During my first trip to Ethiopia with Compassion International in 2011, I had no idea that God would forever change my life by way of a spontaneous game of peek-a-boo with a 4 year old little girl who looked a little different than her peers.
As team photographer, I snuck out the side door of the large church gathering in order to capture a few images of the overflow of worshipers who were congregating on the steps outside the back of the building. This church was the location of a thriving Compassion International project with over 200 children already sponsored. Today there are over 350 children in the project.
As I stood in amazement at how many people were listening to the sermon from outside, I noticed a little girl- about 20 feet away from me- huddled behind her mother. She was peeking out at me with an inquisitive smile. I waved at her in the same manner we Americans wave at children (not quite a wave, but just wriggling the fingers). She paused, did the same wave back at me, and hid behind her mother who was listening intently to the preacher. When she playfully peered out from behind mom again, I did the same wave. She giggled. We went back and forth with this little game of peek-a-boo for a few minutes...her trying to restrain the laughter...as not to disturb her mother. After a few more peek-a-boo's, she ran over to me said something in Amharic(local language), giggled, and ran back to hide behind her mom. A few minutes later...the same thing- she ran up to me, said something...this time tugging on my arm, giggled and went back to her mother.
She was lighter skinned than the rest of the kids and it was clear her father was not native Ethiopian.
I asked the Ethiopian man next to me what the situation was with this little girl. He explained that the husband(who was Ukrainian) had left his wife when was 3 months pregnant. Just after his explanation, the girl ran up to me again, said something while again tugging on my arm, giggled and ran back to mom...this time looking back at me as if waiting for a response.
The man leaned over to me and said, "She thinks you are her father."
SPEECHLESS. My heart sank. I felt a strange mix of anger, sadness and flat-out indignation. I felt my eyes welling up. Time after time on this trip I had met children who's father was not present. Sometimes he had died. Sometimes drug or alcohol abuse. Sometimes he simply walked out on his wife and children. I waved again at the little girl...and went to walk off my emotions. I did not see her again that day. It was the last day of our trip.
I could not shake it off. What was going on in that little girl's heart? Does this happen each time she sees a white man: "Could that be my daddy?" I could not imagine. It broke my heart.
"Could that be my daddy?"
I found my self recalling and re-telling that story multiple times during my remaining time in Ethiopia. Upon returning to the states, I told it over and over again.
Fast forward 8 weeks. Back in the states. Compassion Sunday. My church at the time(Echo Church, San Jose) had an opportunity to sponsor over 50 children from the same Compassion project we visited while in Nazret(Adama), Ethiopia.
Several years earlier, I had sponsored a little boy named Luckson from Haiti, and it had been a joy to interact with him. So I was really excited to sponsor another child. I showed up at church and immediately went to the Compassion table and started looking through profiles of all the children we had the opportunity to sponsor. Face after face...after precious face. Sweet kids.
As I was going through the stack, I was stopped in my tracks as I looked at one of the profiles. Could it be? No...not possible. Maybe? No. Not possible.
I was stunned. There she was...the same little girl with whom I played peek-a-boo more 8 weeks prior…9000 miles away! The same little girl who thought I was her father was staring back in me in a photo!!! God delivered little Yididiya to me in a manner I could not imagined. What a gift she has been.
Her name means, "Loved by God." And she is. As am I.
At first, she called me "Abaye" (ah-by-hey), which means "daddy". Today, after 8 years of building a relationship, she calls me "papa". Her mother, Genet, shared that "Yididiya is at peace now because she had so many questions about fatherhood." She also said this to me, "When someone asks Yididiya who her father is, she answers, your name." "Yididiya is not only my daughter", she continued, "She is your daughter...because she loves you equal to me." CHOKE. The humility of her mother being able to say that absolutely broke me. I then realized that sponsoring a child has more impact than one can ever fathom.
I made a commitment in my heart to visit her each year from that time forward. By the grace of God, I've been able to keep that promise and go to Ethiopia at least one time every year. Our 2019 team trip will be my 11th time visiting this beautiful country. In 2015, I was led to launch Arukah Global. Yididiya was the seed God used to begin that organization. She is now a very smart and compassionate (almost) 12 years old, and "gets" what I mean when I tell her that countless other children, former prostitutes and widows have been given opportunity for a better future because of our meeting back in 2011.
Since marrying my wife, Kimberly, both Yididiya and her mother, Genet have not only embraced us, but we are very much like family. They love Kimberly and she loves them dearly. Not only do Kimberly and Yididiya have a wonderful connection, but Kimblery and Genet share a special mother bond that is truly wonderful to witness.
As a man called to serve and shepherd the body of Christ, my experience in Ethiopia has stirred my heart for those to whom I am called to minister in the states. Many of the struggling people on the African continent have a freedom in Christ that I desire to see more of here in America - for others and myself. They rely on one another in community, and are indeed rich because they see Jesus as their ultimate treasure. That can never be taken away.
God is Father to the fatherless...and he has given me the privilege of doing the same for Yididiya.