This article appears as the first of a three part series by Bemnet Malaku, a seminarian of the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission, studying at the Congregation’s Internal Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Bemnet is originally from Ethiopia and shares his experience of an immersive apostolic formation experience in Africa.
It was more than just a summer pastoral assignment.
About 20 years ago, I left my country of Ethiopia. Africa is the continent that I was born in, and I longed to return. For political reasons, I could not. I miss Africa and especially Ethiopia.
I have this deep longing to go back to my village and see the place where I was born and connect with my past.
Even though I don’t have any specific person whom I really wanted to visit there, the longing still remained deep and persistent.
My journey to Kenya for a mission experience was not just a place that I went to because I was assigned as part of my formation in the Internal Seminary as a novice for the Congregation of the Mission; it was much more than that! But, in truth, I did not expect that return to be such a pain to my heart, and a blessing to my soul.
Seeking to Return
The idea of going back to Africa on a mission came to my mind about two years ago when I was considering an internship for Clinical Psychology degree. My province, the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission in the U.S., works closely with the Daughters of Charity in a number of areas. I was especially delighted to learn that the Daughters of Charity in Kenya work very closely with missionaries from the Western Province.
Through the confreres I learned of “Project Dream” in Nairobi, Kenya. Since 2008, the Daughters of Charity have been serving HIV/Aids patients, helping them cope with life. They also follow up with them to ensure they can be self-sufficient and provide for their families.
Almost immediately I asked the Provincial Leadership Team to send me to Kenya. They told me that I would be allowed to go, but some time in the future. When I arrived in Germantown to begin this new phase of my formation process as an internal seminarian, I realized that the opportunity might be upon me.
We Rarely Get to Go Back
One of the greatest challenges of immigrants all over the world is that so often we (and here I include myself as one of those immigrants) never have a chance to go back.
We leave our village, our people, our culture, our language, and somehow our identity when we get persecuted.
No matter how much life may be better, we always suffer from the loss of belonging and disconnection with our true authentic self. So, for me, a return would be more like visiting my own original self. I imagine this was the future that I had been promised.
The Future Finally Came
In the Internal Seminary (Novitiate), we have a program that allows us to go do a little over a month pastoral ministry away from the Novitiate. However, in the list of the places that was provided to us to choose from, there was no place outside of the country and especially there was no place like Africa mentioned. With the dream in my heart and the desire to experience a missionary life, I went to my Novice Master and poured out my heart to him, explaining everything about my dream and the deep longing in the depths of my being.
Apparently, he was touched by my story and told me that he would do his best to contact my provincial to see if can happen. With God’s unending grace, the provincial allowed me to go and so my journey to the continent of my birth began. I guess this was the future that I had been promised
The Journey Begins
I cannot explain how excited and nervous I was at the same time when I started the process to travel to Kenya. It was a dream come true but also a nerve-wracking step into the unknown.
Not Knowing What to Expect
I had no idea of what would be waiting for me there. I knew no one in Nairobi or Kenya. But in the depths of my being, I was convinced that this was exactly what I always wanted to do. I constantly prayed to God to calm me down and make me strong to take whatever comes my way. Sure enough, God always provides when we put ourselves in His hands. It ended up to be one of the most graceful moments of my life. It was an experience that changed my whole perspective of life. I thank God forever for providing me with this opportunity.
Winter was descending here in Germantown when I left the U.S. for Nairobi. I was going from the cold season to a part of the world filled with African sunshine and heat. My novice master drove me to Newark so I could fly to Togo, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then Nairobi, Kenya. It was a long flight of close to 26 hours.
Then, for the first time in 20 years, I was on the soil of my birth. I now had a two-hour layover because for political reasons I had to enter my native Ethiopia from another country, Nairobi.
On the ground in Ethiopia, with tears in my eyes, I prayed to God for my motherland, for the people of my country, and for myself. It was like saying I love you to a long-departed parent.
I thought of what it would be like to walk off the plane, to walk through my village and see the houses, the people, and the God-given beautiful nature of the country. My mind was completely taken by the moment. My whole life passed before me. I reflected on all the long journeys and the many twists and turns in my life. I recalled my purpose in life and with the grace of God, opened myself to whatever was about to come my way.
I tried to look through the window to see as much as I could; I wanted to see what my country now looked like. Finally, as the plane took off for Nairobi, I prayed again that one day would God allow me to see my country. Though it was only for a two-hour layover, it was still a blessing for me to be there.
Onward to Nairobi
It is a very strange experience to be in a place that you have never been to before and to wake up and not know anyone. I realized how missionaries must experience life and thought that even though such is a difficult calling, nevertheless, in its own way, it makes a person free; free to experience life as it comes; free to embrace any opportunity; free and able to place oneself totally in God’s hands. There is an interior joy in not being tied down to plans and preparations. All one has is the unknown.
At last, the plane landed on the long awaited dream land of Nairobi, Kenya. I remembered the wisdom saying in Amharic “Feres yadersal enji ayiwagam.” It means, ‘the horse can only take the warrior to the war zone, then it is up to the warrior to win the battle.’
Then, I got up and opened the door to a new experience of missionary life.