For example, last summer in Ethiopia, my soul watched with detached bemusement as my body reacted with delayed violence to food poisoning one day and with immediate violence to food rejection a few days later. By this personal effect my missionary son was powerfully reminded of the social wretchedness I had once caused at his elementary school.
Our family had just moved to Pittsburgh in 1978 and on the first day of school Jonathan wandered into his new classroom and took a vacant seat. Unfortunately, he had chosen a desk on what became the “girls’ side” which is a boy-trauma not easily cured. To compound this nearly fatal injury, the teacher discovered that our family had spent the summer of 1969 in Ethiopia where Jonathan had taken his first step. So, in an effort to broaden the horizons of the students, my wife and I were invited to give a presentation to the fifth grade.
From this point on the story belongs to Jonathan: “My parents showed up at my school wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes, and I realized that sitting on the “girls’ side” of the room was merely a flesh wound. Things could, and were going to, get a lot worse. Mom and Dad set up a slide projector and proceeded to show us the rich history, fertile farmland, interesting people and wild animals of Ethiopia accompanied by African music. However, it is impossible to describe Ethiopia fully without some attention to the tremendous needs one sees on a daily basis. for every student in my classroom, it was an education in itself to see pictures of people suffering from poverty, hunger, and a host of horrible diseases like polio and elephantiasis.
“As a result of a particularly graphic picture of a leper my grandfather was taking care of, one of my classmates (later the star running back on our high school football team) heaved his breakfast producing a chunky waterfall of vomit, which, plopping on the floor was immediately accompanied by the frantic metallic scraping of nearby desks scooting out of range.
“The slide show was stopped, the custodian was called, and that mysterious, noxious chemical was sprinkled around that somehow is able to smell twice as strong and twice as bad as the vomit alone. I don’t know why janitors do this since it put us kids right on the edge. Perhaps it is because there is nothing like a classroom of queasy 11-year-olds to guarantee janitorial job security.
“Anyway, with the acrid smell lingering in our mouths and nostrils and an uneasiness in our bellies, the slide show resumed. My newly sensitized father attempted to skip quickly over any of the too-realistic, remaining slides. Upon observing one, he would shout “Whoa,” thereby forcing us to sit up and fully absorb the picture as he frantically stabbed the advance button. For some time thereafter, I was known as “the new boy whose parents made David barf.” Fortunately, it was a cumbersome nickname not easily shouted across a playground so it didn’t stick.
“That vomiting incident 20 years ago first seared the pain of Africa into my heart and started me on the road back to Ethiopia where we have lived for the last two years. I believe that our Lord is not pleased when his Presbyterians scoot their desks away from the world’s pain. Terribly embarrassed at the time, I am now extremely grateful for that lesson. In addition, I now realize that my parents were years ahead of their time, being pioneers in the field of multimedia. Their slide show incorporated not only unforgettable sights and sounds but also smells.”