Who is she? The other. The one who is different than me. There is always an other. The one I see as completely different than who I am or what I am about. We all have others in our life. We think we understand them without ever having asked if our understanding is accurate, or every considering if we might not know everything there is to know about their story. The tragedy is that the other is our own creation. Otherness was not in the plan. We created otherness. Oneness, unity, peace, love, understanding and communion, these were all in the plan, but otherness was not.
Yesterday morning I found myself missing my home church, so I decided to listen to the pastor’s sermon from a few weeks ago. The sermon centered on the story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael. This is an admittedly messy story. God chose Sarah’s husband, Abraham as the father of Israel. Abraham’s concubine, Hagar threatens Sarah because Hagar bore Abraham’s first son and was therefore higher in social status than Sarah. Sarah eventually bore Isaac, but he was Abraham’s second borne son so there were likely questions surrounding whose son would inherit Abraham’s lot. So, Sarah separates herself from Hagar and labels her as other. While God does not stop her from doing so, God also does not join her. Hagar was a disruption in Sarah’s world. As a result of their problematic presence in Sarah’s story, Hagar and her son, Ishmael are cast out into the desert to die. God hears the cries of Ishmael and Hagar. God had chosen Israel to bear a message to the world, but he did not turn away from those whom Israel labeled as others. Similarly, those whom we have cast aside, thrown into the desert, or whose stories inconvenience us or whose suffering we forget, those whose stories we will never hear because we choose to label them as other and close our ears to their words, God does not forget them. For God, there is no other.
In light of recent events in Palestine and Israel, and in the midst of my experiences here in Ethiopia, the presence of otherness in the world has been a prevailing topic in my thoughts. As I walked to the hospital today I saw a man, naked walking down the street toward me. His testicles were swollen to the size of a small melon and he was displaying his deformity and begging for money. People walked by trying to avoid eye contact and I joined them. I gave him an awkward smile and kept on my way. What is his name? What is his story? Who will listen? Who has cast this man out? Likewise, as we walked back to the hospital after a visit to a local health center with our colleague Adino, I noticed some young women sitting in the grass. They waved hello and I waved back. Adino explained that they were fistula patients. These women were likely married off at a young age and their bodies were not ready to bare children when they became pregnant. This fact paired with the lack of a skilled birth attendant can lead to prolonged labor lasting several days, which can cause the formation of a fistula (Click the link for more detailed information about fistulas). Due to the malodorous nature of their condition, they are cast away to live in isolation, and are often subject to desperate circumstances. These are just a few of the others of our world.
Those labeled as the other are often those whose reality makes us uncomfortable, or whose needs inconvenience us, or whose opinions seem irrational. The only way to overcome this otherness is to hear the stories we don’t want to hear and to acknowledge the likeness that we all share as those who are loved and fully accepted by God.
Stories. We all have them. Some of our stories are told often, while others are never heard. What stories are we not hearing? Who is the other? So often we create otherness where there should be oneness. We create division where there should be unity. We create war where there should be peace. Lord, have mercy.
The gate that Kate and I walk through to get to the University of Gondar Hospital. The sign celebrates the repair of 60 women’s fistulas.
The Fistula Training Center at the University of Gondar Hospital
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians performing their morning ritual of prayer
A beautiful view from a morning run. My morning runs here have provided me space to think and process my experiences.