In the presence of saints

Ana is currently back in Wolaita Soddo, Ethiopia, for the summer. She is living and interning at Soddo Christian Hospital, which is run through the collaboration of missionaries and Ethiopian doctors. The reflections below are from her second update email!

“They are saying they welcome you as their own, because you are their sister in Jesus Christ.”

As Rediet translated the chatter that had erupted a moment before, eleven shy faces smiled back at me. The room was quieted for this brief introduction and welcome, and the intensity of the moment hung in the air for a second before I was whisked to a chair and the hum of sewing machines resumed. Chatter in Wolaittenya (the local tribal language), laughter, and praise music quickly filled the room and work carried on.

So this is what it’s like to be in the presence of saints. This thought has struck me several times after that initial moment, as I’ve spent hours learning from the eleven women who gave me that warm welcome.

In my last email update, I requested prayer for discernment on how to use my time in Soddo this summer. Having already had a summer full of clinical experiences here in 2019, I returned feeling pulled to look for involvements in one of the hospital’s para-health ministries instead. This was largely related to my ongoing decision about whether I should go into medicine or community/public health, and it seemed wise to explore what community health-oriented work could look like.

In a big show of faithfulness, God answered those prayers through WRAPs (“Washable, Reusable, Affordable Pads”), a business/community health ministry run by one of the missionaries at SCH. WRAPs employs vulnerable Ethiopian women to sew reusable menstrual pads that they distribute freely to rural schoolgirls, along with some sex, safety, and health education. WRAPs also sews dolls and headbands that are sold to generate wages for its workers, funds to further their educations, assistance for their children’s schooling, and rent for their workshop.

What I love about WRAPs is that its impact is twofold. From an outreach standpoint, the business helps provide a solution to the deficiency of feminine products which often keeps rural girls from school every month. The pads can last for years and have an immense impact — in one survey that the business conducted, 70% of girls from a given school indicated that they missed classes on their periods before they got their WRAPS kits. After being given the pads, that number dwindled to 2%.

From an internal standpoint, WRAPs is transformative for its workers. Most of the ladies who work for WRAPs are considered vulnerable persons; many bear the scars of living in areas where rape, forced child marriage, and abusive relationships are far too common. WRAPs helps bring restoration into their lives by equipping them with employable skills and helping them continue their educations.

Above and beyond the technical training that WRAPs provides its workers, the ministry is transformative because it is a community, a sisterhood bound together by shared purpose and common identity in Jesus Christ. I spend several afternoons a week with the ladies at the workshop, and in that space I’ve witnessed their love for one another. Conversation often lilts over the hum of their industrial sewing machines, and there’s always a great deal of laughter. They look out for one another’s babies and show up when anyone has needs. They are, truly, the hands and feet of Christ to one another. For some of the most vulnerable women, WRAPs might be the first stable, safe support network they’ve ever been a part of. What’s more healing than being genuinely loved?

I have no misgivings about my ability to offer much at WRAPs. I’m no sewing expert, I don’t speak Wolaittenya (and only have meager Amharic), and I often feel the weight of my incomprehension — culturally and with the experience of social vulnerability — bearing down on me. Still, where I am insufficient God can work greatly, and the ladies welcomed me as one of their own. They’ve taught me to fold the cotton interiors of pads and to stuff the arms and legs of dolls; amidst hours pored over these simple tasks, relationships are beginning to take root. I tell them often that I am there to learn from them, that they are wise women whom I admire.

Because, truly, they are. When we sit and fold pad after pad, when we gather in the side room for Friday tea and Bible study, when they walk me back to the hospital because they want me to be safe on the streets — I know I’m in the presence of saints. Society may overlook them because of their traumas, or simply because they are women, but they are royalty in the eyes of God. What a privilege, to know and learn from them.

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