As we approach a Day of Prayer for Vocations, Bemnet Melaku shares his journey from a place of privilege in Ethiopia to the discovery of Vincentian simplicity as a novice in our internal seminary. Along the way, he also experienced leaving his country of birth for safety reasons.
Bemnet Melaku is originally from Ethiopia and came to our Internal Seminary or Novitiate program via our Western Province. His father was one of the few high ranking students of the country who received a scholarship to come to the U.S. and study at Harvard University from Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie reigned for an extraordinary 45 years. Later when his father returned to his country, he became a high-ranking diplomat. In the political turmoil after the death of Haile Selassie and the following Derg Regime, his father fell out of favor and feared for his life and the life of his family.
Although privileged in his early years, he clearly remembers an experience of his own hunger of fasting from midnight on in his way to Sunday morning mass. Celebrations in the Ethiopian Ge’ez Rite usually take about three or more hours. On their way to church for Sunday mass with his father, he observed a friar feeding a poor man. It touched something in him that just would not go away. As he learned more about the Franciscans he begged his father to allow him to join the Franciscans. After some hesitation, his father acquiesced. This began a 10-year journey with the Franciscans.
While under their care it was safe for him to stay in his home country. But when he decided that being a Franciscan was not for him, he discovered it was safer if he would leave the country. In Holland, he experienced a secularism that he had never known, even to the extent of being laughed at by his Berlitz language teacher for being a believer.
He eventually joined most of his family members in Texas in 1999. There he explored the possibilities of becoming a doctor with premed studies of BS degree in Psychology and biology. However, later he decided to study his masters in Healthcare Administration. The turning point came when he received an internship with Mosaic, http://mosaicservices.org/who-we-are/mission/, dedicated to serving survivors of human rights abuses from around the world and within the community.
This rekindled his dream of service but it sparked into flame when he was hired by Catholic Charities of Fort Worth Texas as he put it, “It was such a blessing to work at Catholic Charities because it gave me such a wonderful opportunity to be able to do what I always wanted to do which is serving the poor and even paid me for doing it.” So, once again he explored a vocation. Our confreres in Chicago accepted him.
A part of his dream was to work as a missionary. He jumped at the opportunity to do the pastoral month of service in Kenya. He was thrilled because it gave him the opportunity to use all of the skills he had acquired up to this point. In preparation, he even tried his best to learn Kiswahili in order to understand the people better.
The confreres and Daughters of Charity provided him with a well-structured program of home visits and catechesis. “It was a wonderful experience that allowed me to actually do the work rather than just observe.”
He learned so much from the confreres and the Daughters on how best to serve the poor and the needy in any given missionary context. He also learned from the people of Kenya. “I was extremely impressed and inspired by their humble, hospitable, and generous culture. I was touched every single day by the strength of the faith of the people even under the severe circumstances that they were in.”
He experienced God’s presence among the people in the way they live their daily life. Their attitude of gratefulness for the little that they have and being able to be happy in their life touched his heart in a way that it changed his perspective on life completely. He learned to see Jesus through the poor and especially through the children of the very poor families. As he put it in his own words,
“In some places, I saw little children so hungry at times and I could think of nothing but baby Jesus Himself. It also reminded me Jesus’ teaching again and again ‘… whatever you do for one of the least, you did it for me’ Matt 25:40. It was so painful for me to see sometimes the very poor ones and not being able to do anything about it.“
He observed so many things that he did not know such as the dilemma faced by the people. Eat the few precious grains and lose the opportunity of a future crop or plant them and risk losing everything in the drought.
He left his mark by what he did. Using ping pong as a tool he established deep rapport with the children to the degree that even in a short time he was able to expand the youth program and even start a choir.
He is grateful to the Western Province, the Eastern Province, his formation directors, and the western province confreres that are working in Kenya for making this grace filled experience possible. He is also very grateful for the Kenyan confreres and Daughters, especially those that are working in Thigio, Kamulu, Nairobi, and Kitale for their openness to get him involve in every ministry they do which gave him a chance to have a hands on experience. Finally, he said, “Above all, I am very grateful to the poor themselves for teaching me how to live with nothing but faith and for bringing Jesus to my life over and over again in so many different ways. May the Lord hear the cry of the poor, blessed be the Lord.”
As he looks back wistfully he says he experienced a bit of what it means to minister with the very poor as a Vincentian. Isn’t that what the pastoral month is about?