Andrew DeCort, PhD, For Addis Standard
Addis Abeba, March 10/2020 – In a time of escalating conflict defined by us vs. them identities, Caleb Meakins was something revolutionary, refreshing, and wonderful: a person – universally beloved and respected by all.
Caleb (1989-2020) was the son of an Ethiopian mother, Ruth, and a British father, Andy. He was the brother of two sisters, Lydia and Abby. Caleb was known for his infectious smile, his incredible kindness, and his capacity to make strangers feel like friends. His family told me, “He was playful and mischievous but most of all a loyal and loving brother and son to his family.”
Caleb created jobs and a beautiful space to meet others and share ideas at his café Bake & Brew, which he co-founded with Hellen Kassa. When Caleb saw Novis Supermarket closing in the Sarbet neighborhood, he told a friend, “I’m going to open a café there” – and he did. Caleb saw what wasn’t there and made it happen through enormous ingenuity and effort. He was a voracious learner who celebrated asking questions, taking risks, and boldly failing. In fact, Caleb called himself “an expert in failure” and saw this vulnerability as the key to true success.
Caleb hosted conversations and inspired entrepreneurialism in Ethiopia on his platform Mella Monthly, bringing together some of Ethiopia’s and the world’s most innovative leaders. Mella, meaning “solution” and “altogether” in Amharic, hosted twenty-five events attended by thousands of young Ethiopians who came together to hear inspiring stories and new ideas for what is possible in Ethiopia. When I asked his family about Caleb’s dream, they told me, “Caleb longed to use business to fulfill Ethiopia’s potential and inspire others to do the same.”
Perhaps most famously, Caleb celebrated Ethiopian culture and bridged his diverse worlds with his viral YouTube channel Ethiopia in Me. From searching for an Ethiopian wife to eating raw meat to bicycling through Addis with a goat strapped on his back, Caleb cherished Ethiopia and gently challenged diaspora Ethiopians to reengage with their culture and return to contribute their share. Caleb’s videos were watched hundreds of thousands of times and spread joy across the world.
In all of this, Caleb made people feel human and at home in their hybridity. He could go from talking about the excruciating pain of losing his father in an airplane crash to dignifying the difficult labor of Ethiopia’s weyales or minibus assistants. His family told me, “Caleb was…willing to accept anyone regardless of their background or beliefs.” At his memorial service, his sister Lydia said, “He would always listen with a nonjudgmental ear and respond compassionately. Still, he would manage to encourage you to be the best version of yourself.”
The first time Caleb and I met for coffee at Bake & Brew to discuss my project Balinjeraye, exactly one year ago today, he told me a story about how the walls of his church literally crumbled due to erosion. The result? The congregation was able to see and be seen by their neighbors for the first time. For Caleb, this breakdown was a blessing. He told me, “Showing how great you are impresses people. Showing how weak you are connects people. We have invisible walls that are so dangerous.”
This is who Caleb was: a wall-breaker and bridge-builder who brought people together with affectionate love, creative ideas, passionate projects, and magnetic charisma. He was willing to show how weak he was, and he connected people from seemingly every background in the process.
Caleb was also a preacher, elder, and mentor in the International Evangelical Church. But his Christian faith was free of dogmatism and exclusion. He preached about vital topics like dealing with anger and working with purpose – not just for money. He brewed beer and hosted the secular music artist Rophnan. He co-founded an initiative called Shift devoted to engaging and transforming culture with honest faith. In my last conversation with Caleb, he told me he was disappointed with mainstream “church” Christianity: “Why can’t we deal with the real issues and hard problems? Why are we silent about injustice and poverty and pain, but so loud about smoking and drinking and dancing?”
His family told me, “Caleb’s core identity was that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. He used his talent, charisma and heritage to point people towards the fact that they too are beloved children of God.”
“They too are beloved children of God” – I believe that is the key to understanding the overwhelming response to Caleb’s life and death. Caleb made people feel truly valuable – “beloved children of God” – regardless of who they were. Caleb’s sister Lydia said it so powerfully at his memorial service: “Whoever he spoke to, he would treat them with such dignity and respect.”
In a society where youth are often marginalized, business idolizes profit, the past dominates the present, and monolithic identity demands absolute loyalty, Caleb broke all the rules in the most brilliantly gentle, creative ways. He devoted his time to mentoring youth and helping them discover their passions. He focused his business not simply on making profit but creating opportunity and inspiring imagination. He tirelessly pioneered new futures while celebrating his diverse backgrounds. And he cultivated a hybrid identity that was radically inclusive and welcoming to everyone: “They too are beloved children of God.”
The precious value of being a person was the beauty of Caleb’s life and the tragedy of his death. Significant questions remain concerning negligence and malpractice in the treatment Caleb received after his car accident. (A 2018 peer-reviewed article found that only 30.4% of medical doctors in Addis Ababa have “good practice of code of ethics.”) Some have suggested Caleb’s death may have been preventable if only he had been treated as a valuable person, amidst calls for investigations. At this time, his family is asking for privacy as they focus on grieving the loss of their beloved son and brother before addressing these issues.
When I asked Caleb’s family how to best honor Caleb’s life moving forward, their answer was simple and profound: “We would love people to follow Caleb’s core values: to face one’s fears, to transform society and to pursue God.”
For my part, I am left reflecting on Caleb’s words about loving our neighbors in a time when human life is increasingly devalued: “Showing how great you are impresses people. Showing how weak you are connects people. We have invisible walls that are so dangerous.”
Like Caleb, may we creatively break down these walls, even if it costs us our lives. AS
Editor’s Note: Andrew DeCort holds a PhD in Ethics from the University of Chicago and is the founding director of Balinjeraye: The Neighbor-Love Movement. Balinjeraye inspires young Ethiopians to see others as neighbors across every boundary. Follow us on Facebook, Telegram (@balinjeraye), YouTube, and other platforms.