Many international students move to the United States to pursue higher education and follow their own American dreams. I did the same almost 14 years ago to pursue my call into full-time ministry. This journey has been multi-faceted. I have not only experienced culture shock, homesickness and loneliness, but also a forced identity, as I carried a lot of underrepresented identities in the American evangelical church.
When I first came to America at the age of 19, I knew myself as a young girl who was passionately pursuing Christ and on a journey with the Lord, which involved stepping out in faith to follow wherever He led. The sky was the limit. The world was mine to discover, explore and conquer. America was the best place to do it because I believed it was where all my dreams would come true.
My family sent me with all their hopes, dreams and unconditional love, along with the confidence that I was going to change the world. I left hopeful and excited, trusting God as I entered the unknown and filled with anticipation of what he had in store for me.
I anticipated culture shock. But I experienced something far more difficult than I had expected. For those interacting with me in the United States, especially those in the church, I represented a group of people from which they isolate themselves. They maybe even see people like as “less than” and are angry or afraid of them.
I discovered that I was first Black, second a female, third an immigrant, and lastly (if we got there) a Christian. It was a situation that forced me to view myself as “other,” mainly because the color of my skin got in the way of building community. It also kept me from being protected in the body of Christ and people knowing my story as I told it and not as how they expected it to be.
This “other” was something I grew to hate because it felt like the roadblock to being normal and noticed for who I am rather than who people think I should be. I could not escape it; I wore my otherness on the outside.When people looked at me, that was the only thing they identified with first. Whether good or bad, that was where most conversations started. It was and still is very exhausting. At the time, I had no idea that what I was experiencing was a form of racism and prejudice so I blamed myself. I told myself, “If only I didn’t look differently or have an accent or big curly hair, I would blend in and have friends.”
I carried the burden of making people feel comfortable around me. When they asked for my name, I spelled it out for them before they asked because I just wanted to make this getting-to know-me stage go a bit faster and easier. I wanted people to skip the out-loud recognition of me being a Black female immigrant and just get to know me, so I did the hard work of easing them into it. I came up with a shorter version of my story, the kind that was simple enough to get so I didn’t exhaust myself explaining the nuances they couldn’t conceptualize.
It was tiring. I didn’t have a community that supported and affirmed me because I was immersed in a monolithic body of Christ that was supposed to be my community but fell short of its commission to care for me. I was weak and in a vulnerable place for the enemy to take me out of God’s call for my life.
No one could bear this burden with me so I walked into a season of self-hate, working hard to assimilate in the areas I could control. I started straightening my hair not because I did not love my curls, but so I could avoid that awkward unsolicited hair touch from a stranger telling me they could not resist. I also made sure I got rid of the small accent I had so I would not be asked a myriad of questions like where I am from, what my country looks like, why I am here, and when I am going back. These questions painfully reminded me of how unwanted I was in this version of the Body of Christ.
During and after college, people began to tell me that I “was not really Black”—a nod that I had successfully assimilated into majority culture. I didn’t take that comment as good or bad at the time because I knew very little about American history and what that comment implied. I was happy with my ability to disguise my otherness and build relationships that allowed me to be known faster with less effort. We skipped a lot of microaggressions because I did the hard work in advance of exhausting myself so others could sidestep their prejudices and see the beautiful story God was writing in my life. As a Christian who had accepted the Body of Christ as my forever family wherever I went, I realized that every family has an issue, and this one was heavily tainted by self-idolatry. It gave me the message that I don’t belong until I can become like everyone else in it with straight hair, fancy clothes, an easygoing and non-confrontational persona, and theological fluency.
It was such a difficult and soul-wrenching reality, especially because I grew up affirmed, loved, and accepted for all these things for which I was experiencing rejection. This was something I had to bring to the throne of grace. I had to know how all of it could bring glory to the One who created me: the One who ordered my steps and positioned me to be where I was.
I did not have the energy to fight for justice. I did not have the emotional capital to spend, mainly because my identity was taken from me. Now that I look back, it was God’s way of burning this false identity I carried with me so he could show me my true identity in Christ alone. I decided to assimilate to what was around me and ask the questions only God could answer.
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18
Through all the confusion and imperfect paths before me, God still continued to draw me close to Him. His supernatural provision continued and I grew in my walk with Him. By the time I graduated college I had earned a scholarship to cover the cost of pursuing a master’s degree while I worked as a teaching assistant. It was a great opportunity but, yet again, I would have to live in a small town where I would face the same battles as I did before. My otherness would come into question again and I would have to spend another two years explaining myself and going through the same cycle as I did in undergrad. It just wasn’t worth it.
In light of this, I decided to move to the most diverse city for the sake of my sanity—Washington, D.C., which has the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia. This decision was not without cost. For someone who left her country to pursue higher education, this move was not only sacrificial but extremely painful as I lost the teaching experience I was going to gain in addition to a debt-free master’s degree. When I reflect on it today, I still hurt over that loss. But I knew I had to preserve myself and my cultural identity before I could pursue my dream.
There was a much bigger picture, one that revealed to me that Christ’s love for me was not dependent on my ability to assimilate into a culture he didn’t create me in. I chose to focus on allowing him to reveal himself in the beauty of His diverse creation. Despite the temporary loss of the degree and teaching experience, I knew I was gaining something more that would allow me to be a better servant for His kingdom. Eventually, I was able to see myself as he sees me, and enjoy the world he created me in as one full of beauty and culture.
I attended an Ethiopian Church in D.C. for two years before the Lord called me into full-time ministry in the American church. I remember wrestling with this decision and asking God to change His mind. He specifically spoke to me through the Book of Jonah and made it clear I needed to stop running. I chose to listen and heed this call. I joined a large church in the area and was accepted into their ministry internship program where I studied systematic theology. I fell in love with their Reformed way of biblical thinking and pursued vocational ministry with like-minded and dynamic young leaders. This was where the Lord strategically placed me under amazing leaders of color who saw me first as a daughter of the King and allowed me to flourish in ministry.
I got to serve one of the most diverse congregations and, in the process, started embracing my Blackness as a gift and not a burden. It allowed me to breathe a little. I had role models who looked like me leading the body of Christ and I learned from them how to excel for the kingdom. The best part of my experience at this church was having the opportunity to see trailblazers carry the cross with humility and honor for the Gospel. They loved the body of Christ so much that they were willing to carry the mantle of reconciliation for the sake of unity. I saw them say “seeing the Bride of Christ sanctified, unified and beautified is worth my pain, my isolation and my frustration.” They viewed their presence in a monolithic faith space as their mission to serve the Body of Christ so that believers would experience the wholeness of Christ.
This launched my journey of practicing to speak truth in love just like they did, and to prayerfully seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. It’s been tough and ugly at times but I am grateful for the grace of God that allows me to fall and get back up and try again. I am grateful for the many brothers and sisters in Christ who are Black, White, and everything in between who love me enough to tell me when I’m operating in the flesh and gently point me back to Christ. I am so grateful that they allow me to lead. They listen to the untold stories of those with whom I am in close relationship with who don’t speak English but love Jesus and have experienced the miracles of His saving grace.
As I struggle to be a bridge between my two worlds and the global Body of Christ that seem to never hear each other but assume much of one another, I continue to be a part of a Christian culture that fails to dignify the poor in its good intent to eradicate world poverty. It goes to the extreme to paint a narrow picture of the poor, and diminishes their dignity to the size of their pocket books. It’s a narrative that reinforces the enemy’s lie that, rather than Christ, all we need is worldly comfort and wealth and we’ll be OK.
I embrace my otherness so I can tell the beauty of God’s work even in poverty, of the intricate ways He works in and through cultures, the spiritual richness found in these places, and the stories of suffering and perseverance that produces character. My heroes of faith are among those who experienced persecution, who fled their homes at the age of 10 and 12 not because of war or famine but because following Jesus transformed their lives and they were forced to choose between Him and their families. Following Him was never about their comfort, it was about giving their lives away, so when I gasp as they tell me their story they look at me with confusion and say, “We counted the cost before we followed Him.” My African faith heroes, who were never formally educated until the study of Scripture opened their eyes and minds to the deeper things of God, now disciple and lead men and women in power and are influencing a nation for Christ.
What I’ve learned through this journey of identity is that the enemy wanted to magnify my otherness and isolate me from the Body of Christ so I would never be used by God to shine a light on His glorious work on my continent and in my nation—and on the untold stories that could bring so much hope and healing to the Western world filled with fattened sheep demanding more food. My God has allowed me to embrace my otherness and is using that very thing that caused me so much pain to help bring healing to His global body. So I will keep embracing it, and ask God to keep shining His light through to help me tell His story by telling the untold ones.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was first published at mekdeisha.org.
Mekdes Haddis was born and raised in Ethiopia and moved to the United States in 2003. Mekdes is married to her best friend, Ermias, and has a 3-year-old daughter. She graduated with a communications degree from Liberty University, is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and serves as a discipleship director in her local church. You can read more of her writing at www.mekdeisha.org. Follow her on Twitter: @Mekdeisha.