Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
~ Proverbs 31:8-9
ADDIS ABABA — These words of King Solomon have been running through my mind since our ONE Moms delegation — 13 mothers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday.
I hear these verses as a clarion call to action. As someone who strives humbly to follow the Way of Jesus and be involved in The Work that God is doing in the world, I want to respond and do what these verses command.
And as a believer who also happens to be a mother (a fairly novice one, still learning the ropes, if you will), I must do.
Sunday afternoon, after us ONE Moms dropped our luggage at the hotel, piled into our chartered bus, and drove to the outskirts of the city to the Mary Joy Aid Through Development Association, we met our Ethiopian sisters who are speaking out for those who cannot; who are advocating on behalf of the destitute, judging with righteous wisdom, and defending the rights of the poor and the needy.
The verses that follow Solomon's charge in Proverbs 31 are well known. He goes on to describe the ideal woman, mother, and wife — the one who is "far more precious than jewels." She is industrious, good with money, makes beautiful things with her hands, tends to the needs of her children (and those of others), has strong arms (here I picture Michelle Obama), rises early and works late, spins and weaves and sews.
"She opens her hand to the poor," Solomon says. "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness."
And her children "rise up and call her 'blessed.'"
As we alighted the bus at the gates of Mary Joy, dozens of Ethiopian mothers and children — from babes in arms to older teens — greeted us with flowers and mega-watt smiles that would light up even the darkest of places. They embraced us, kissed our cheeks, shook our hands, and then they broke into exuberant singing and dancing.
Our welcoming committee were those "Proverbs 31 women" that, as an evangelical Christian, I've heard so much about over the years. Such women are precious — and scarce. I have met only a true few in my lifetime. That is, until Sunday.
You see, the mothers at Mary Joy (with a few fathers as well), have heeded the words of Proverbs 31: 8-9 by reaching out to orphans, widows, the elderly, and others who are struggling to survive amidst poverty and tragedy such as the loss of the family matriarch or patriarch and breadwinner, disease (often HIV/AIDS), or some other cataclysm that has left them bereft, voiceless, alone on the margins of society.
Mary Joy, which is a non-religious, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) has, since 1994, been working tirelessly to assist and empower women, children and families through a host of educational programs — from HIV/AIDS prevention and hygiene to nutrition and other vocational training — and by assembling a small army of "peer mothers" who act as stand-in parents for children who are parentless.
ONE Moms got to know the Mary Joy organization through one of our own members, Maya Haile Samuelsson, a model and native of Ethiopia who, with her husband, Chef Marcus Samuelsson, supports the education and wellbeing of 10 children at Mary Joy. (Maya even more beautiful on the inside than she is out — and she's absolutely stunning; the picture of grace and a generous heart.)
UNICEF estimates there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia — about 650,000 of them having lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. Of those orphans, more than 2 million live below the poverty line, which in Ethiopia is about 80 cents a day. Many thousands end up living on the streets.
During our visit with the mamas and children of Mary Joy, we were briefed officially by executive director about the work the organization does. But we learned so much more just by being with the mothers and kids as they celebrated life and welcomed us into theirs.
A group of adolescent boys performed acrobatics, juggled brightly colored bowling pins and blazing batons — one boy even filled his cheeks with lighter fluid and spit flames into the air as we collectively gasped the way mothers do.
And we danced. Some of us more gracefully than others, some of us with a child on our hip, or the hand of new friend in ours. But we all moved with joyful abandon.
We sat in a happy heap on blankets on the ground, flirted with babies, smiled at each other — affirming one another in that motherhood-is-global-and-mighty-powerful way that doesn't need a common language to be understood. It just takes a look. Straight in the eyes. Deep into the soul. We see each other and we know.
It was a glory day. And it was the perfect the beginning of a journey here in Ethiopia, a land oozing with sacred spirit and beauty at every turn — perhaps most vividly in the places where people have the "least."
In the slideshow below, you can see some of the faces of the mothers from Mary Joy and a few of my traveling companions from ONE Moms.
The journey continues with blessings, lessons, and audacious grace.
I'll have more stories to share soon. (Dear St. Isidore, patron saint of computers and the Internet, please put in a good word for this weary traveler).
Thank you for joining us on this adventure.
If you'd like to learn more about Mary Joy or consider sponsoring one if its children, please click HERE.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen's tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen's posts from her Ethiopian journey below.