Written by Julie Munro
I arrived in the hilltop town of Lalibela in December last year, just as preparations for the town's Christmas and New Year celebrations were getting under way.
The famous rock-cut churches of this World Heritage site are set high in the mountains of the Amhara region of Ethiopia and are a magnet for the country's Orthodox Christians, who flock there at the start of each new year to celebrate their Christmas in early January. After trekking the dusty approach roads in the days leading up to the festival, often in bare feet, the pilgrims finally arrive in their thousands, resplendent in their white robes despite their long journeys.
Set at about 2,500m, the eleven underground churches of Lalibela are clustered together, each one different, but all hewn out of the surrounding rock. Having explored some of the outlying churches, I descended through a dark narrow passage, which brought me out at the subterranean entrance to the most iconic of all the churches - Bet Giyorgis or St George's Church.
Crowds were thronging at the front of the church. Despite their tiring journey, some of the pilgrims waited patiently at the bottleneck entrance, jostled and elbowed by the lens laden tourists pressing to get in ahead of them. In the midst of this undignified tussle, a group of pilgrims on the fringe of the crowd started to sing. They broke into jubilant praise, the women clapping and swaying together as one body. In the cool of the atrium, the tourists gradually fell silent, as though the chanting had transported them to a place they had yet to visit.
Where do you go when things are tough? Can you break into song when the storm is raging?
I guess there is something in all of us that is searching for something, that feels that something is missing - and it's not just in the tough times. St Augustine put it like this " Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You".
My search really began at university. There I met a couple of Christian friends whose lives seemed altogether different and who seemed to have something that both anchored them and gave them a purpose - I couldn't put my finger on it.
Leaving behind the buzz of uni, in a relationship that was heading nowhere and unsure of my career path ahead, I began my own pilgrimage - reading about and exploring different faiths. As a science graduate, I never expected that this would lead to anything - it was just a way of trying to find a happier place.
But as I started going to church in my early twenties I met more young people who were on a similar journey. What I realised as conversations begun, was that for these people, their faith was not just a paper exercise - it was deeply rooted in experiences and encounters of God that had changed the trajectory of their lives.
I'm not sure at what point things changed for me - moving from unbelief to belief - I guess it was all quite a gradual process. Going on an Alpha course at church was really pivotal and spending time with people who were living out what they believed in all sorts of incredible ways was inspiring. But it's the times when I've really encountered God's love, sometimes in midst of life's toughest times, that have propelled me forward the most.
Throughout life I've always loved travelling, exploring as many developing countries as I could. I've experienced unexpected and beautiful connections with people living in the back streets of Calcutta, the townships of Soweto and the floating villages of the Mekong Delta. But above all, the most exciting adventure has been my journey of faith and, 30 years ago when I began this voyage, I never expected to arrive at this place, to land, in the words of the author Frank Morison, on "this unexpected shore".
So this is my Growing Happy story - of finding a safe harbour in the midst of life's storms. It's a place of strength, security and hope. When life is scary, I lean in to some of God's amazing promises - like this from Psalm 4: "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety".
Travelling through Ethiopia and witnessing the joy and exuberance of the poorest of the poor at Lalibela, I was struck again by the words of Psalm 84: "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage".
Thank you so much to my wonderful Auntie for sharing your journey with our community.
Through this project we hope to tell the stories of many different people and celebrate a multitude of perspectives. If you would like to share your story with us, please get in touch by emailing email@example.com or by sending us a dm on Instagram @growinghappyuk .