Seeing Love in Action Transforms a Former Drug Trafficker
By Terri Stipanovich, Founder and Director of Faith that Works
Traveling through the Somali State of Ethiopia offers me a vivid experience of being seen and treated as different. It's sometimes difficult to describe what it feels like to be American, white, and female in this predominantly Muslim region in the Horn of Africa. I usually encounter one of two initial reactions: interest laced with a sense of admiration, or hostility expressed through words, attitudes, and actions. Many of the Somali Muslims I meet assume I am a Christian solely because I appear as a Westerner. Just a few weeks ago this is where I was, once again, navigating these reactions and differences as I traveled and worked in a deeply Islamic community. My recent trip to meet with our Somali pastors in Ethiopia presented many surprising encounters and stories, but my favorite story involves a man named Waaberi. Since this is a story, let’s start at the beginning.
The Islamic call to prayer is generally sounded from tall, slender towers called minarets
As I planned for my recent trip, I contacted a few Ethiopian Christians who have helped me arrange for cars and drivers to travel around Ethiopia in the past. I explained to them that we would be traveling quite a distance, into the Somali State of Ethiopia. They seemed hesitant. After a series of additional calls and emails, I learned these men were fearful of the places we planned to travel to and would not take us. Our Somali leaders and I looked into other alternatives and ended up making an unlikely connection with a car and driver who was not Christian - actually far from it. The proposed driver, Waaberi, used to deliver a drug called khat to towns in the region where we were headed, so he knew the territory well. I was slightly skeptical, but when you have planned and covered everything in prayer, sometimes you just have to go with it. So we decided to go with Waaberi.
After arriving in Ethiopia, I connected with two of our Somali leaders, and we set out on our journey from Addis Ababa on a bright and beautiful day. I was anxious to get on the road, see the cities and people, and meet with members of the underground Somali church. I worried slightly if we could trust Waaberi, knowing we carried Christian materials in the car and had one mission: share the gospel and encourage those on the front lines taking daily risks to spread the love of Christ. What would this unbelieving driver think about all of this? But as we drove, I grew to like this man. Waaberi seemed like a trusted grandfather, wise and quiet. I felt drawn to his smile and likability, though I still remained a little cautious.
Despite this sense of caution, our connection with Waaberi seemed to grow on each leg of the journey. As we reached our first house church, he helped unload all the packages of books we had brought with us. At our next stop, Waaberi set us up in a hotel that one of his friends owned after we learned that all the hotels in the town were full. When we had some mechanical issues with the car, Waaberi fixed them. When we couldn’t find fuel, he had a friend who could help. In each place we stopped Waaberi offered practical and needed help, both in small ways and in ways that had greater implications.
Our car loaded with books
At one point on the trip, we all settled into a hotel where we would stay for multiple days, and we found refuge in some needed rest, clean water, and Internet access. Our Somali pastors and I planned to attend church the next day - Waaberi asked if he could go with us. Knowing Waaberi’s background, I was curious about this request and asked our lead pastor about it. He explained to me, “This man has never been to church,” and added that Waaberi said he was so amazed at our love for the “difficult Somali people” that he was changed through that and wanted to be with us!
So we took Waaberi to church. I stood next to him during worship, and I could sense his heart beating fast and the stirring in his spirit. I have been close to this before, when a sinner comes to Christ and you just know that the Holy Spirit is working in them to bring them into salvation. After the church service we had a joyous lunch of raw meat and grilled goat meat as Waaberi smiled and beamed and showed me sayings of Jesus on his phone. This wonderful man had been redeemed - and we celebrated.
Waaberi knows the Somali people and speaks their language. He spent many years among them, selling khat. He tells us he now has a purpose. The same people to whom he sold khat, he now wants to take the gospel. This man, in his late 50’s, a husband and father of four, is now on mission just weeks after his conversion. He is studying the Bible and visiting our lead pastor for discipleship. Waaberi is learning so he can join in the gospel work he saw us doing on our trip.
Injera, a porous bread, and vegetables
As our lead pastor and I discuss Waaberi’s salvation now that I am back in America, we chuckle at the irony. There were Christian drivers who were too afraid to help us bring the message of salvation to their communities, but God used a former drug deliverer to deliver his message. Now that man will continue helping our cause, an unlikely person with an interesting background, proclaiming Christ. This man, with his contacts and knowledge of the exact regions we want to reach, provided help beyond any expectation.
This story offers a reason to celebrate along with a reminder to challenge the complacency and fear we often fall into as Christians. Let’s remember Waaberi’s courage and joy and not make excuses or allow fear to stop us from taking risks to share the gospel. I am so full of joy knowing Waaberi is changed, living now with a new hope and future. I thank God that HE chose Waaberi as our driver and brought him into new life in Christ.