A letter from Marta Bennett in Kenya
Ethiopia is an ancient land—a land rich in history and faith, with language and culture distinct from all others. In the Kingdom of Axum, with its heart in modern-day northern Ethiopia, Christianity was officially adopted as the state religion in the early 4th century A.D., making it one of the oldest Christian empires, along with Constantine’s Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey. Famous for its rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church continues to thrive, along with Protestant and other Evangelical churches that have been deeply planted and continue to grow. In addition, about one-third of the country’s population is Muslim, with a substantial population of Ethiopian Jews who have resided in Ethiopia, tracing their heritage back to the days of Israel’s King Solomon. In the 1980s the Ethiopian Jews made headlines as they began emigrating back to Israel. Ethiopia is also the spiritual homeland of the Rastafarian movement, most often associated with Bob Marley and Jamaica.
Why am I telling you all this? While I continue to teach and serve full-time in Kenya, in January of this year I had the privilege of being in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, to teach a three-week intensive course at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST). As part of their Master's in Organizational Leadership program, I taught the module on Organizational Development and Behavior, with 15 Ethiopian students, all Christians, all professionals working in the church, government, non-governmental organizations, or industry. We had a very stimulating time, often comparing the differences and similarities of organizational realities in Ethiopia and Kenya and evaluating current processes and practices against global theories and principles in the field of organizational leadership and development.
I happened to be in Ethiopia for three significant holidays during my three short weeks. First, Christmas (celebrated on January 7), then Timkut, or Epiphany, on January 19—not the day of the coming of the wise men, but the day of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry inaugurated at his baptism in the River Jordan—and third, the Islamic celebration of the birth of Mohammed, on January 24, with its processions and festivities.
Thanks to dear friends Tim and Muriel Teusink, who are SIM missionaries serving in Ethiopia, I had the privilege of viewing the Timkut celebration from the inner circle of Jan Meda in Addis Ababa. Tim is a medical doctor, currently involved in HIV and AIDS education, working especially with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and thus he was able to get passes to be up front and center with the Acting Patriarch and Archbishops of the Orthodox churches. The day before, the replicas of the Ark of Covenant (or the Mosaic tablets that were housed within), were processed from each of the churches and taken to the rivers or other bodies of water. The throngs of pilgrims kept vigil throughout the night, in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ baptism and the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit the next morning. Later in the day the Arks were processed back to their designated churches, escorted by hundreds of thousands of the faithful, filling the roads and highways with music and dancing throughout the journey. A lavish and colorful celebration, Timkut celebrates God’s Presence among his people, first symbolized in early Israel by the Ark of the Covenant, and then in the New Testament in the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. Timkut is the most elaborate holiday celebrated; it connects with the tradition that the actual Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, which mysteriously disappeared from King Solomon’s Temple and then was never mentioned again in the Old Testament, was actually stolen away by Solomon’s and the Queen of Sheba’s son King Menelik I and remained hidden in Ethiopia ever since. This is perhaps best documented in Graham Hancock’s best seller, The Sign and the Seal: A Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Though many of the Protestant and Evangelical churches in Ethiopia do not endorse many of the practices of the Orthodox Church, it was still very striking to me—the magnitude of the celebrations and the profound significance of celebrating God’s Presence among God’s people, as they do so with such fervor.
Besides enjoying national celebrations and interacting with students in the classroom, I was able to connect with some of our PC(USA) mission personnel serving in Ethiopia, other friends who had previously served in Nairobi, as well as several of my former students from Ethiopia who have graduated from Daystar University and International Leadership University (ILU), both in Nairobi, Kenya. One of my former students, Pastor Samuel Olta, serves in the southernmost region of Ethiopia along the Kenyan border. Since 2008, when he graduated from ILU (formerly Nairobi International School of Theology) with an M.Div. in Leadership Studies, he has planted 16 new churches, and he is committed to mentoring and training up the leaders in each of these new church plants.
All in all, my experience in Addis Ababa was a very rich and gratifying.
Now that I am very much back in Nairobi, let me share a few items for prayer:
- Pray for Kenya. As of this writing, the national elections held on March 4 were orderly and peaceful, and a new president was duly announced by March 9. Almost immediately, however, the opposition leader has petitioned the court over anomalies in the election process, and as evidence is growing, the outcome is not certain. Whatever happens, we are praying that truth is delivered, peace will prevail, and just and fair decisions will be determined, implemented, and accepted.
- I have recently been appointed the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at ILU. Pray for me, for wisdom, clear vision, strength and courage. Already I believe we have been pulling together as a team, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to move ILU forward.
- Pray for student enrollment and qualified, willing faculty members to join us. Student enrollment is down, especially due to many new universities coming up, some better than others. Students continue to affirm that what we offer has much more depth and quality than many. We sincerely desire to continue to spearhead transformation in students’ lives as they are equipped as transformational leaders for church and society.
- Pray for the kids as they finish up this school term. Justin is climbing Mt. Kenya with his Year 10 classmates as I write (5 days); Imani is getting better and better on guitar, and Steven is making good progress in his ICT Advanced Diploma. Pray that all three would continue to grow in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and with all with whom they interact.
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 109
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