A letter from Rich and Marilyn Hansen in Ethiopia
Religion is woven tightly into the fabric of Ethiopian life. During the week we hear calls to worship, some floating through our windows … the mosque up the road summoning its people to prayer … the Orthodox priests chanting via loudspeaker from the church across the river in the ancient language of Ge’ez … the exuberant singing of the Anuaks who meet for worship on our compound on Sunday afternoons.
Ethiopians have practiced Christianity here, at least in the north, since the fourth century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is strongly influenced by Old Testament practices of fasting, prayer and worship. Four degrees of purity determine where and how people worship: outside the walls of the church compound, inside the grounds, inside the church building, receiving communion. As a result, children, elderly and priests are often the only ones who take communion. Crowds of Orthodox worshippers are massed for services along the sidewalk or street, peering through the fence into the church grounds while the priest inside the sanctuary conducts worship.
And so Orthodoxy here sometimes seems to be faith that is practiced by looking through the fence: more observation than transformation, more ritual than relationship. Yet many Orthodox Christians here are having their religious faith transformed into a living faith as God’s message in Scripture takes root in their lives. A spiritual awakening is happening within the Orthodox Church.
And while ritual cannot be the basis of faith, the practices of Orthodox believers can still be an example of spiritual discipline. Rich and I see our friend and worker Zufan who, as a faithful Orthodox, fasts more than half of the 365 days of every year, abstaining from meat and its derivatives (milk, butter, eggs, etc.). We see her daughter, Marta, who leaves her campus weekly to walk to a nearby Orthodox church for prayer during her lunch break between classes. And I think of how little my own outward behavior and habits are influenced by and evidence of my faith.
Muslims took refuge in Ethiopia in the seventh century and have been here ever since. Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia, is considered by some to be the fourth holiest site in Islam. Muslims and Christians generally have peacefully coexisted in this country. However, during this month of March in the area of Jimma, 57 Christian churches were burned along with other acts of violence committed against Christians by Muslims. Their anger was ignited by the claim that pages of the Koran were being used as toilet paper at the construction site of a new Christian church. The claim may or may not be true; opinions differ. Sadly these actions may foster distrust for a long time. Contrast these scenes of violence with my friend Hadji Ahmed, a Muslim glass shop owner, who invites me to have tea and talk to him in Amharic, knowing that we do not share the same faith but still willing to be my friend. And I rejoice in hearing that Christians in Jimma are becoming stronger in their faith through these acts of persecution.
Protestant Christianity is alive here in Ethiopia. Rich’s students are proof of that. Many Christians here are in love with God and desire to serve Him completely. When Rich and I peeked into the room where the Anuaks were worshipping, we saw a small group who sang as though they were hundreds, who danced in the aisles with abandon, whose faces were alight with joy. Last week I asked Chernet, a seminary student I have come to know, what he enjoyed doing for fun. His first response: “I love to pray.” Our PC(USA) partner here, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), has 5.5 million members and grew 5.6 percent last year. People are being reached with the gospel. Although each individual church may have a pastor, each church may also have tens of evangelists, usually volunteers who have a heart for sharing the gospel with those around them. In an English class at the EECMY seminary all seven students identify themselves as evangelists and feel a strong call to evangelism.
Religion in Ethiopia is complicated, diverse and often confusing. Ancient Orthodoxy, Islam and more recently the evangelical Protestant church, which has been influenced by Pentecostalism to a lesser or greater degree, all vie with one another — usually peacefully, but not always! Living in the midst of this often bubbling cauldron of diversity, Rich and I feel blessed to see Christians living their faith, practicing their faith and especially making sacrifices for their faith in ways that we from the West at times can hardly imagine.
Rich and Marilyn
- That Orthodox believers in Ethiopia will focus on a relationship with Jesus Christ
- That Muslims in Jimma will refrain from any additional violence and that the Christian community in this area will be protected, strengthened and be a witness to its Muslim neighbors
- That Protestant evangelicals will continue to be fervent in reaching out to those do not know Jesus
Please visit our blog, Meskel Musings. You will find many photos plus a variety of posts about our lives in Ethiopia.
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 57