By Cathleen Falsani
In 2007, I boarded a plane bound for Africa for the first time.
That trip took me to Kenya, Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar and Malawi.
And that trip changed me -- heart, mind, soul -- forever transforming my family and my world.
Today, almost five years to the day since I flew to Nairobi to begin my first African adventure, I'm sitting in the international terminal of Dulles airport in Washington, D.C., waiting to board a 787 Dreamliner bound for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
An adventure lies ahead. And yet, so much more than that.
I've been to Africa twice now (this is my third visit to continent), and each time the people I've met and experiences I've had on the journey -- all of it dripping with a grace so palpable I could almost smell it like so much sandalwood smoke wafting from an incenser -- have shaped me and recalibrated my spirit.
I don't know specifically what Ethiopia has in store for me, but I am sure of one thing: the spirit will be there.
It will move my soul. I will be changed. My capacity to love will deepen. My concept of beauty, joy, faith, courage and suffering will grow.
My traveling companions are a dozen women -- all are members of ONE Moms, a group of mothers from around the globe who are part of the ONE Campaign, a non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.*
Backed by more than three million members, ONE works with government leaders to support proven, cost-effective solutions to save lives and help build sustainable futures. I've been orbiting ONE for a decade, way back when it was called DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) and I was still a newspaper reporter. I tagged along on a trip across the American Midwest (called the "Heart of America Tour") with ONE co-founder Bono, Bobby Shriver, Chris Tucker, Ashley Judd and a merry band of activists determined to get the American church (read: Evangelicals like me) to do something about the AIDS emergency in sub-Saharan Africa.
For years, I've covered ONE as a journalist -- from the outside looking in, as a bystander and a (mostly) neutral observer. I could tell ONE's stories, but I couldn't get involved in its work directly.
And then earlier this year, having left the news business in 2011 when I joined the staff of Sojourners as its Web Editor and Director of New Media, ONE extended an invitation to me to join the advisory board of ONE Moms. I like to think of Sojo and ONE as kissing cousins, both dedicated to doing Matthew 25 work -- feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, reaching out to the margins with love and respect -- and, because I was no longer a traditional journalist, very happily I was able to say yes! (A great, big, full-throated, fledgy yesssssss!)
Soon came another invitation from ONE to join other ONE mamas on a listening-and-learning visit to Ethiopia. And more fledgy yeses.
Beginning Sunday, we'll be visiting various NGOs and projects in and around Addis Ababa that work (predominantly) with women and girls, and we'll meet many of our counterparts -- Ethiopian mamas, our sisters from the other side of the world.
We will sit with the weavers at fashionABLE, visit patients and doctors at the world-renowned Hamlin Fistula Hospital, organizations that work with orphans and widows, AIDS prevention programs, nutrition centers for newborns and children, and women farmers near Bahir Dar, in northwestern Ethiopia's Amhara district not far from the Sudanese border.
My prayer is to enter this adventure with a wide-open heart and mind. To be present. To listen well. To learn and to tell the stories of the people I meet as well as I can.
Five years ago, on that first trip to Africa, I was working on a memoir called Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. The idea was to explain (for lack of a better word) what grace feels/sounds/smells/tastes like for people who don't know what it is or feel like they've never experienced it. I did so by telling stories from my own life -- including tales from intentional experiences I'd had to see how grace would "turn up," certain that it would and spectacularly so. With jazz hands.
And it did.
On October 12th this year, I will be in Ethiopia about 4,000 kilometers north of Blantyre, Malawi where I was on October 12th, 2007.
That's the day I met a little boy by the side of the road who was dying of a heart defect. He had no parents. He was desperately poor. Some would have said he had no hope.
The tiny boy was wearing a dingy T-shirt with the drawing of a dove and the word, chisomo, written on it, which means "grace" in his native language, Chichewa.
But, as a friend told me yesterday when I was talking about how I believed Ethiopia would be a transformational experience, God is even bigger than we think.
As many of you already know, that boy is now my son, Vasco.
The first time I went to Africa, I went looking for grace, and I found Vasco.
The second time I went to Africa, in 2010, I brought Vasco with me for an adoption hearing, not knowing if I'd be able to get him out again.
But God is even bigger than we think.
And I returned home to California with a family -- legally and forever.
My flight's about to board for Ethiopia.
I'm not looking for anything or anyone. I'm going with an open hand and heart.
And I know -- more than I ever could express in words -- that God is even bigger than we think.
Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion columnist who writes for Religion News Service and Sojourners magazine. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. This post was originally published on her blog The Dude Abides.
Check out Sojo.net, where I will be filing (hopefully) daily reports from Ethiopia. And watch for my tweets (and those of my traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Photo credit: ONE Moms at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. before boarding their flight to Addis Ababa on Saturday courtesy of the author. Photo of Vasco in Malawi in 2007, and in California in July 2012 by Cathleen Falsani.
*I'm in Ethiopia as an expense-paid guest of The ONE Campaign. We are here to report back to you about how lives have been improved or saved by American-supported programs. ONE is a non-partisan organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease by pressing political leaders to support smart programs that save lives. ONE doesn't ask for your money, just your voice.