What Erika Nelson did this summer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

Erika Nelson’s summer could have easily been a study in contrasts. Yet, wherever she was, the 20-year-old says she found Christian community.
Erika, the daughter of Drs. Vaughn and Eva Nelson, spent 16 days in Ethiopia as part of a class she took this past semester at Wheaton College. Following that trip, Erika spent two months as a tennis coach for a family in the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. Erika, a junior, is currently fourth seed on her team at Wheaton, located near Chicago. Her brother, Davis, is a junior at Cannon School.
The class that sparked Erika’s interest was entitled “Authority, Action and Ethics: Ethiopia.”
“It was interesting to see how what we had studied play out,” Erika says. The class focused on the political, religious and cultural history in the African country.
Erika had wanted to study abroad for some time, but this trip was her first opportunity. She plays tennis year-round, preventing her from traveling during the school year.
“This was perfect,” she says. “It was a short trip and it was during the summer.”
The granddaughter of the Rev. Dr. David and Mary Ann Nelson, Erika is a Christian education major. Only one other student in her major took the trip. Four professors and 17 students traveled to Ethiopia.
Erika, whose parents are anesthesiologists, began her college career as a pre-med major.
Understandably, she found those classes to be challenging. But, she says, “I was taking Christian education classes on the side for fun. I found that I enjoyed those classes much more, and I was willing to do extra work. I just felt that it was a better fit for me.”
Her parents, she says, were happy with her decision.
Erika is a 2012 graduate of Salisbury High School, and chose Wheaton for its strong tennis program.
“When I visited my junior year of high school,” she says, “the girls on the team were extremely welcoming. I loved the campus and the professors. After that, I didn’t look anywhere else.”
The summer trip, she says, made her understanding of what she studied in the classroom all the more meaningful.
One of her professors is married to an Ethiopian woman, and the students were able to meet many of the couple’s friends. The country is a monarchy, and citizens can be punished for speaking out against the government, she learned.
“The majority of our trip was meeting with local people,” she says. That way, they experienced a real immersion in the culture.
Erika knew that Ethiopia is a Third-World country, but it wasn’t what she expected. She saw huts, but she also saw larger homes, and a typical city skyline in the capital of Addis Ababa. Peering over a tall wall there, however, she saw extreme poverty.
The group also visited two small towns, Lalibella, which has a huge collection of Orthodox churches — carved from stone — and Gondar, where many of the country’s kings have built castles.
When visiting churches, group members had to remove their shoes, and all the women had to cover their heads.
Females were not allowed in certain rooms, Erika says. “I knew it going in, but I’d never experienced that. Nowhere in America has anybody said, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’”
The group encountered numerous street vendors, and saw women carrying enormous bundles of sticks to sell for fuel. Their young children often walk along beside them.
“It was the saddest thing,” Erika says.
But a North Carolina-based non-profit, Connected in Hope, is helping these women learn to weave scarves, and sell them as an alternate means of income. Erika bought several.
Their accommodations were extremely reasonably priced. They stayed at one hotel where the rate of $16 a day covered meals, a massage and a boat tour. Other prices were also nominal. Erika paid 25 cents for a Coke and $2.50 for a meal. The country’s per capita income is just $470 per year.
At a tourist site, Erika met a young boy who asked her to buy him a book for school. She agreed, and later learned that, although he is a student, he sells the books he receives for extra money.
At first she was annoyed.
“But then I realized it’s not my choice what he does with his money,” she says.
Nonetheless, she found the Ethiopian people to be friendly and hospitable.
“I felt safer walking there than I do in Chicago,” she notes.
After spending a week at home after her trip, Erika spent the rest of the summer at the Hamptons, working for a family and giving tennis lessons to their three children.
“I could have seen the most extremes in Ethiopia and the most extremes in the Hamptons,” she says. “In some ways that was true, but it wasn’t as extreme as I was expecting.”
The family for whom she worked had requested a Christian female student to coach their children.
“I became very involved in the local church,” Erika says. “I found that Christ and God were just as much present in the Hamptons as in Ethiopia.”
Erika’s doubles partner, Taylor Parrish, also spent a month working for the same family. Erika says that the children were well behaved, and their parents often came to the lessons. The dad works in banking in New York City on Monday-Thursday, then returns home each weekend.
“I got to help with the church youth group on Thursday nights,” Erika notes. At school, she attends a non-denominational church, and worked with a Presbyterian church in the Hamptons.
In Ethiopia, her group discussed what makes a person successful.
“It’s what’s in your heart,” Erika says. “It’s not money or wealth. It’s relationships and friendships. The family I worked with did a very good job of showing success by the definition we talked about Ethiopia, and by American standards as well. Seeing that played out in the Hamptons was very cool.”
Erika hopes to work with the same family next summer, and intern with a church in New York City.
She knows that wherever she goes, because of this summer, she’ll find Christian community.
“The Gospel is about loving people as Christ loves us, in community,” she says. “I truly understand and grasp that community is important. I saw community at the Hamptons church, and I got closer to my classmates on our trip.
“You can experience God and God’s love through community no matter where you are.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.