Many of us dream of following our destiny, of making a positive difference in the world. But few are willing, especially if that willingness constitutes leaving our homes, friends, relatives, our very nation, and moving to a remote village in Ethiopia to save children caught in a secret culture of infanticide.
Levi Benkert said a quick "Yes" to his destiny--although he never saw it coming. Levi, a Northern California land developer, was living a 27-year-old business man's dream when the real estate market collapsed.
Answering his cell, for what he assumed was another banker with more bad news, he heard a friend, Steve, on the other line, asking him to drop everything and fly to Ethiopia. A group of German-based photographers, Steve explained, traveling in Ethiopia, had just rescued a young girl named Bale--a child about to be murdered by elders from her remote village.
But there was more to the story. The photographers had also uncovered a long standing superstition that labeled children "mingi" (unclean or cursed) if they fell into a few categories: Children could be deemed mingi for something as simple as their top teeth coming in before the bottom, being born to an unmarried couple or to a married couple who had not announced, in an elaborate ceremony, their intent to conceive.
Once declared mingi, Steve explained, the children were murdered to protect the village from evil spirits. If not killed, the tribal elders taught, the rain will not come, crops will fail, people will die.
Levi struggled to understand what he was hearing. The youngest of the mingi babies are left in the jungle to starve, or have dirt stuffed in their mouth to cause suffocation, while older children are bound and thrown into the river to drown. The latter was to be Bale's fate.
Except, in this case, the photographers had intervened, pleading with the elders on Bale's behalf. They promised to remove her far from the village to "free their people from the curse." It was not necessary for her to die, they insisted, only be taken away. Eventually, the elders agreed, allowing Bale to be delivered to her rescuers by small boat, traveling safely down the river--the same river where she was to be drowned.
But there were many more mingi children, Steve explained. To be saved, they'd need to establish a place of refuge--an orphanage. Levi's help was needed. They were desperate. Would he come?
Torn by what he heard, but convinced he had to remain in the U.S. to unwind the last of his failing business, and grieve the recent suicide of his brother, Levi hesitated.
However, the moment Levi told his wife Jessie, she insisted he drop everything and go. Go to Ethiopia. The timing. The need. It had to be God's calling.
So, Levi left for what he thought would be a 2 week trip. But he was wrong.
Once he met Bale, face to face, there was no turning back.
Within 6 weeks, Levi, his wife and three young children, were on a plane relocating to Ethiopia. Indefinitely. And in just 8 weeks, the orphanage was harboring 8 rescued children.
That was in early 2009. Eventually, the orphanage rescued 33 children. Thirty-three lives spared. Thirty-three destinies able to be fulfilled.
Some estimate that, each year, as many as a thousand Ethiopian children are victims of mingi infanticide. Yet, astonishingly, the world remains virtually unaware.
Levi grew up in a missionary family and spent much of his teen years serving orphans around the world. He and his wife Jessie knew they had to put their faith into action. Saving lives. Rescuing the innocent.
Due to changes in the orphanages local board, Levi's no longer working with mingi kids. The Ethiopian government is actively patrolling the area, now, and children who are declared mingi are safely escorted by officials to the many orphanages that have sprung up in the area to accommodate the need.
But before they left the South Omo, Levi and Jessie adopted one of the mingi children-- a newborn whose parents had tried to kill at birth by stuffing dirt in her mouth, then leaving her outside the hut to suffocate. A tribal member, who did not believe in mingi, rescued the infant just seconds from death, cleaning the soil from her mouth and hiding her in a nearby hut. Before she was escorted to the orphanage, the little one was named Edalawit, which translates from Amharic as "The Lucky One."
Because orphanages across Ethiopia are overwhelmed by staggering need, some children--whose parents have died of starvation or diseases including AIDS-- are forced to live on the streets. In response, Levi and Jessie are, once again, putting their faith into action. They're now in the process, with the encouragement of the Ethiopian government, of opening an orphanage called Bring Love In, to be located in Addis Ababa.
Once open, Bring Love In will consist of several small, satellite homes, each housing 5 to 6 orphans led by a widow foster mother. The program will be two-fold: to provide jobs for displaced women and offer a home-like atmosphere for children, heeding the scripture that true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress.
Levi's adventures are documented in his memoir, No Greater Love: One Man's Radical Journey through the Heart of Ethiopia, (Tyndale: July 2012 , Benkert/Chand) which is available for pre-order now. For more information about Levi's work, read his website at www.BringLove.in
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