An Ethiopian Odyssey: Discovering “the Church’s Priority”

Greetings again from Addis Ababa. This beautiful country continues to open up to me and I find the people, the history, the geography and especially the faith to be captivating.

We departed very early yesterday morning from Emdibir in the mountains and proceeded on a very exciting journey that would take us to Meki, about 3.5 hours away. Getting there was a little arduous, but filled with beauty and splendor. At one point we reached an altitude of 3,800 meters above sea level. The air was cold and the wind was whipping, but the view of the Great Rift Valley below was nothing short of spectacular. I am a geography buff and this site was candy for the eyes.

We arrived at Meki, much lower in elevation and in a totally different climate: hot, dusty and full of flies. Our first pastoral visit took us to the Meki Catholic School, run by the Christian Brothers, all Ethiopian nationals. Reputedly, this is the best school in this part of the country. Immediately after meeting the director, Brother Yohannes, F.S.C., it was obvious why the school enjoys such a reputation. Whenever Brother Yohannes put his head into a classroom or met a student along the campus walkways, there was immediate attention and respect.

CNEWA is proud to sponsor a number of very poor children in this lovely school. There are about 1,400 students here and the facility radiates an aura of serious academics, attention to personal development and a profound sense of dignity and worth of each individual. There is a complete mix of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim students, and the brothers and faculty have really put together a great combination of excellence. It reminds me of good ole Central High School in Pittsburgh, where I was privileged to work with the Christian Brothers as a chaplain in the 70’s. We should all feel very proud of the help we provide to the students here.

After our visit at the school, we paid a courtesy visit to the offices of the general secretariat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki. We were hosted by the general secretary, Father Temesgan Kebede. He was most cordial in explaining to us the many social service programs of the local church. Next, we were greeted by the bishop, Abune Abraham Desta. He mentioned immediately that he is a friend of Timothy Cardinal Dolan. I shared with him that Cardinal Dolan only very recently asked me if I was going to visit him, so mission accomplished. He graciously hosted us, along with members of his staff, for a lovely lunch. The bishop personally shared with me some of the many challenges he is attempting to address. “Education,” he said, “is the church’s priority in Ethiopia.”

After lunch he took us on a walking tour of the current cathedral and, more importantly, the very large and modern cathedral under construction. We were overwhelmed by its size. Meki is a bustling market town that pulsates with people coming to buy produce, goats, sheep, cows and anything else for sale. By the way, goat herds are in evidence everywhere: on city streets, on the highways, the rough and tumble dusty or muddy country roads, even outside cathedrals, rectories, and the residence of bishops. And of course, goat meat is commonly eaten in raw form and “cooked.”

Today, we returned to Addis Ababa. It was a very intense day of visiting, very poignant and emotionally very moving. Our first visit was to an impoverished area of this sprawling city, where we visited Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School. Talk about serving the poorest of the poor: this is it. These children, about 750 of them, come from the most abject of poverty and receive a completely subsidized education, plus a meal to sustain them. The school is situated on a precipice and the sisters there have creatively built classrooms from old shipping containers. Sister Bedainesh is the current director and does a superb job of making all these children feel so special. Her smile is infectious and radiates with all the beautiful children.

How about this for the background of this CNEWA-supported school: Forty years ago, the children of lepers lived in the local cemetery, as no one would let them live near to them. Two lay people decided to confront this gross injustice and actually began this school. They sought the help of a professional educator, a nun from Australia, who would assist them in establishing this marvelous outreach to the despised poor children. Today, it is a jewel and we at CNEWA are blessed to be sponsors of the children here. I did my best to share the love of all of you for these precious little ones. “Let the children come to me.”

Round two was equally emotional and inspiring as we arrived at the Godano “complex.” Can you imagine an institution made of 25 shipping containers that are stacked three high and connected by a maze of walkways and stairways and even some trees growing in the passageways? So who resides here and what goes on here?

Godano, which has received support from CNEWA for years, was first begun to welcome unwed mothers, many of whom had been abandoned on the streets, others had been victims of rape. Founded and directed by a layman, Mulatu Tefesse, this loving home offers safe haven for not only these girls and their children after birth, but also for abandoned street children and unwanted babies. He also provides a kindergarten and skill training for girls, such as sewing and hair styling. The campus also includes housing for mothers and their children. He does not warehouse the mothers and their children, but always seeks to keep them together and to give them a modicum of confidence to move on to at least a minimally productive life.

Mulatu referred, at least five times, to an image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as his “manager.” His faith is evident in everything he says and does, including showing us a mural of his dream, to begin a completely new facility about ten kilometers away. Not of his choosing, he is being forced to leave his shipping container “village” behind, as the government has claimed his property for eminent domain.

A little change of pace brought us to a fine overlook restaurant for a lunch visit with the auxiliary bishop of the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa, Abune Lisanne Christos. He is a very young bright leader in the church and we enjoyed a most enriching chat with him. I look forward to being together with him next week when I will meet with all the bishops of Ethiopia at a special workshop.

We all know the incredible work of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Well, magnify any previous visit you may have had to one of her institutions by a factor of five or so and you can appreciate the scope and size of the program at Sidist Kilo. It defies description as it is so large, so amazingly well organized, so clean and in such a loving environment.

There is care given to every kind of need, with special emphasis given to the poorest of the poor. Those who have open sores, those who come with pneumonia, tuberculosis, H.I.V./AIDS, those with mental and physical challenges and even the abandoned of any age — more than a thousand individuals all are welcomed here in the name of Jesus and are treated with the most tender loving care. There are 250 employees and the smiles abound. It was absolutely a treasured gift to have visited.

Sister Joanna Crucis took us on a “family” visit and her love for each individual was very obvious. She asked me to ask all of you to remember the sisters and the residents in your prayers. And we all know the power of the prayers of the poor, which were promised to us in return.

The final visit on this emotional roller coaster day of pastoral visits was most informative. We were greeted at the offices of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors, in the person of its executive director, Brother Hugo Verhulat, who is a member of the Brothers of Good Works. In his leadership role with the religious from all of Ethiopia (some 64 different religious congregations of women and men), Brother Hugo illumined me on the realities of the church in Ethiopia today. There are many challenges and not just relative to financial needs. In fact, he emphasized the need for good pastoral planning and implementation so that Catholics in Ethiopia, strong in their loyalty to the church, might continue to be better formed in their faith. We offered our prayerful support to him and to all the religious in Ethiopia.

I am tired from these emotional visits today, but also feeling very privileged and blessed to represent all of you from our CNEWA family in these personal encounters with the poor. May God bless and keep them under the watchful hand of his son. And may God bless all of you.

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