Some of you may remember the kind, gentle spirit that could be found in our friend and neighbor Shiferaw Tessima. Shiferaw was known well by community dinner groups. He was a standard presence at the cold weather shelter for many years; and for a long time, he lived in his car. If you’ve been involved with the Micah Community for any amount of time and you don’t remember Shiferaw, it was probably because he was so incredibly quiet and well put together that he could easily go unnoticed. Shiferaw preferred it that way, as his existence for most of the years we knew him was plagued by a persistent belief that something or someone was seeking to harm him. He often turned to God and lived a deeply spiritual life in order to ward off whatever he was concerned would bring ill will. Because he kept so much to himself and rarely shared the specifics of his concerns, we may never know what caused his very unexpected death last week. He was only 56.
We always knew Shiferaw had led a pretty productive life, He was a legal permanent resident from Ethiopia. He was well read and a deep studier of world religions and theology, particularly Christianity. For much of the time I knew him, he worked in various cleaning jobs, including at Mary Washington Hospital. But there was always something mysterious about what had happened (we still don’t know what) to take him away from his family, his country and all of the achievements he once had; and what left him homeless in our community for many years. I didn’t know, for instance, until I cleaned out his apartment this week that Shiferaw had been an airline mechanic and traveled all over the world. These are just a few of the photos I found in cleaning out his home this week.
Many times, when our neighbors pass away, there is either not a next of kin or it takes some time to find the next of kin. Shiferaw has pages and pages of phone numbers, from Africa to the US, but so far no one has been identified to claim his body or belongings. The mystery in which he lived that last few years of his life does not give us much confidence that someone will be found. It is so clear, however, in looking at the joyful faces of circles he once kept, that Shiferaw had a time and place in which he belonged to someone. Whether or not he lived the most recent stage of his life with those friends and family close to him, I always admired how Shiferaw moved about a pretty isolated life with great confidence in who and whose he actually was.
It was Shiferaw who taught me some years ago that you never turn down what a person who seemingly has nothing to give might offer. There were many times that Shiferaw would visit Micah and ask to speak to me. No matter how long it took for me to finish what I was doing and come speak to him, Shiferaw would wait. He would wait, just to put a few dollars in my hand. Giving to Micah was his way of giving back to God for the blessings God had given him. Sometimes it was $20, other times it was $50 to $100. Our conversations were always the same.
“You need this money,” I would say to him, as he was sleeping in his car at the time. “Use it to put yourself in a hotel or get something to eat.”
“It is what God asks of me,” he would reply. “It is in his honor I ask that you take it.”
Reluctantly, I did. And in time, Shiferaw showed me the meaning of sacrificial love for a God that sacrificed everything so that we might have the life we were created for.
As I listened to Deacon Nat Harley share a message at Street Church this morning on 1 John 3:1-7, I couldn’t help but think of the assumptions people make about our neighbors. In the mind of the world, being useful and being homeless don’t seemingly go together; and yet those who know our neighbors are often inspired by the gifts and blessings that grow in their healing. In the mind of the world, those who sleep outside must have done something horrific to no longer be welcomed and cared for by their family; and yet we often learn, if even after their passing, that a loving family was once a part of that person’s story before mental illness, death, economic hardship, divorce or otherwise catastrophically took it away. Only the eyes that can see our neighbors as children of God can truly understand them beyond the world’s assumptions.
The passage from John affirms that we, each and every one of us, is a child of God. Just as the world did not recognize Christ in his lifetime as the son of God, the world struggles to know our neighbors, and sometimes ourselves, as equal recipients of that title.
Jesus, the original child of God, was ministering to the world even with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, Nat told our group this morning. We cannot encounter such a wound and walk away the same way we walked up to it.
“When we are restored through the love and the blood of Christ, we have to embrace all the scratches and nicks that come with it,” Nat said.
While many of us approach mission and ministry with a mind that God is using us to transform lives, I often find my own life is far more transformed by our neighbors than their lives could ever be effected by me. The simple truths and the child like faith of those who join us for street church on Sundays is one such example of the ways God also uses our neighbors to change us. Knowing Shiferaw, and journeying with him if even for just a little while, is another of those encounters that I will forever remember as a modern day parable that drew me one step closer to the child God intends me to be.
As I was packing up his belongings this week, I came across one other interesting thing—a lamp in which our friend Shiferaw had inscribed a number of scripture passages that were important to him. I loaded it into my car to store with other items we were setting aside on the chance a family member would show up. The process of loading and unloading his belongings, however, diid not agree with my hatchback, and the lamp came crashing to the pavement.
I scraped the pieces off the pavement, and I have been determined this weekend to super glue the thing back together. I have to admit it is pretty badly broken, and will probably take some time, but I’m hard headed.
My husband at one point, came in the kitchen and proclaimed, “That looks pretty much like a lost cause.”
I didn’t look at him.
“Lost causes, are kind of what I do,” I replied.
Later, I thought, lost causes are kind of what God does. Every piece, every crumb has a name and a place in the masterpiece of God’s kingdom. The ultimate work of art cannot be complete without one missing piece. No matter how small it seems, how scuffed, how jagged; God looks relentlessly for each and every child to be restored.
As we left street church today, Arritt connected what we learned last week to the healing we reflected on this morning.
“Meghann, it seems like what ya’ll are saying is Jesus wounds heal our wounds.”
“Indeed, my friend,” I replied. “Indeed it does.”
Thanks be to God,