As most Americans are focused on the inauguration today—some finding elation in a change of power and others cuddling up to dejection due to an outgoing president—I find myself instead in a moment of monumental reflection. This day is significant to me for a whole other reason and I find myself at once thanking God for his blessings and yet trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless. I used to jokingly call myself the Ethiopian Forrest Gump because it seems that my life has been a series of one sublime moment after another. But then the unthinkable happened as a mix of good intentions, indifference and malice buried me in an avalanche of homelessness and abject hopelessness.
Let me take a step back, you see in a way this journey of mine started almost 10 years ago. My younger brother was hired as a field organizer for then Senator Barack Obama and I decided to rent a car and take him to Cedar Falls, Iowa on a field trip where we could bond. There was another reason I wanted to go on that road trip; I was in the midst of tumult and turmoil and I wanted a weekend to get away and breath apart from my then fiancee and a hectic work schedule. I did not know it at the time, but this one trip would reverberate into my future and shatter my once peaceful existence. We arrived in Chicago right in the middle of the Taste of Chicago festival on July 1st. It was on this trip that I started to plug into the Obama campaign; by the time we arrived in Iowa the Obama “hope” bug bit me and I went from being a cheer leader to an uber volunteer.
I don’t do anything half-step, I went all in motivated by Obama’s message and my desire to make a difference. My first foray into the campaign was to start Omegas for Obama, I started to organize my former fraternity and hoped to galvanize the brothers into action. This was way before Obama’s victory in Iowa, back when Obama was mired in third place in the Democratic race behind Clinton and Edwards. But I, like the rest of the idealists and early adopters, believed in Obama and I was intent on getting this man elected come hell or high water. Since marketing is my passion and the reason I was pursuing an MBA, I went about marketing Omegas for Obama to the hilt in order to gain a critical mass within my once fraternity to support the Obama campaign. But time and time again, my passion was met with disinterest. I pushed on nonetheless as I “invested” $2,000 to get t-shirts printed and mailed to anyone who contributed at least $50 to the Obama campaign through the Obama personalized fund raising portal.
In politics, as with all ventures, the minute you invest a dollar you become invested. This is why politicians ask for $1.00, they know a toe in leads to immersion. And boy did I get immersed, a dip in the water led to a full plunge into the ocean. In short order I joined Ethiopians for Obama and from there the sky was the limit in terms of my willingness to help out and contribute. My first road trip to New Hampshire to volunteer in Manchester begat more and more road trips. I ended up traveling to Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado, Rhode Island, Illinois, and spent countless hours in my home state of Virginia and in DC trying to gin up enthusiasm for the Obama campaign. Every weekend I was at a church registering people to vote, at nights I would spend time writing outreach letters for Ethiopians for Obama, Omegas for Obama and working hand in hand with Latinos for Obama, Veterans for Obama, Muslims for Obama and countless other groups I plugged into trying to do my part to be a part of a historical moment.
It was precisely my writing ability that led to the most sublime part of my journey and would in time be the source of my vexing misfortune. As I was watching MSNBC one night while running on the treadmill, I saw a clip of Bill Clinton trying to tar Obama and his campaign. This was after Hillary won the New Hampshire primary as the campaigns were pivoting towards South Carolina. Bill Clinton’s true colors came out, in order to depict Obama’s victory in South Carolina as meaningless, he tried to “racialize” Obama and diminish the importance of the South Carolina primary in the process. Bill Clinton was once my hero as he uttered rhetoric about equality but the minute he felt his grasp on power slipping, his inner David Duke erupted. As I was stewing about Bill Clinton’s duplicity, I started to imagine a speech in my head of what Obama could say to counter the Clinton campaign narrative.
I had the outline of the speech in my head; by the time I got home, I sat down at my laptop and wrote a couple of paragraphs. One of my fraternity brothers I met through Omegas for Obama actually lived in the same neighborhood of the Obamas; I forwarded Mike my email to get his reaction. I did not think too much of it, at most I thought Mike would reply back and tell me that he liked it. Instead, without me knowing it, Mike forwarded the email to Valerie Jarrett and Obama’s sister. Both of them loved what I wrote and shortly thereafter parts of what I wrote were actually incorporated into the South Carolina victory speech in 2008. I was floored when I got the response back from Mike sharing the good news with me and the rest of my fraternity brothers in Omegas for Obama. But I decided discretion was the wisest course; I worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, a pretty conservative company, so I did not make too much of a fuss about what I did since I did not want my politics to have a repercussion on my career.
This was but a small taste of the pie; over the next 8 months, I drove myself to the ground as I was working full time, pursuing an MBA at Johns Hopkins, and volunteering every day of the week. I crowded out every other aspect of my life as I stared to work hand in hand with Obama’s constituency director in Virginia. The more I did, the more I wanted to do more. I ended up running for convention delegate in 2008 only to fall 3 votes short—the “Kaine slate” was my first encounter with the abject cronyism that is at the molecular core of our two-party political farce. But I was too focused on results to worry about accolades and titles; besides the one thing I wanted above all was a letter from the Obama campaign thanking the Ethiopian community for our contributions to the United States and acknowledging our existence. My work and doggedness paid off, one day Obama’s Virginia constituency director sent me an email with an attachment that blew my mind. The Obama campaign actually released a letter thanking the Ethiopian community and asking for our votes.
You see, Ethiopia is my addiction of sorts. When I was five years old, in my parents home in Addis Abeba, I would hold court among the adults and speak of the beauty of Ethiopia and the blessings of her people. I always wanted to make a positive change for the place of my birth renew hope to the masses who suffer at the margins of society. The pains of Ethiopian children and the hopelessness too many back home live in has been throughout my life a source of my sorrow. I used to always tell people that Ethiopia could be the Japan of “Africa” if only we could learn to work together instead of being torn apart by politics, history, and tribalism. The idealist in me saw in Obama someone who could be a catalyst to affect this change, not only for Ethiopia but for folks here in America. This is why I was drawn to Obama, I saw him as an outsider who could shake up the system and in the process empower us to be the difference that we always wanted.
But the status quo will not change from the top; even though Obama painted himself as someone different, in reality he was a browner and more eloquent version of George Bush. Over the next six years, I kept looking the other way as he reneged on one campaign promise after another and I kept excusing his impotence on the Republican party. I have written about the deception of our politics in the past, I am reserving this article to show how any one of us can be snookered by political hookers and how idealists are mugged by pretenders. I was conned with the best of them by a slick talking TelePrompter reader who knew how to act better than Michelle Pfeiffer. I should have known better, I should know how to spot scripted mannequins from a mile away since I used to be treated to the vacuousness of corporate shills whenever I made a journey back to my former firm’s corporate office in McLean, Virginia. Ah but hope that is hijacked by fraudulence morphed into a fusion of Stockholm syndrome and myopia as I found myself tethered to Obama’s bombast and disconnected from the reality of his policies.
I did not arrive at this conclusion and my eyes did not shed the scales of politics until I was enveloped in injustice. The full story of my journey and how I became a sojourner of sorts, by force and not by choice, I will save to recount for a later date. When I do tell the totality of that story though, I hope and pray to my father God in heaven that He gives me the wisdom to convey my plight in a way that makes it a testimony of something greater than my ego or salving my wounded pride. But let me hint at what led to my crucible for the time being; two years ago I made a fateful decision to proclaim that I had a hand in Obama’s speech on social media as a means of promoting a lounge I was about to open. The thing about me, I know the lord has blessed me with intellect but wisdom is something I could not earn in spite of the endless credentials and the degrees I have accumulated. Within a couple of days of making the factual assertion, my life took a turn for the implausible. In one fell swoop I found myself on a bus to South Carolina to get away from Washington DC—a place I called home for 35 years.
It’s like my life became Matthew 10:19-31 as I went from upper-middle class comfort to indigence and distress. From sleeping on a thousand dollar mattress, within a month I called concretes and leaves beds. A village of “friends” who could not have enough of being with me and having a good time with me all the sudden became more estranged than Cher from Sony. Tears shrouded my once smiling face as I slept in woods and a couple of times in cemeteries. No longer was injustice a theory i was pontificating about from Starbucks; in a blink of an eye I found myself in the midst of injustice along side the invisible people our society ignores. Yet through it all, I felt the warmth of God’s grace in ways I can’t fully explain. A legion of angels kept coming to my side, these angels I speak of are not the ones with wings and halos but random strangers in the most random places who kept lifting me. It was an angel named officer Beaufort who initially saved me with an act of valor that defies Schwarzenegger movies. From that moment on, day after day, from the time I left DC to the time I arrived in South Carolina, there were countless strangers and one particular friend in New York who kept shielding me from the frozen shoulders and perilous boulders of this world.
I endured what would have nullified many, I survived malice that has silenced countless faces. Though my life is by no means a crystal stair and my soul still throbs from the wounds of what I experienced, I have nonetheless arrived at a place of peace about my journey. No need to live in regret, I choose from this day forth to pick up my cross and count hardship as blessings for it is this hardship that made me connect and feel the pains of people and gave me the courage to speak truth to power. I can choose to be a victim or choose to be a victor, I come from a lineage of people who don’t take too kindly to being bullied–there is not a victim DNA in me so I will so I choose defiance instead of cowering in diffidence. But above all, I will always give credit above all to an awesome God who protected me through the fire. My hubris wants to claim credit but I know in the end I am only here because of a greater grace than I can ever encapsulate if I wrote ten thousand books.
Just know when I talk about my faith in God, it’s not from a place of piety for I am still sinful as the next person. I’m just sharing what I have experienced to others who understand and feel the presence I once felt in mind bending ways. For those who don’t believe, know I’m not pushing my beliefs on you, I’m just imparting the wisdom I finally earned through tears and tribulations as I occasionally cite my faith to amplify what a universal message of love, redemption, and standing up against oppression. What I see now through this hard earned wisdom is the very thing we all have in common and the ways a few are splintering us into islands in order to perpetuate injustice. I’ve traveled a long road from a partisan flunky seeing justice through the prism of identity to now seeking desperately and beseeching anyone who is able to hear me about the essence of our humanity. Obama once read words written to him to bamboozle the masses about the frictions between red states and blue states only to get elected and pour gasoline on that fire. What he preached from podiums and teleprompters I am imploring to my fellow brothers and sisters with a sincere heart to all sides as I walk with the very broken masses I am trying to give voice to.
I’m asking you, everyone reading this, to please stop vilifying each other. We are not each others enemy for we are all being handicapped by a few regardless of the isms, ideologies and identities we ascribe to. Stop letting the dogma and politics of the powerful lead you into the gutter of hatred for your fellow men and women for they too are going through the same struggles you go through. We are in this together, these labels are constructs of malicious people who figured out a long time ago that the masses could be subdued not through guns but through division. Stop diving ourselves for the same people we denigrate are being grated and ground into dust as they too try to keep up with the rent and seek relief from financial anxiety. And when it comes to those who become victims of this monetary terrorism which has been unleashed upon “we the people”, understand that poverty knows no boundary nor does indigence discriminate. Those who suffer at the bottom rungs of society do so equally; this is not based on theory, this is wisdom I have gained by seeing “white” children in homeless shelters in Greenville, South Carolina, “black” parents in the throes of dejection in Des Moines Iowa, and Latino workers breaking their backs to earn meager wages in Atlanta, Georgia. I have seen suffering that robbed the hopes of the masses without regard to the labels we keep putting above our common humanity.
I pray that people don’t have to go through what I went through, to lose it all and be enmeshed in hardship and destitution, before their eyes open up to the very thing we all share for pain is a universal language that is understood by all. To Trump devotees celebrating his inauguration, though I disagree with your decision to praise Donald, I nevertheless respect your opinion. After all, just 10 years ago, I too was once jubilant when Obama got elected so I’m not about to be pious and preach about the excesses of extolling the powerful. I will not ascribe any malicious intents behind your decision the same way I do no deride the decisions of those who still choose to tout Obama. We all live and learn, after all today’s wisdom is tomorrow’s foolishness and that statement goes for me as well as the reader. I pray instead that God gives me the forbearance to be the change I want to be first and then use the gifts He gave me to dash my hopes into the universe.
Full circle, life is truly poetic, I’m over here listening to John Mayer’s song “the Heart of Life” as I am writing this article. This is the same song that I listed to on repeat as I was driving back from Cedar Falls to Chicago after dropping my brother off at the Obama field office in 2007. The heart of life is beautiful for the tears we cry eventually water the seeds of hope that will transform sorrow to joy. My father used to tell me all the time “Teddy, never stop learning; men can take from you everything but they can never take away your knowledge”. My father, may he eternally rest in peace, had the wisdom of Solomon and had I listened to him more instead of rebelling against him maybe I too would have picked up some of my father’s wisdom for he was training me for this precise moment. But no regrets, life is a continuum and we grow as we go. As Obama leaves office I will mark this day as a day to leave the broken wounds of the past and throw them all into Tsebel (broken water) and as the holy water breaks may I be reborn into a new life of purpose and may my pains be a testimony that broken waters lead to copious blessings #BrokenWater
“What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.” ~ Matthew 10:27
(the song I was listening to on my way back from Cedar Fall, Iowa to Chicago at the inception of my journey)
(this song was my blanket and shelter in South Carolina during my deepest moments of distress)
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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