This is a long one. Please make some tea and sit with me here. I need you to read this...
Nobody looks forward to funerals. I actively avoid them for the most part, and can come up with all sorts of excuses and justifications for not attending. Since we live in a pretty out of the way place, travel from Taos is inconvenient, inefficient, and expensive. I usually choose to go to the parties rather than the funerals. But in the case of Noel Cunningham's death, something told me that Rick and I both needed to go to Denver for the funeral.
I knew the Noel was an amazingly generous man who worked tirelessly in his restaurant, Strings, and more importantly in his many philanthropic projects. He was a great talker, but he also put his words into action. And he could talk anyone into lending a hand, usually by sitting them down for a wonderful meal, and then spelling out exactly what he wanted. Rick and I came to know Noel and his wife Tammy through the Hope Bracelet Project, which was started by the Cunningham Foundation, in support of Project Mercy, in Ethiopia.
When I first started with the project, I was somewhat tentative, and held back from throwing myself "all in." I was able to round up record numbers of bead donations, but I resisted going to Ethiopia, saying that I thought I could be of more help from here. Noel knew better. He knew that if I went there and met the people, and breathed the air, and felt the earth under my feet, and ate the food, and hugged the children... he knew if I did all that, then he would really have me. He arranged for Rick and me to meet Marta and Deme, the founders of Project Mercy, in Yetebon, Ethiopia, which is a three hour drive from Addis Ababa. We met at Strings. Noel fed us, and we talked and listened, and were somehow convinced that we were needed, not only as long distance helpers, but in Ethiopia. We agreed to go because of Marta and Deme, two of the world's true Earth Angels, who gently took our hands in theirs, and asked us to please help them.
We went to Ethiopia for three weeks in November of 2008. (Read more about our trip here.) We were told that we were of great help in the bead studio, but we knew that we were the ones who benefitted the most. That trip changed us forever, and we'll never see our life here in the US in the same old way again. We came home, as many volunteers do I suppose, ready to sell everything and move to Ethiopia. Instead, we sold and gave away much of the excess we had accumulated, and went on our year-long RV adventure, in search of a smaller, simpler, more manageable life; one that would allow us more freedom to travel, volunteer, and make better use of our time than just working to support a house and a lifestyle. We didn't find it... We didn't find it because it wasn't "out there." And in the process of all that searching for something that was actually inside of us all the time, we lost touch with our friends in Ethiopia, and lost track of what we had set out to do in the first place.
This brings us back to Taos, three years after our trip to Ethiopia, and to the call to go to Denver for Noel Cunningham's funeral. The weather was clear, the roads dry, and we have friends to stay with there, so at a moment's notice we got a friend to stay here with our dogs, and we were off. As funerals go, it was a great one. Some 1400 people turned up at the cathedral, and it became clear to me just how far Noel had reached with his work, and how many lives he had touched. While we were there, we saw Marta and Deme, who spend part of their time in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they landed as refugees in the 1970's, and part in their homeland of Ethiopia. When they're in this country, they're like rock stars. People clamor for their time and attention, and it's nearly impossible to get even a moment with them. I think maybe Noel had other plans.
We had breakfast with Marta and Deme before the service, which was wonderful, but rushed. We didn't get to catch up completely, so they asked us to meet them later for coffee near their hotel. This in itself was amazing, and we knew something important was brewing if they wanted so much of our time. During our afternoon meeting, we got down to business. The bead project in Yetebon needs help. The Cunninghams had been doing less there, as other things were demanding their time, and I had backed away during our travels. What got my attention was the fact that the bead studio is still operating there, and one of the beadmakers I worked with is now teaching new beadmakers who come to the program. It's a common belief that when humanitarian organizations start a project, think it's ready to become self sustaining, and then leave it, most often the project fades and fails. This has not been the case at Project Mercy, because Marta and Deme are so dedicated to their work, and they simply won't allow failure.
Even now, both in their 80's, they continue to nurture Project Mercy. In the short time since we were there, they've completed a beautiful new high school, and have built the first six of 30 homes for orphans in the area, where small "families" of children will live with house mothers who are trained in meeting the physical and emotional needs of orphans. There is also an adoption program in the works, that will allow Project Mercy to be the adoption agency, bypassing all the usual government red tape, and allowing parents to adopt these children free of charge. All this, on top of everything else they've already done, and they came to us for help...
What do you do when Earth Angels take your hands in theirs, look you in the eyes, and say, We need you...? This is what they said to me. And I'm even more pleased that they need me as more than just a beadmaker. They're also interested in my cooking, which thrills me more than I can say. I don't know that a vegan diet is practical or possible in that part of the world, but I do know that meat is at the expensive end of the food chain in any country, and it could be of great benefit to introduce some simple plant based food combining, which would make it easier and cheaper for people to get enough protein. After I told them briefly about my love of vegan cooking, and my plans to go to cooking school in the spring, Marta said to me, We need both of your talents, and then looked at Rick and said, Now what can you do? That made us laugh, but also made it clear that they need everyone's skills. No one is along for the ride, and I don't get to have a Lovely Assistant. Bring something to the party, buster, or just stay home. Fortunately, Rick is a very handy guy. He has a handyman business here in town, and he gardens too, which is a useful skill anywhere. I think they need both of us to visit Ethiopia again, but first they need us here.
I was glad to have the opportunity to express my own concerns, and to ask some questions that have gone unanswered for a long time. I got to tell them that one of the reasons I backed away from the bead project was the lack of communication. They heard me, and assured me that this would improve. That, combined with the fact that there's a real dedication to the bead project there, makes me want to jump back in and see what I can do. I'm not sure what that will look like yet, but I think it will start with going after bead donations again. They're making beads there, but can't produce enough yet. I'm working on ways of enticing my fellow beadmakers to pitch in. I might even take Noel's lead here. If I feed you, and ask you for help, chances are you'll say yes. Noel had a way of bringing people together. He knew who needed to meet, and he was shameless about making it happen, because everything he did was for the good of someone else. I have a feeling he's doing the same thing now, nudging people together, and making sure the good work he was doing continues.
I'm going to be asking for your help. Be ready to say yes! Sure, there are people in this country who need help. Help them! Everything we do to make things better, no matter where we do it, counts in the big picture, and helps the world as a whole. There is no Us and Them. It's all Us. Our job is to make connections, do what we can, and go where our hearts lead us. Some people are willing to do the work, and others are there to support it. It's all important! I'll do the work, but I'll need some help.
I'm no Angel. Let's be clear about that! But one way or another, whether it's in my blog, in an email, on Facebook, or in my kitchen, I am going to look you in the eyes, hold your hands, and maybe even feed you, and then I'm going to say, I need you. Will you help? It's a trick I learned from Marta and Deme, and also from Noel, one of the greatest Earth Angels ever. Now who wants to come to my house for dinner? The reservation book is open.