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Faces of poverty, by RACHAEL OSBORNE
Assistant News Editor
In person, Mihret looked much different than the smiling little girl in the photo on my mom's refrigerator.
She was older now, 7, her jet-black hair tied back in a tiny braided bun.
"My name is Mihret Dereje. I was born in Addis Ababa. I live in Addis Ababa," she said, slowly and deliberately, grinning from ear to ear.
"Ah, she's been practicing her English for you," her councilor Danny beamed.
I couldn't speak Mihret's language of Amharic, but upon our meeting we understood each other, nonetheless.
It had been a long time coming, but I finally got to meet the child for whom my mom had been praying for nearly three years.
In fact, even a year ago, I did not know my mother, Robin, had been sponsoring the girl. I had never heard of Mission of Mercy, and visiting Ethiopia had never crossed my mind. It was as if the trip had been a divine encounter orchestrated beyond the depths of my control.TURNING TO GOD
I had hit rock bottom and sought direction for my life, so I did the only thing I could and cried out to God - then he responded.
His voice was so clear when he told me to fast and seek him. He said that by the fifth day, Friday, March 7, I'd have my answer. Over the next five days, everywhere I turned it was Africa, Africa, Africa.
Then I came across a DVD my uncle had given me years before but I had never watched - a sermon by a southern preacher named Dwain Jones.
I watched it now.
Jones talked about an organization called Mission of Mercy and explained how God is moving in remote places around the world. Babies at the evangelical Christian non-profit group's orphanage in Kenya were being healed of AIDS, he claimed, and people were being raised from the dead in Jesus's name.
Then came a call by Jones to young people asking for those willing to step out to reach those nations.
And in my heart I felt a tug to answer.
I Googled Mission of Mercy and navigated to the site. Out of a handful of mission trips, only one was possible for me to make - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - and I immediately felt compassion for the place.
DESTINED TO MEET
The months leading up to my 10-day journey with Mission of Mercy had been the most amazing blur ever.
I was blessed in that every penny I needed for the $3,500 trip was provided through gifts from faithful friends and family.
I had raised more than half the cost of the adventure by the time I knew anything about Mihret - while visiting my parents in AuSable Forks, I just happened to stumble upon one of her letters. To my surprise - and to my mother's - the only child on the planet who she sponsors lives in the very city I was headed to, through the exact organization I was traveling with.
To put this in perspective, Mission of Mercy works in more than 20 developing countries with several work sites within each nation; there are seven centers in Ethiopia alone. Our group's home base was Addis Ababa Mercy Center - the facility that Mihret attends.
The Mercy Center feeds and cares for about 2,000 school-age children daily and is situated in the capital, Addis Ababa - a muddy city at the foot of Mount Entoto.
In a place where shelter is a luxury, most children who attend the Mercy Center live in nearby slums with their parents or guardians in tiny sheet-metal shanties.
Mihret lives with her parents in a simple mud hut, along with her 9-year-old brother, Alazar, and twin sister, Kalkidan.
All three are sponsored, taking a huge burden off their father, who struggles to earn a meager wage as a welder, and their mother, who tends to the household and her children.
In order to escape poverty here, you need an education; otherwise, you will do the only trade you know - the one your parents did - a sometimes vicious cycle that goes along with being poor.
On a global scale, it is estimated that one in four children are born into poverty, existing on less than $1.25 a day.
Many Ethiopians survive on less than $200 per year, evidenced by alleys and sidewalks filled with beggars and street kids who shine shoes, sell sticks of gum or enter crime and prostitution.
But Mission of Mercy aims to intercept this oppression by bringing freedom through the love of Christ - hope to the world's forgotten children.
I was part of a group of 20 volunteers from across the United States, our visit aiming to reinforce this theme by encouraging fellow Christians; playing games with children; organizing vacation Bible school projects; and, perhaps our biggest task: building a six-room schoolhouse from scratch that has become a new facility for preschoolers at the Mercy Center.
A long-term holistic, child-development program, Mission of Mercy helps kids reach their potential by creating opportunities for spiritual, physical, social, mental and emotional development.
After spending half-days at government-run schools, the children trek through trashy puddles to the center for a simple lunch and tutoring, coupled with Bible study, worship and prayer.
With 67 percent of the world's HIV-positive population living in sub-Saharan Africa, certainly some kids at the mission's centers have HIV or AIDS. But Sireatu Tadesse, 28, who attends church at the Mercy Center, said faith in Jesus has caused many to be healed.
"Yes, that happens," he confidently explained. "God can do anything."
Dr. David Beyda, a leader of Mission of Mercy's medical team, said he sees a major difference between the health of a sponsored child and kids in the rest of the community, where social systems are nonexistent and going hungry is a way of life.RISING ABOVE
In Addis Ababa, a city of nearly 4 million, we passed many beggars on the street, among them a blind mother rocking two babies in tattered clothes to sleep.
And farther off in Zeway, where hay-capped huts line flooded farmlands, I glimpsed the chicken-wing limbs of children herding bloated, bony cattle.
Then we'd arrive at different centers, and they'd feed us all they had, so proud to serve us.
Just as we loved blessing them, they aimed to bless us. In a city as big as this one, it's easy to feel forgotten by the world. But God knows and loves each person, and he sent me there to bring that word.
The last time I saw Mihret I was excited to present her and her family with some gifts.
And then, from out of nowhere came a neatly gift-wrapped bundle marked for me, and I started crying. On the pretty hand-framed drawing, I read the words - "WELL COME TO ETHIOPIA."
And through Danny's translation, Mihret's mother thanked me and covered my cheeks with rough kisses.
And she said she prays for me - I won't be forgotten.
E-mail Rachael Osborne at: email@example.com