Band Aid’s irritating question of myself – do we, here in Britain, know it is Christmas time at all? The Christmas story is one of a young and vulnerable couple seeking sanctuary to bring God’s son into the world. They find their welcome in a humble stable surrounded by animals. The Christmas story is one that bears the news of a God willing to be made human so the gift of grace and love can be offered to all. The Christmas story is one where the doors to God’s kingdom are thrown wide open. But as I returned from Ethiopia, and turned on my TV screen after a week without access to reliable electricity, I was saddened to see a stream of stories about borders being built and the global displaced turned away. My Facebook feed was filled with fear around immigration as people asked me to consider our own nation’s needs first.
I am a big believer in supporting local and national causes, and do so regularly. But I also believe we should support our global neighbours. I have had the privilege of experiencing the kind of welcome those with the least globally offer when I have visited their homes and it is always a humbling reminder of how as a global family we ‘belong to each other’. The families I spent time with in Ethiopia are in some of the poorest communities in the world. I sat and listened to stories of hunger and desperation: A father who had felt so ashamed at a failed harvest that he had considered taking his own life, a mother who had run out of food in the lean season and didn’t know how she would make ends meet, a young family forced into debt in a simple effort to provide for their children. Yet every one of these families wanted to host me well. They wanted to offer me, the foreign stranger, their all. One of the most moving moments for me was when one couple, caught in the middle of the most appalling struggle with poverty, apologised to me for being unable to serve me coffee in their home.
Do they know it is Christmas time at all? In Ethiopia the culture of welcoming the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, to join the collective table is not a Christmas tradition – it is a way of life. And that way of life has prompted me to seek in myself again that same desire to serve others and to offer up a place at my table. How, this Christmas and beyond can we find ways to extend love to those around us locally, nationally and globally? How can we share the Christmas story in action as well as through our words? How can we reflect the warmth and generosity of those Ethiopian families, especially when so many of us have so much more to give?
As I sit down this Christmas and share in festivities with my family and friends I will remember those families I ate with and shared with in the first half of December. I work for All We Can as member of staff but also choose to give regularly to All We Can via monthly Direct Debit as part of our All Together giving journey – it is my way of remembering that I am part of a big and generous global family. Find out more about being part of this movement of change.