I Wanna Be Like You

In Addis Ababa two summers ago, I was turned away from visiting an Orthodox church because I was Catholic. To me, this was confusing– why was I being discouraged from learning about this religion when I was just interested?

But then I met a group of roughly seven year-old girls in the yard of a smaller church. One little girl shyly approached me, and soon enough a crowd of children had gathered, asking me questions and stroking my hair and the skin on my arms.

They asked me if I was white because Mary came down to kiss me. They asked if they would look like me if they came to my country. They showed me a tattered picture of Jesus. I looked down at the white man on the paper in my hands. No wonder, I thought to myself. 

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6 thoughts on “I Wanna Be Like You

  1. Very nice. As you may know, there is very little, if any, reference to the physical features of Jesus in the Bible (written long after his death) or other texts from the period. In all likelihood, Jusus looked like the native inhabitants of this region with a … deep brown skin and dark eyes and hair. It is also likely that most of the images of Jesus and Mary used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have been created in Europe where “europeization” of their appearance has occurred. So the Othrodox church may control the narrative but not the visual content with the consequences you have experienced. As you may remember, the holiest image of Mary and Baby Jesus in Poland is … Black Madonna, an icon painted in Georgia centuries ago.

    I read recently an interesting articles how the national identity is shaped more by the myths glorifying the past rather than the reality. This applies to the religious groups as well.

  2. I can’t remember if I told you this story: one Christmas at our church, the head of the Sunday School asked Steve and me to dress up like Joseph and Mary and to carry our infant (the youngest baby in the church at that time) wrapped up in swaddling clothes. We were to sit quietly in the midst of the congregation. The plan was that midway through the service, we would be called up on the altar to form a kind of ‘tableau’ of the Nativity…the one catch was that the Sunday School director had not gotten this plan approved by the priest in charge(!), and he silently but firmly rejected it. It is very funny to me now, but at the time we couldn’t have felt more ridiculous, sitting through the entire service dressed like lunatics in the midst of friends, neighbors, and strangers (the Dunnings taking Christmas a little too seriously…??). As I recall, our baby wrapped up in dish towels was none too happy either (!) and could definitely have used a kiss from Mother Mary (the real one!)…by the way, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you WHO was playing the little white Baby Jesus.. :) !! There is so much heartfelt confusion over what the Lord looked like. Being a member of the dark skinned Semitic peoples should give us a clue. Aside from the sad irony that so many of the visual images handed down to third world peoples look like white missionaries from Kansas (with long hair), there is the deeper irony of the Bible itself which says in Isaiah 53: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him..’ Yet artists everywhere have strived to make him look beautiful and like nothing so much as ourselves…(I actually believe that it’s OK; He knows we are but dust..).

    • David has mentioned this story to me before, but obviously did not remember the details :) It was disheartening to hear these children’s questions, particularly as this side effect of inferiority is clearly not what the missionaries had in mind, especially in light of your comment on artist’s portrayals of Jesus despite what the Bible says!

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