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“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

August, 2015

Chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine traveled to Ethiopia to learn about the farmers who grow the grain teff, for their documentary series “The Perennial Plate.” Teff, also spelled tef, comes from a grass found in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Here in the West, teff is found in health food and grocery stores.

The word “teff” means “lost” in the Amharic language. It refers to the tiny size of the grains, 1/150 the weight of a grain of wheat. If a grain is dropped, it can’t be found again. A farmer can easily hold enough seeds in one hand to plant an entire field. Botanists believe the people of Ethiopia may have been planting and eating teff for thousands of years. Today, it’s a staple of their diet. Teff has a mild, nutty flavor and is high in nutrition. In Ethiopia, teff is made into the fermented bread called injera. It can also be ground into flour.

Klein remarked that the people are incredibly poor but extremely generous. He and Fine were surprised to discover that the farmers insisted on preparing a meal for them before any filming took place. And the local custom is to feed a guest with your hands, the same hands that have just built a fire with cow dung!

These unbelievably poor people are willing to share food—from their own hands—even when they have virtually nothing, and to offer amazing hospitality.

The story of the Ethiopian teff farmers resonates with a number of ideas in the Gospels. First, there’s the teff grain itself, which reminds us of the mustard seed used as an example both of the Kingdom and of faith (Matt. 13:31-32, 17:20, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19, 17:5-6). Second, there’s the willingness of the farmers to share what they have, like the “widow’s mite” (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4) or the words of Jesus when he said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35b). Third, there’s the hospitality of the wretchedly poor farmers, similar to Jesus’ reference to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

Any of these can be a lesson for us. Jesus used the things of Earth to teach us about the things of Heaven: A mustard plant becomes a symbol for the kingdom, the seed for faith. A widow’s coins become a symbol for devotion. An Ethiopian farmer’s generosity and hospitality become a lesson and a challenge to us.

What is our vision of the kingdom? Is it tiny like a mustard seed or a teff seed? Or is it big and growing like a tree that “‘. . . puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” (Mark 4:32b ESV)? Is it a tiny seed or a strong refuge?

How big is our faith? As big as a mustard seed? A grain of teff? Smaller than that? Jesus said even tiny faith is enough to accomplish great things (Matt. 17:20). The author of Hebrews wrote “. . . whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb. 11:6b ESV).

How generous are we? Are we willing to share, even when we have little? Does our abundance hold us back from true generosity? Jesus told the people “‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” (Luke 12:15b ESV).

How extreme is our hospitality? Are we willing to figuratively feed strangers with our own hands? Make them welcome? One of the earliest provisions of the Law of Moses was, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, . . .” (Lev.19:34a ESV).

Ethiopia is primarily a Christian nation but whether these farmers were or not, they certainly showed what humility, generosity, and service are about, better than I do. We can learn much from their example.


“‘Is not this the fast that I choose: . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6a, 7 ESV.)


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Copyright © 2015 by David Phelps