Who Do We Think We Are?

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Kristen and John at Niagara Falls in October 2009, when John was on leave after returning from Iraq (and after having dragged Kristen to a monastery for their first week together).

This entry will be shorter than previous ones, because we don’t really want to talk about ourselves all that much (at least on the blog; I (John) could talk about myself all day). However, we do want to explain how we came to desire to work overseas, and why we’ve decided to pursue this goal.

Kristen’s Story

When I was 17, an evangelist came to the Stillwater Church of Christ and shared his experience as a long-term missionary in China.  I was so moved and impressed by the work he was doing, I contemplated packing my bags and moving to China the next day.  Years later (in 2011), I went on a short-term trip to Haiti.  It was my first experience with extreme poverty and I really didn’t know what to expect, but by the time my trip came to an end I didn’t want to leave.  Many of the people I met were still displaced from the effects of the 2010 earthquake but the amount of love and joy they had for each other and for me was inspiring and overwhelming.

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Kristen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010.

As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to care for and love the sick and the suffering, to try to live a life worthy of His sacrifice.  While that can, and should, be lived out in our own communities and neighborhoods, there is also a need in communities that don’t have the resources we have been blessed with here.  God calls each of us in different ways and John and I feel there has been a desire and a willingness placed on our hearts for Ethiopia.

John’s Story

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John at the ziggurat in Ur (of the Chaldees) in southern Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham (2009).

My first encounter with some sort of development work involved two short-term spring break trips with the Church of Christ University Center in Stillwater, OK (also, by the way, where Kristen and I met). One trip was to Impact Houston Church of Christ, which has an amazing inner city ministry; the other was a work project in Saltillo, Mexico. These trips made me aware of the possibility of development work as ministry.

At the same time, I was able to attend one of Christian Veterinary Fellowship’s Real Life Real Impact weekends, where I learned about the kind of work that Christian Veterinary Mission did around the world. At the time, I recognized that I wasn’t mature enough (both in my faith, and simply as a person) to pursue development work long term. However, my decision to join the Army Veterinary Corps was heavily influenced by my desire to use the skills and knowledge I had obtained to serve others. I was seeking to share Christ’s love through veterinary medicine in whatever capacity I could at the time.

While in the Army, I did some work in Bosnia, the Congo, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda, which served to strengthen my resolve to find some way to pursue development work in the future.  I was deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, and it was there that my life changed drastically. I can say that in hindsight, but at the time, I would have said that Iraq was inconsequential: I wasn’t a combatant, and because the Army had become so risk-averse by 2008, I really didn’t have that much to do. I had a lot of time to read, though; and (much more importantly), I had a lot of time to pray. This is where I discovered the Orthodox Church (something we plan to write about in more detail in a future post), but in many ways, it’s where I discovered my absolute dependence on Christ, and where my desire to drop everything to serve him really sprang to life.

Everything since then has been an effort to discern how Kristen and I can use what we’ve been given to know Christ and to love others in such a way that we can look back and know that we made the most of what we were given.

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John and Kristen on their wedding day (May 29, 2008) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why Christian Veterinary Mission?

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I’m a little behind on posting this week, because Charles Maximus’s godmother got married in Chicago this weekend, and Charlie was the ring bearer. Congratulations to Jen and Garrett Ledesma; many years!

Thanks to all who have been showing their support as we prepare for next year: those who have been praying, those who have made very generous contributions, and those who have contacted us to encourage us, followed us, and provided us with their contact information!

Today, I want to write about our sending agency (I’ll explain this term below): Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM). I want to explain who they are, what they do, and why we chose to partner with them.

What is Christian Veterinary Mission?

Christian Veterinary Mission was founded in 1976 by Dr. Leroy Dorminy, a veterinarian from Georgia. At the Baptist World Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in July 1975, Dr. Dorminy met a woman from Africa who, when asked how Christians in the developed world can help in developing countries, responded, “what we need is for you to come and teach us your skills that we might do for ourselves.”

Dr. Dorminy then approached his denomination’s foreign mission board, but was turned away, in part because they simply didn’t know what to do with a veterinarian! As a result, he became convinced that there was a real need for an organization that understood the veterinary profession and what veterinarians can offer in the way of sharing Christ’s love in developing countries.

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Dr. Leroy Dorminy (photo courtesy of cvmusa.org).

Due to the need for experienced, professional guidance in terms of supporting those placed overseas, CVM became a part of CRISTA ministries in 1978. CRISTA’s mission is “to love God by serving people – meeting practical and spiritual needs—so that those we serve will be built up in love, united in faith and maturing in Christ.”

What Does CVM Do?

As they explain on their website, “CVM’s mission is to challenge, empower and facilitate veterinary professionals to serve others by living out their Christian faith.” Another way that CVM states its mission is “to share the love of Christ through veterinary medicine.”

CVM thus functions as a sending agency for those in the veterinary profession. One website describes a sending agency as one that “specializes in the care and service of ‘people on mission’ . . . experts in all the challenges and details of a person going into itinerant ministry, and can provide excellent financial services, mailing and database services, fund raising training, donor communication training and support, connections and resources from many other related people and organizations, and more.”

Today, CVM functions as the sending agency for more than fifty veterinarians (and their families) in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia; all of whom raise their own support, as we are doing. In addition, CVM has student and professional ministries in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. I (John) was introduced to CVM through its student ministry while in vet school.

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A map showing the location of many current CVM field staff. The map is interactive here.

Why We’re Raising Support

Before I explain why we chose CVM, I want to explain some of the reasons why we decided to raise support rather than find other funding options.

  • We want to create a community of supporters, who will come alongside us in our work through prayer, financial contributions, and interaction (both on social media and through visits). Raising financial support requires us to do the work of connecting with our supporters by keeping you up updated and involved. It also allows you, when you contribute your time to our work (and money counts here, because you have spent time earning that money) to truly be a part of the work we’re doing.
  • We don’t want to take salaries away from other potential employees. Were I to take a salary from the veterinary school, for example, that’s one less Ethiopian veterinarian or microbiologist that the vet school can hire.
  • We would like to do this work for as long as we’re able, without interruption. I intend to explore a number of funding opportunities, such as grants, once we’re in Mekelle and I’m able to help people determine their priorities and goals. Those sorts of opportunities will fund projects to benefit the groups I’m working with. But grants are typically short term, and if we were dependent on them for our continual funding, we would have to spend valuable time identifying, applying for, and being subject to the terms and conditions of the grants (assuming we’re awarded them).
  • We want our work to be sustainable, and to endure after we leave. If we’re taking a salary, we’re obliged to do the work required by those paying us. Our intention, however, is to come alongside those already doing that work, and offer our experience, knowledge, and skills, to enable them to excel long after we’re gone.

Why We Chose CVM

There are three basic reasons that we chose to work with CVM: their history of financial accountability, their experience with veterinarians and with Ethiopia, and their reputation for caring for their field staff.

CVM and CRISTA Ministries have an outstanding reputation for financial accountability. They have a four-star rating on Charity Navigator (which rates them according to financial health, accountability, and transparency), and are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. It was important to us that our supporters have peace of mind that your donations are being used appropriately and effectively at all levels. All donations to CVM are tax deductible.

CVM has a 40+ year history of supporting veterinarians, especially those seeking to share their expertise in developing countries. By working with CVM, we have access to a community that knows the pitfalls to avoid as a vet in a developing country, as well as what works.

The same can be said about living as a veterinarian in Ethiopia. CVM’s Africa Regional Director and his family spent nearly three decades in Ethiopia; other veterinarians have worked there, or work there currently. They understand the unique cultural and logistical challenges associated with navigating Ethiopia.

Finally, CVM has a reputation for caring for its field staff. This has been a constant refrain as I’ve gotten to know current and former members of CVM’s team. We’ve even experienced it ourselves, as we had some medical issues that required I leave the first CVM event we attended a couple of days early; the prayer, expressions of concern and support, and follow-up were incredible. We feel comfortable knowing that CVM’s members take care of one another, and live out the call to function as brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are a number of organizations with whom we considered partnering, and of course, other groups have a number of skill sets offered by CVM (and in a few cases, advantages that CVM is not able to offer). However, we are confident that we are in good hands with CVM, and we look forward to a fruitful partnership.

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Charles Maximus at the rehearsal for his nouna’s wedding at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.

Why Ethiopia?

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The highlands of northern Ethiopia.

Thanks to everyone who has contacted us with words of encouragement and contact information, as we work to get our name out there! We’re very grateful for all of you!

The train has left the station, and we’re in full swing now in terms of being functioning candidates with Christian Veterinary Mission. We’re compiling our mailing list for our monthly newsletters (contact us if you’re interested in being added to that list!), and we’re determining out topics for our weekly blog post over the next few months, based on questions we’re getting from our supporters.

There are three main ways that folks can help us with this process. The first, and most important, is prayer. Our prayer requests can be found here. The second is through financial contributions. We’ll write more about this topic in the next few weeks, but the gist is that CVM requires that its field staff be receiving monthly contributions equivalent to our monthly budget before allowing us to move to Ethiopia and start working. That is to say, we need enough people giving on-going monthly gifts to meet our monthly expenses. On-going gifts that have started before we move over will go towards our one-time expenses, like plane tickets, visas, furniture, a vehicle, etc.

The third way to help out is to connect with us via social media (this blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), and to encourage others who might be interested in our work to check us out!

For the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about why and how Ethiopia has become our intended destination.

Hearing About Ethiopia

When I came back from Iraq in 2009, Kristen and I decided to look into the possibility of working long term in developing countries. I had worked in a number of developing countries as part of the Army Veterinary Corps, and Kristen traveled to Haiti in 2010 and 2011, where she worked short-term with a couple of ministries.

In the spring of 2012, I contacted Christian Veterinary Mission (I’ll explain more on why we chose to work with CVM in a future post), and started a months-long conversation with Fred Van Gorkom, CVM’s Africa Regional Director. When Fred heard about our background, he began to urge us to consider Mekelle, Ethiopia, as a potential destination. For one thing, my time in the Army had taught me that one of my greatest strengths and joys is in training others, and encouraging them to develop their understanding and skills. This led us to talk about the possibility of teaching at a veterinary school in a developing country. Fred, who had served in Ethiopia for nearly three decades, had a number of connections at the veterinary school in Mekelle, and knew that this school had expressed a need and desire for improvements in both pedagogy and its research programs.

In addition, the fact that I was well-versed in both evangelical and Orthodox expressions of Christianity led Fred to urge us to consider Ethiopia; more on this below.

With Fred urging us to consider Ethiopia, we began to learn more about the country, and in particular, about its livestock and veterinary infrastructure, and about the history and status of Christianity and other religions in the country. I plan on writing in greater detail in future posts on both of these topics, but here’s an overview:

Veterinary Medicine in Ethiopia

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Goats in the pastoral Afar Region of eastern Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa. It has over 100 million inhabitants, and occupies 420,000 square miles (about 1.5 times the size of Texas). The terrain varies from mountain to savanna to desert; and livestock are abundant throughout all areas of the country.

Ethiopia is said to have the highest population of livestock in Africa, with over 150 million animals, made up primarily of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. This number omits the livestock population in the Afar and Somali regions, where most people are pastoralists (that is, herders), because it is extremely difficult to get accurate counts. Suffice it to say that the numbers are very high. Many of these animals are ultimately exported, often to the Arabian Peninsula via Djibouti, Somalia, or Kenya. Livestock plays a significant economic role in the country.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of veterinary infrastructure, debilitating diseases are common in many herds. This adversely affects Ethiopians in at least two ways; first, it decreases the number of animals born, the number that are brought to slaughter and/or milked, and it drastically decreases the amount of milk and/or meat produced. This is the economic and nutritional impact. It also predisposes people to zoonotic disease – diseases spread from animals to humans, often when animal products are consumed.

A key step toward improving veterinary infrastructure is improving both veterinary medical education and improving the research capacity of those institutions. As research capacity improves, veterinarians and livestock owners will have better information about animal disease in the Ethiopian context, and will be able to make informed decisions regarding animal health.

Christianity in Ethiopia

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The roof of Kidus Giorgis (St. George’s Church), an 11th century stone-carved church in Lalibela.

Ethiopia embraced Christianity by the early fourth century, at the latest, when the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church received her first bishop, St. Frumentius, from Alexandria, Egypt. Today, the EOTC has between 40 and 46 million members. In addition, over the last 200 years, various Protestant churches have appeared and grown throughout the country, so that there are approximately 14 million Protestant Christians of various denominations in Ethiopia.

The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Churches has been tense at times, for a number of often complicated reasons. Recently, members of the EOTC and a number of Protestant churches gathered in Addis Ababa, at the first ever regional consultation of the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative, to discuss the relationship between Orthodox and Protestant churches and Christians.

Ultimately, for there to be peace between Orthodox and Protestant Christians, there must be increased understanding in where the true and important differences lie, as well as what is genuinely shared in common (indeed, 20 years of communism went a long way in teaching Ethiopia that in many cases the commonalities far outweigh the differences). People who are able to understand both the Orthodox and Protestant perspective could be very helpful in this regard.

In addition, there is currently a need at the local Orthodox seminary for teachers of biblical languages, biblical studies, and patristics.

Why Ethiopia?

We are going to Ethiopia (God willing) because we believe that’s where we can best share Christ’s love in terms of the gifts, skills, and experiences that he has given us. We remain unspeakably grateful for your support as we pursue this goal.

Why “Hands Outstretched”?

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“…let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” (Psalm 68:31)

What an adventure this has been!

In July 2017, a few days before our second child Judah was born, we received an email from the Africa Regional Director at Christian Veterinary Mission, informing us that we had been formally approved as Candidates with CVM. A new and significant step has been made in what has already been a long and prayerful journey! After working through some of the necessary logistics, not to mention having baby #2 and John starting the last semester of coursework for his PhD, we are ready to introduce you to “Hands Outstretched,” our vision for where we hope to go, and how we hope to share Christ’s love along the way.

This blog is intended to serve as an invitation to our readers to come alongside us as we continue this journey, one that will lead us, shortly, to Mekelle, Ethiopia. It is our intention to post here regularly as we begin to prepare for our long-term relocation to Mekelle. In doing so, we hope 1) to keep everyone informed as to our status and our progress as we pursue this goal; 2) to share what we’re learning about the history and status of Christianity, as well as of veterinary medicine and public health, in Ethiopia; and 3) to ask for your support as we pursue this goal.

There are three ways that you can help us: through prayer, through financial contributions, and through interacting with us via social media (including this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), as well as sharing our updates with anyone and everyone you think might be interested. We welcome any questions about what we’re doing; please feel free to contact us!

So here we are. We plan on sharing more over the next few weeks about who we are, where we’re coming from, how we got here, and how (and why) we intend to get where we’re going. But first, I want to talk about the name we’ve chosen for this ministry, “Hands Outstretched,” and what that means to us.

In Ethiopia, there is one half-verse of Scripture that is more widely quoted, written, and scrawled across walls and billboards than probably any other text: Psalm 68:31 – “…let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” If you look this up in an English version of the Bible, there’s a fair chance that “Cush” will be mentioned rather than Ethiopia; this is simply a translational issue.

For at least the last 1,700 years, and probably for much longer, Ethiopia has been stretching out her hands to God. It is our joy and privilege to join her in doing so as we seek to share our gifts and blessings with the people of Mekelle, of Tigray, and with the rest of Ethiopia. This is first and foremost what we mean by “Hands Outstretched”: that we long to seek God alongside those with whom we’ve chosen to live.

However, there are other nuances involved with “Hands Outstretched” that have led us to choose this image for our ministry. In the Orthodox Church, Psalm 141 has been considered the psalm of evening prayer since at least the third century (and almost certainly earlier than that). In 141:2, the psalmist prays: “Let my prayer arise as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Thus, “Hands Outstretched” also represents the orans, a common posture for prayer in the early Church:

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In addition, John Cassian, in commenting on Psalm 141, makes a powerful observation:

Here the true evening sacrifice can be understood in a more spiritual way as . . . that evening sacrifice that he offered to the Father on the last day – namely, at the end of the ages – by the raising of his hands for the salvation of the world” (Institutes, 3.3.8-10).

Thus, as Cassian points out, the “Hands Outstretched” are the hands of Christ, allowing himself to serve as the true and final evening sacrifice. And we who are called to take up our crosses and follow him are called to stretch out our hands alongside him, thereby participating in his sacrifice.

“Hands Outstretched” also refers to our love for one another, in that we stretch out our hands as a sign of peace (in a handshake), of love and acceptance (in a hug), and in giving and receiving in community (via the exchange of goods). We hope to be peacemakers, sharers in Christ’s love, and to give what we have to those who may need it, as well as to receive what is offered in return (i.e., knowledge and understanding about other cultures, faiths, and worldviews).

Finally, as we wrap up this introduction, I’d like to talk a little more about the Psalm from which we take our name, Psalm 68. Psalms are numbered differently in certain versions of the  Bible and in certain translations, because when the Psalms were translated from Hebrew to Greek in the centuries before Christ, the numbering was changed, and so Orthodox Bibles and liturgical texts will number this Psalm 67. This psalm is an extremely significant one in the Orthodox tradition; Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon describes its use well in his excellent book, Christ in the Psalms:

The Christian sense of this psalm is abundantly clear in its traditional liturgical use, the best example being the rush procession of Holy Saturday night. In front of the church doors, after we have thrice marched around the building, we stand and listen to St. Mark’s account of the myrrhbearing women coming to the empty tomb of the Risen Christ. Then, after that Gospel, we repeatedly chant the triumphant troparion of Pascha: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ Between chantings of that great troparion we sing lines from Psalm 67: ‘Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.’

Here we have the deeper, more authentic sense of the psalm: Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, arising from the dead (‘Let God arise’), triumphant over sin and death (‘Let His enemies be scattered’), bringing His saints from the demonic depths of Hades (‘I will bring back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea’), leading the Church in her journey through history (‘O God, when You went out before Your people’).

Thus, with Hands Outstretched, we proclaim his death, we confess his resurrection. We thank you for joining with us on this journey. Please consider helping, in one or more of the ways described above. Welcome!

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