"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way” (Psalm 46:1–2).
The stench of death mixed with trash was everywhere, as countless thousands mourned the loss of loved ones in a single disaster. This past Friday we as a team of eleven found ourselves in the heart of this service of mourning….
One week ago today a mountain of waste made up of fifty years of trash gave way in Ethiopia’s capital city, generating a landslide that buried to death over a hundred fathers, wives, and grand children. Even before our arrival in Addis this past Friday, our team of eleven made up of TLI trainers and holistic ministry servants had planned to supply food to this squatters village, but the disaster reshaped our relief efforts into grief recovery. We arrived literally into the shadow of this mountain of death as the sun was going down and as countless thousands in the community were beginning a service of mourning. The Orthodox Church was leading the lamentation, which stretched across multiple city blocks via speakers. There were candles, black dress, and an Orthodox priest preaching in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. Some folks were still crying, but so many had already lost all tears. What we saw instead were faces filled with devastation, deep grief over loss, and hopelessness. We visited some specific homes of families that had loved ones who died––a young mother who lost her husband and son; a 20 year old who lost both of her parents and now bears the responsibility of her two younger siblings; grandparents who lost a daughter, son-in-law, and three grand kids; and so many more.
No member of our team had ever witnessed such broad-sweeping devastation. As of Friday, there were a registered 113 dead, and those remaining were still pulling bodies from the rubble. Policemen and fire-fighters dotted every neighborhood corner, most with masks on to counter the strong stench of trash mixed with death. Huge waste trucks with bad smell drove by, just as a group of men carried in haste a young boy with broken legs and tears in his eyes. We journeyed into a feeding tent, where I found myself kneeling before a woman who had lost her husband and two children. I gave her our food bags. There was such emptiness in her eyes; such brokenness.
We gathered in a front area of someone’s home––a shack with metal walls and a tarp roof. A young teacher attempted to explain the devastation in his own words. As he started, he began to weep and weep, unable to speak. We learned that he had pulled so many bodies out of the rubble. One friend had lost six family members; another had lost five. As a group we gathered in a circle and prayed for God to help this community find hope in Christ amidst their pain, even as many of us pled internally that God would help us feel appropriately about the hurt we were witnessing. So much sadness. So much emptiness. We as outsiders were having the opportunity to enter into a level of communal mourning unparalleled in my life.
I am sure that there are pockets in the US where communal mourning brings the type of unity that we were seeing––e.g., 9/11 at Ground Zero, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and some of the racial riots in the South. However, such experiences have been kept at bay from most our families in Minnesota. Nevertheless, on Friday we witnessed the beauty of relationships and pain of deep loss. As a team of mostly white folks, it was easy to feel like an outsider, but I kept reminding myself that Jesus as a foreigner did not hesitate to enter into the pain of our world––to grieve with those who grieve, and to proclaim the hope he alone supplies––“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). He is the one who holds all authority, and in him we find refuge and strength (Psalm 2:12), even when the earth gives way and buries those we love (Psalm 46:1–2).
In our group debrief time, my daughter Janie said something like, “I know that God is sovereign, in control of all things. But I still struggle to understand why he would allow such devastation to happen.” I reminded her and the group that we never know all of the why, but then I took her to Luke 13:4–5, where Jesus recalled, "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” One thing we do know is that the taste of pain and death that those in Addis Ababa are experiencing right now is part of God’s means for calling all men to repentance. May God through Christ work to rescue many from the fear of death in these days. Please pray with us toward this end.
Dr. Jason DeRouchie
Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary
Elder, Bethlehem Baptist Church