“Do not wait
for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” –
Copyright © 2015 by David Phelps
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
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