The past few months have been some of the slowest and most confusticated of our adult lives. As you’ll see below, there has been much thought directed toward waiting, and much discussion regarding what it means to wait for the Lord (and, thanks to some good counsel, what it means to wait on the Lord).
I’m posting the monthly letters that we’ve written for August (written July 28) and for September (written August 19), to show how much can happen in a short time!
Please consider taking a few minutes to read this update closely, so that you will all have a good idea of where we are, why, and where we hope to be heading.
The Last Few Months
Our monthly letter was put on hold over the summer as Christian Veterinary Mission transitioned to organizational autonomy. The personnel at CVM headquarters in Seattle have been incredible during this transition, and have once again reaffirmed our decision to work with this organization whose administrators are dedicated and determined to take care of its field workers.
Our last letter, published in April, indicated that I (John) had most likely arrived in Addis Ababa (finally!) on 05 April, and was preparing to set up a home for our family and learning how we could serve the people in Mekelle and Tigray from a distance, and how we could also serve the people in Addis and possible elsewhere in Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The Ethiopian office issuing visas was significantly delayed this past spring (for a number of reasons that I’d gladly discuss one-on-one), and the visa for which I had applied did not arrive in time for me to make my flight departing on 03 April. I therefore had to postpone that flight indefinitely until I could obtain the visa. On May 03, I was notified that my visa had been denied, but I was not given a reason for the denial (again, I’m glad to discuss possible reasons with any of you individually). At this point, I hired a service that processes visas for foreign travelers in the hope that the service would be able to eliminate a number of the potential reasons for another visa denial.
One challenge with using this service, however, was that the paperwork they required for the application (which is listed clearly by the Ethiopian issuing office) differed from what I have used in the past. The reasons for this discrepancy are largely bureaucratic and boring, but it required weeks of emailing back and forth between the service, my sponsor in Ethiopia (the university), and myself, further complicated by the fact that university personnel were more often than not without internet access due to current events in Ethiopia.
As we were preparing to finalize and submit the application in the middle of June, the Ethiopian office announced that they were temporarily halting approval of all visas for entry into Ethiopia. The visa service we had hired subsequently issued me a refund and cancelled my request.
Shortly after this (i.e., the end of June), the Ethiopian federal government withdrew from Mekelle and Tigray, proclaiming a unilateral ceasefire that would last until September, and the Tigrayan forces against whom the federal government had been battling took control of Mekelle and began reclaiming portions of Tigray.
As far as we understand it, what this means for us is that our university is no longer under the control of the Ethiopian federal government, and therefore cannot be the source of invitation necessary to obtain an entry visa into Ethiopia.
The Plan Moving Forward
Our current course of action involves me having contacted (and currently awaiting replies from) several individuals I know in the broader Ethiopian veterinary community to inquire whether any of them would be willing and able to put me in contact with their organizations (in most cases, universities) with the intention of discussing the possibility of working/consulting with these organizations. This will ultimately allow us to obtain a visa and do the sort of work we intended to do in Mekelle but simply aren’t able to do at this time.
We have discussed back-up plans (and back-ups to those plans, and so on) involving other places in Africa and elsewhere that we might consider working, but we’re still eager to pursue work in Ethiopia, given the amount of time we’ve spent working in this country (since 2014!), given the needs of Ethiopian veterinary infrastructure as a leader in the Horn of Africa, as the possessor of more livestock than any other African country, and given the work we’ve envisioned with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
A Theology of Transition, of Waiting, and of Discernment
As many of you know (and as all of you can surely imagine), the last year and a half – and really, the last three years – has led to a plethora of conversations about how one goes about distinguishing God’s intention to move us elsewhere (i.e., a closed door) from the evil one’s attempts to prevent us from doing what we might do to better unite ourselves and others to Christ.
We want more than anything to grow more like Christ, and we believe that in doing so, those around us, through God’s grace, will become more like Christ as well. I will be the first to admit that this sounds much more pleasant and idyllic than it is in practice. I will also admit that I continue to think that I know best how to pursue growth in Christ – in Ethiopia! Working at a vet school! Teaching at a seminary! Suffering a self-imposed ascesis because we chose to live there without creature comforts that we knew we would not have (How brave! How noble!)! I think I know best, when clearly I’m meant to be united to Christ here, in Oklahoma, at home, with good food tempting me, with fast internet and enough streaming content to choke a horse tempting me. But also with a parish community that has blessed us beyond measure, and extended communities that continue to do the same.
I’ve only very recently sat down and contemplated a biblical theology of waiting – insofar as it applies to me and my family, as opposed to easy-to-imagine abstract biblical concepts. I’ve been forced to see myself in Abraham’s situation as he waits most of his life for Isaac, as Jacob waits twice as long as he expects for Rachel, as Joseph waits indefinitely to save his people from famine, as the Israelites wait for Pharoah to release them from bondage, and then wait again to enter the promised land. David waits until the Lord’s time to take the throne. The exiles in Babylon wait until they are able to return to Judea, and then continue to wait for a deliverer. The disciples wait for Jesus to rise up and claim his Messianic throne (thinking they knew what they were waiting for but having no clue). They wait after he has ascended for the coming of the Comforter. We wait, and wait, and wait, for that time when He shall come again to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end.
Friends, thank you for waiting with us. Thank you for your comfort, your encouragement, your prayers, and your financial support. (By the way, if you have questions about your financial support in light of CVM’s administrative transition, and I haven’t contacted you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at drjohncoatney_at_gmail_dot_com, or 918_707_0168.)
We love you all so much.
Thank you for all you do for us,John, Kristen, Charlie, Easton, Judah, and Titus
Letter 2 (three weeks later):
Since our last letter, a LOT has happened! The waiting about which I spoke appears in many ways to have gone on hiatus, and we have big news!
The bad news first – the situation in Ethiopia grows grimmer by the day. The suffering in Tigray continues and grows with no relief in sight. Unrest and instability appear to be raising their heads throughout the rest of the country, in large part due to the situation in the north. Many people with whom I’ve spoken, including both native Ethiopians and Westerners who either still live or have recently lived in Ethiopia have expressed their concern for the safety and/or stability of a young family moving to and settling essentially anywhere in Ethiopia at this time.
In addition, I have spoken at length with one of Addis Ababa University’s most respected and established veterinary researchers, who has expressed his eagerness that I might come and work there, as well as his confidence that we can make this happen. The timeline for making this happen, however, looks to be over the course of several months, at best. This is due in large part to the mitigation measures taken by the government and universities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears that it is very difficult to get much accomplished (even more than is usual) at this time.
The very same week that I had this conversation with the researcher at Addis Ababa, I was made aware of a postdoctoral research position at Iowa State University. The Primary Investigator (PI) of the position is my PhD committee chairman and the PI of my prior postdoctoral work at ISU (i.e., he’s my former boss). We talked, and he recommended that, if I thought that this might be a good choice for our family, I consider applying for the position. I did so, and I have been offered the position.
The position begins on August 31, 2021 and lasts for one year, with the possibility of extending one additional year. The job consists primarily of writing educational materials concerning antimicrobial stewardship in swine production in international contexts. Some international travel is likely, assuming restrictions resulting from the pandemic don’t prevent it.
The position is such that I will also be able to continue to prepare to return to Ethiopia when the time comes. I’m planning to make a couple of trips to Ethiopia over the next 12 months to work out the logistics of the return, which, God willing, with make for a smooth transition from Iowa to Ethiopia.
There have been several clear signs that this is the right call at this time, but perhaps clearest sign involves our “search” for housing. I put search in scare quotes because we really didn’t have to do any searching at all. We were made aware of a family who live in China but who keep a home near Ames, and who haven’t been able to return to China in the last year or so. The husband took a position in Colorado that provided a furnished house, and they were looking for someone to rent the house and cover costs while they’re gone. So we were able to rent this house, fully furnished, that is a five minute drive to John’s office, for the year. It’s quite a house, too – we’re told it was a stagecoach station in the late 1800’s, but it has been extremely well taken care of, and is quite cozy and protected against the heat and cold.
We have one vehicle (a Mazda M5 with about 130,000 miles on it), but will likely have to procure a second vehicle – preferably something large enough for all six of us plus luggage/groceries/etc. Our current vehicle fits all of us, but with almost no room for anything else. If anyone is aware of good deal on a family friendly vehicle, please let us know!
The staff at CVM have been extremely supportive of us during all of this transition. They have encouraged us to keep our focus on what’s most important, and provided invaluable counsel regarding staying focused on our calling. Going forward, I’ll be transferred from a full-time Field Worker to an Associate. As an Associate, our ministry (“Hands Outstretched”) will keep all funds that have been donated to us, and will continue to be able to receive donations. As long as I am an Associate, we will be able to access those funds for ministry-related costs, like language learning materials or trips to Ethiopia to work out contract and visa issues. Let me say that again for emphasis: all donations we’ve received or continue to receive will remain assigned to our ministry for use for that specific ministry. However, since we will be receiving a salary with benefits from Iowa State University, our overhead costs will be quite low during this time. With that in mind, we realize that many of you may choose to direct your donations to other causes at this time. When the time comes for us to begin transitioning back to full-time Field Worker status with CVM and we prepare to move to Ethiopia (or possibly elsewhere), we’ll be reaching out to each of you to invite you to consider supporting us once again.
I have to admit that Kristen and I have a lot of peace about this decision – probably more than we’ve had since returning from Ethiopia. We wish that we were there, and that we were able to help, but we wish more to be good stewards and cultivators of what we’ve been given, and this seems to be the best path by which we might do so.
As always, if you have any questions, concerns, etc., please feel free and welcome to reach out to us (drjohncoatney_at_gmail_dot_com; 918_707_0168).
Thank you for all you do for us,
- John, Kristen, Charlie, Easton, Judah, and Titus