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In the footsteps of the Queen of Sheba

An Ethiopian proverb says that if you educate a man, you educate one individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a family

by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Along with her assistant, Banchayehu Bekele is pictured visiting Zeway Prison Center in Ethiopia. (Contributed photo)

Many may recall the Queen of Sheba, who according to 1 Kings 10 caravanned from East Africa to visit King Solomon of the Israelites, a monarch deemed wiser than all the sages of Egypt and the Middle East.

King Solomon is perhaps best known for his wise decision in a dispute between two women, both claiming to be a new baby’s mother, with the outcome defined a mother’s love.

Historians tell us this queen came from what is today the country of Ethiopia. Modern-day Ethiopia is in East Africa, in an area known as the Horn of Africa, south of Egypt. It is next to the Red Sea and almost 2,000 miles from Jerusalem, a considerable distance in the camel caravan travel time.

The remains of “Lucy,” considered to be a three-million-year older sister of the Queen of Sheba and an early member of the human race, were discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia, supporting the conclusion by paleoanthropologists that anatomically modern humans now populating the world emerged from this region of Africa. Fellow paleoanthropologist and Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin described the expanse of humankind across globe: “He trod so softly that when his presence was at last betrayed by the indestructible evidence of his stone tools … he was already spread across the ancient world from the Cape of Good Hope to Peking.”  As this suggests, we are all of African descent and carry Ethiopian genes.

Ethiopia is today the second most populated country in Africa after Nigeria with a population of 130 million people, which compares to the population of France and Italy combined. In 1935, Ethiopia was occupied by an Italian fascist regime and as a multi-ethnic state suffered numerous conflicts and regime changes in its struggle towards independence. Today, it is considered by many an emerging power with claims to have the fastest economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa because of direct foreign investments. Christianity is the most professed faith in Ethiopia, with a significant minority of adherent Islam.

At a recent international prison reform conference in Nairobi, Kenya with participants from 28 countries, a modern-day “Queen of Sheba” named Banchayehu Bekele, or Banchi to her friends, the founder and outreach director of the Paul International Prison Ministry, (learn more by emailing proved spell-binding for the 100-member audience with her presentation on the suffering and tragic conditions of women and children imprisoned in her country.

She told of the 120 regional prisons in Ethiopia and six federal prisons with a combined population of about 200,000 people incarcerated, of which about 56,000 are women. She continued that 75% of these incarcerated women are confined awaiting sentencing, which often results in a two-year wait.

Banchi continued by explaining that women are discriminated against compared to incarcerated men relative to clothing and personal products, as well as spiritual and professional training. She said, “In Ethiopia, women disproportionally bear the burden of poverty and disease because of the gender-based division of economic resources, a lack of access to and control over political power, and the prevalence of violence against women.”

With most of the audience already at the edge of their seats, she brought many to tears when she detailed the often corrupt and over-crowded prison conditions with lack of education, personal and hygiene products, clothing, food, appropriate bedding, mattresses and blankets and the effects such conditions have on the many children who are born by women after entering prison or join them in prison for lack of others to care for them outside of prison.

Banchayehu Bekele, at left, is pictured with members of the board of directors of Paul International Prison Ministry. (Contributed photo)

The silence following her presentation suggested more than any thunderous applause that Banchi belongs to the Lucy and Queen of Sheba sisterhood and does not have to make the trek to Jerusalem for wisdom. Years of exposure to the suffering and neglect of her fellow human beings make wisdom and compassion flow from her heart and a deep desire to follow the core of all scripture, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

The prison outreach project Banchi is conducting is another example of the Adopt-A-Prison concept now practiced on three continents and focuses the attention of a local community on the prison population in its midst. It reverses the colonial era criminal justice system of isolating offenders in harsh punitive structures far from their home communities. In spiritual terms, it is what the Paul Ministry does by encouraging its members to follow Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor and applying it to the women and children incarcerated in their community and behind prison walls by supporting them with their urgent needs. This outreach of human kindness and compassion gives rise to fellowship and joy for both the giver and for the receiver.

The Mattthew 25 command that Jesus voiced to visit those in prison is not just meant as an expression of human kindness, but a requirement for establishing the kingdom of God on Earth, a social structure based upon peace, forgiveness and harmonious relations. We owe it to our Ethiopian heritage to stand in solidarity with the women incarcerated in Ethiopia, and indeed with all women incarcerated in harsh and undignified conditions around the world in countries like Russia, Mali, Cuba, Brazil and many others. Rest assured that important networks were established during the Nairobi prison conference to work toward reducing these drastic situations. The footsteps of the queens were not laid down in vain.

The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.

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