In Ethiopia, Getting a Taste of Evangelical Fervor

Journalist James Jeffrey reports on efforts to grow the faith in Ethiopia for the Winter 2016 edition of ONE.

Journalist James Jeffrey reports on efforts to grow the faith in Ethiopia for the Winter 2016 edition of ONE. Here, he shares some meals with catechists —and shares some further thoughts with us.

At the end of a day full of evangelical fervor, I found myself reflecting on how a simple dinner, that act of breaking bread with others, could be nourishing physically but also mentally and spiritually — plus particularly useful for a journalist with his notebook at hand.

My first night in the balmy lakeside town of Bahir Dar, just before the start of the weekend university chaplaincy program on the role of evangelicalism in modern Catholicism, coincided with the conclusion of a preceding course, similarly instructing missionaries, religious sisters and laypersons.

Joining them for dinner, as I sat eating from my plate of injera — Ethiopia’s indigenous spongy pancake-shaped grey bread — topped with rice, beetroot, potato and other fresh vegetables, it was hard to imagine the somewhat diminutive-looking religious sisters who sat around me were, in fact, evangelizers.

But I was soon reminded of what inner strength can lie beneath the surface.

“It took me about two years to learn Amharic,” said Sister Veronica, a soft-spoken Kenyan missionary sister with a ready smile, working in the Benishangul-Gunzu region near the Sudanese border, a remote and hard to reach place all but invisible from contemporary Ethiopia.

“We get to go home once every three years.”

“More important than what I miss is what I find,” said the Rev. Goaquim Silva, a Portuguese missionary priest based in Ethiopia for six years.

I began to understand why many people find missionaries unsettling figures — they have a disconcertingly humbling effect on oneself.

Dinner for each of the following two nights occurred at the table of Abune Lesanu-Christos Matheos, Bishop of the Bahir Dar-Dessie eparchy, along with those running the university chaplaincy program, and other various guests invited by the bishop.

Conversation flowed, covering topics from the dilemmas of evangelical worship to the remarkable history of Christianity in Ethiopia to global collisions between the major faiths of the modern world.

My main problem during all this was trying to eat my delicious meal of injera — eaten with one’s hand — and scribble in my notebook while following the thought-provoking conversation.

“People often just want to sing, there’s no reflection or critical thinking,” said Nancy Greenhaw, an American Catholic instructing on the program.

There was a chorus of agreements and nods from around the table.

“Easy, fast, immediate — that’s what they want,” said Serah Alumansi, a Kenyan Catholic also helping on the program. “They don’t want to be challenged.”

The bishop paused in lifting his injera clasped between fingers to his mouth.

“The negative side of the evangelical movement is that it can become a ghetto and closed in,” he said. “But you can’t do that with the Holy Spirit, it moves how it wants.”

During one meal, sitting on my right was Magdela Wolnik, a Polish journalist producing a documentary about Ethiopia for the international organization Aid to the Church in Need. Like me, she barely said a word, content to listen to the words of those who know more, and benefit from them.

Those around me had recourse to speak of another — who, in all likelihood, knows more than they do.

“Pope Francis has said that it’s a sick church that does not evangelize, it sickens from the stale air,” someone noted. “Following such a new course, it may run into accidents — but he’d prefer a church of accidents than a sick church.”

I’m not sure who said that; by this stage I was really struggling with my injera, pencil and notepad. But the point hit home.

Read more in Ethiopia’s Sleeping Giant in the Winter edition of ONE.

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