By Tarekegn Umuro, Programs Officer, CNEWA Addis Ababa Office
It is well remembered that CNEWA intervened in the severe shortage of food that happened in Adigrat Eparchy in 2016. At that time, the prompt response of CNEWA enabled the eparchy to provide famix, teff powder, and sugar for lactating mothers, pregnant women, children under the age of five and elderly people through two Catholic health facilities; we were also able to feed children through parish feeding programs during summer 2016. Although the support of the government and NGOs — including CNEWA — saved millions from life-threatening drought, chronic food shortages in the area have continued in 2017, too. So CNEWA has continued to support Catholic schools and children attending adjacent government schools by providing nutritious biscuits. The biscuit distribution program stopped in the first week of July 2017 as the academic year ended. But the Eparchy Youth Ministry Office appealed to CNEWA’s Addis Ababa Office to continue the parish feeding support, providing biscuits and bread for children and youth during the summer school break from 7 July to 10 September 2017. CNEWA, considering the real situation of the region and the experience of the previous year, accepted and approved the appeal of the Youth Ministry Office to share the already-approved fund for 2017 between the schools and parishes’ support.
Pastoral activities in the Adigrat Eparchy are structured in three levels: parishes, zones and diocese levels. Accordingly, the 34 parishes of the Eparchy are grouped into seven zones, depending on their geographical location and distance. The Eparchial Youth Ministry Office, through the person of the Rev. Negasi Yohannes, coordinates pastoral activities at all levels.
All the 34 parishes were involved in the summer youth programs at parish, zone and diocesan levels. The program was not simply the distribution of biscuits and bread for the children and youth in each level. According to the Father Negasi, there was a plan prepared for summer youth activities by the Youth Ministry Coordination Office in consultation with all parish priests. At the parish level, it was planned to engage children and youth in catechism, songs, sports and tutorial classes for lower grade children in English language and mathematics lessons. Catechism classes incorporated Bible studies, teaching about the sacraments, liturgy and ethics. The program was conducted from 3-5 days per week in each parish during the summer period indicated above. Some parishes had programs throughout the weeks. Fr. Negasi explained, “It was a systematically arranged program; when the youth arrive to their respective parishes, first they learn catechism; next they play volleyball or football or other type of games according to their own interest; after the sport, they gather to rehearse spiritual songs for Sunday services; then distribution of biscuits or bread follows before they leave to their homes.” Some parishes that have university students benefitted more because the university students voluntarily used their holidays to assist in tutoring classes for lower grade children in English language and mathematics lessons.
Following individual parish activities, a zone-level festival was organized to allow children of different parishes to come together, get acquainted with each other and create positive competition among parishes.
At the zone level festival, different programs were planned, including question and answer competition, sports, spiritual music concerts and catechism programs. Sports and question and answer competitions among the parishes in the same zones were so high, eagerness to learn and active involvement of the youth in all the activities were amazing. All the 7 zones of the eparchy conducted similar activities from 1-3 times in the summer. The festivals have given an opportunity to all the youth to share experiences, learn from each other, develop friendship and deepen their faith.
Towards the end of the summer program, a youth festival at the diocesan level was organized for three days from 3-5 September 2017. CNEWA’s Program Officer for the Addis Ababa office has animated this festival and captured some discussions with concerned people at various levels. From the 34 parishes of the Eparchy and 4 camps within the Eparchy that host the majority of Eritrean refugees, 570 young people were gathered for the annual youth festival at the Adigrat Holy Savior Cathedral compound.
On 3 September 2017, Sunday evening, youth representatives of all parishes arrived in Adigrat. Adigrat is the center of the eparchy and the residence of the local ordinary. A warm welcome was given by Abune Tesfaselassie Medhin, Eparch of Adigrat, Fr. Negasi, and youth representatives of the cathedral. Accommodations were prepared ahead of time so that all participants got their designated places for the days of the program. Evening prayers and blessings were given by the Bishop. The festival program was organized by Fr. Negasi.
The cathedral compound was colorfully decorated with different pieces of cloth, a big banner with the theme of the festival — “You, young man, what do you have on your hands? Use it for your benefit and for the glory of God” — was posted high at the entrance of the multipurpose hall, and different quotations conveying different messages related to the y0outh and their spiritual lives were displayed inside and outside of the hall.
Mr. Tarekegn closely and attentively followed all the sessions of the festival. He also raised questions and discussed with different participants and organizers of the festival concerning the importance of the festivals and related feeding programs. Many of them were excited and they expressed their gratitude to CNEWA. Unanimously, they underlined the spiritual and bodily benefits of all the programs for the children of their respective parishes. All the programs at various levels were so engaging to everybody.
At the festival, different activities were performed by zone representatives; they performed different dramas that touched on the daily lives of the youth, presented spiritual poems, and conducted biblical question and answer competitions. Lessons on biblical topics and church history were given by professors from the Major Seminary andelderly priests and lay people shared their life experiences; at each interval, each zone chanted spiritual songs.
Abba Kidane Baraki, Coordinator of Saisei Zone (that includes five parishes), was asked to share about the summer youth festivals and catechism classes. According to him, it was so effective and the youth benefited spiritually, psychologically and physically. They learned the catechism, the Bible, spiritual songs, etc which fed their faith; they were engaged in different sports and games that helped them to be relaxed and psychologically free; and they were fed with biscuits and bread to give physical strength and health. The summer activities were planned centrally and implemented in all the parishes and zones so the Catholic youth in the eparchy have developed common knowledge, understanding and feeling about their faith and church. This, according to Abba Kidane’s belief, would enhance team work and help to develop a common consensus on youth apostolate issues at the eparchial level and create a strong bond among the parishes and youth.
Abba Kidane added that all the youth in his zone were very much interested in participating at this diocesan level youth festival; but he couldn’t bring all the youth, as it was difficult for the diocese to organize and provide facilities for thousands of young people. But he believed that the representatives would share with others in their respective parishes what they gained from the festival when they got back home.
Abba Woldegabriel Yohannes, parish priest of Adega Holy Trinity parish and youth coordinator of Duro St. Jacob parish, shared the same impression of Saisei Zone coordinator. For him, the summer youth program has created love, oneness and fraternity among the youth; they shared not only food but also biblical knowledge, the Holy Eucharist, games and sports. During the coffee ceremony, they were sharing their personal experiences, encounters and their future plans. According to Abba Woldegabriel’s observation, the summer youth program motivated most of the parish priests to be engaged more in their pastoral duties. As he explained, the main problem of his zone was a shortage of good athletic equipment.
For Abba Woldu Hayish, Sebeya Zone coordinator, the summer was wonderful time for him as he was busy throughout the weeks with youth programs. In Engal parish, where he is serving, the youth had programs 6 days in a week throughout the summer. Children of the lower grades were lucky, as the university students gave them tutorial classes in English language and mathematics lessons. Besides centrally scheduled programs, the youth were going to the villages to visit and pray with the old, the sick and families with any sort problems. As the area is geographically challenging to walk, it takes longer to come to the parish and to visit families; so they were being provided biscuits each day. According to Abba Woldu Hayish, all the parish priests in his zone were occupied with similar activities in their own parishes, so at the zone level they managed to conduct only one big festival.
The second day of the festival began with open discussion on the theme of the festival. The youth expressed what they have on their hands and how wisely they should use it; they also shared freely their feelings that come to their minds while they read the theme and some of them promised to see their inner self to improve their way of life. Some youth said what they have is not only theirs, they have to share with others and they have to make the world a better place to live for all human beings.
The other discussion point of the second day was on self-reliance efforts. The initial input on the subject matter was given by Mr. Berhane Medhin, who is a young teacher in Adigrat University. He explained that the youth should be actively involved in the church activities; they shouldn’t come to church only to receive but also to give from what they have. He added that they could see a true local church if they sustain it.
He invited Mr. Angesom Adayu to share his observations on Kenyan Catholic Church to the assembly. Mr. Angesom Adayu is a university student and recently visited Kenya. According to him, Kenyan Catholics are far advanced from Ethiopian Catholics in self-reliance. He said people never come with empty hands to the church on Sundays; they come with alms, they produce different sacramental objects and sell them to increase their income. He added, “Being involved in income-generating activities doesn’t mean engaging the church in business and profit making like other market/profit oriented organizations or individuals. It simply means making the local church self-reliant.”
Many youth participants cited examples from Ethiopian Orthodox Church that show how they are working to secure self-sustainability. From the youth discussion, it was clear that most of the youth were aware of the issue of self-reliance. They stressed that there must be a diocesan plan that leads to self-reliance at a certain period of time. The plan should be shared with the young generation to work hard on it and to minimize dependency. His Excellency Abune Tesfaselassie Medhin admired the idea shared by the two young Catholics and insisted youth should work on it. He also acknowledged the self-sustainability efforts of Mekelle parish youth. They produced spiritual songs on a CD by covering the entire production cost themselves; and he encouraged others to follow in their footsteps.The discussion was followed by poems that were designed to inspire education, hard work and generosity.
ne of the events that made the youth festival special was participation of the Eritrean Refugees from four camps in Shire zone namely: Hitsatse, Shimelbaha, Mai-Aini and Adi-Harush. 45 representative Catholic refugee faithful and one refugee Catholic priest participated in the festival, representing thousands of Catholic refugees in the camps. Abba Giday Alema, Parish Priest of Shire Assumption of Mary parish and Chaplain for the Refugees, told CNEWA representative that life in the camps is very challenging; many youth lost what they had. In the campus almost all the youth have no parents. Some lost their parents in the border war; others left them behind in their home country. So they have psychological trauma and need pastoral assistance. Besides providing regular pastoral services in the camps, the chaplain decided to bring the representatives to the festival, believing that the festival events would help them to spread hope in their hearts, which in turn would contribute to partly heal their psychological trauma.
Abba Geday Alema was absolutely right: the refugees seemed completely at home, relaxed and happy. They were given equal opportunities to present what they prepared for the festival, including dramas, poems and spiritual songs. They also participated in a biblical question and answer competition; even the winner of this competition was a refugee and received the first prize. The event was really a healing instrument for them.
Other participants of the festival deeply expressed their happiness on the presence of the refugees, who once were free people like them. One of the participants read a poem about refugees:
“You lost or left behind your parents; you are separated from your brothers and sisters; you are confined in a very poor shelters and tents; you lost all that you had. But you are left with one precious thing that tied you and us — our faith, our Catholic faith unites us always. Wherever we go, wherever we live, we are one in Christ. We understand and share your pain, the pain of loneliness, the pain of frustration and the pain of desperation. But believe us: you are our brothers and sisters; we are always by your side because we are bound together with the blood of Christ.”
At this moment everyone in the hall was emotionally moved and wiping away tears. A sense of fraternity and love for one another has reached its climax.
Mr. Samuel Yohannes, originally from Barentu Diocese in Eritrea and now living in Shimelbaha Refugee Camp, was asked about his days at the Adigrat Youth Festival. He said, “We, all the representatives of the refugees, are filled with incredible happiness for being participants at this festival; we have learned many things. We made friends and we felt as if we are with our parents, brothers and sisters. I am very grateful to those who supported and organized this festival.” Mr. Samuel has lived for seven years in the camp and he is not sure how long he will be in the camp.
Mr. Hailesilassie is one of the active youth ministers in the diocese and he was asked about the festival. He replied that he was so happy for the programs going smoothly, as it was not easy task to manage 570 people according to the schedule prepared. He added that in the cathedral and Adigrat zone parishes they had many programs with youth during the summer and all the youth benefited much from the activities. Dramas, songs, poems and other activities that were being presented during the festival were reflections of the summer youth activities. As Mr. Hailesilassie mentioned the youth were coming to the parishes and zone centers not only to consume biscuits or bread but also to nourish themselves with spiritual food. Pointing his finger towards all the youth, who were singing outside the hall in the evening, holding lit candles and waving their hands on the air, Mr. Hailesilassie said, “Look how they are praising the Lord! Do you think that they forget this moments in their lives? They never forget! We are very much satisfied, thanks to CNEWA and to all who supported this summer program. Youth need others’ attention towards them, now we are receiving very good attention and follow-up from our leaders.”
Father Negasi was delighted as the festival was successfully completed according to the schedule. Though signs of exhaustion appeared on his face, he had a bright smile and sense of satisfaction while talking with CNEWA. He expressed that the youth ministry office was very happy, as summer festivals and catechism programs at all levels were completed successfully. Each parish and zone completed the summer activities according to the given schedule. Father Negasi expressed his heartfelt thanks to CNEWA; without CNEWA’s financial support, it would have been difficult to implement the programs as they were inspirational and colorful.
In concluding, Abune Tesfaselassie advised them to be models to others, to witness their faith in practice and to work hard to be effective in their studies and careers. He profoundly expressed his gratitude to CNEWA and its donors for the financial support. He repeatedly mentioned that CNEWA has been a long-time partner to the eparchy and eventually the eparchy is very grateful for all the continued support received from CNEWA. He expressed special gratitude to CNEWA’s Addis Ababa office for being part of their summer youth activities through regular visits and advice And he finally requested CNEWA to continue supporting the pastoral activities of the eparchy in similar ways.
Overall observation: The summer youth festivals, catechisms and related feeding programs were accomplished successfully. Besides feeding the youth, the activities conducted at all levels have made them learn more about their faith, protected them from wasting time during summer months, enhanced parish-youth relationships and improved relations with each other. It is hoped that if youth-focused activities continue in such coordinated approach, the eparchy will have strong and exemplary youth members with sustained faith practice.
This summer feeding program through parishes is a multifaceted initiative for parishes, the eparchy, CNEWA and its back donors. Let us hope and continue to reach out and respond to the needs of the local church in Ethiopia.
CNEWA’s funding of USD $15,717 for this program has impacted the lives of 4,285 children and youth in the 34 parishes of Adigrat Eparchy through the active pastoral engagement of the Youth Ministry Office where the programs were carried out.