ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

12 Years of Perseverance

In fits and starts, an Ethiopian village builds a church

The prayers lasted through the night, carrying into Sunday’s liturgy. On Saturday night 20 priests had assembled in the adobe-hut chapel near Babogaya, a small Ethiopian village some 80 miles south of Addis Ababa.

The priests chanted until 6 a.m., when the village faithful began to show up. “They are farmers and used to getting up early,” explained Eresi Megersa, an elder in the local Ethiopian Orthodox community.

The eucharistic liturgy, or Qeddase, that followed lasted for several hours, as is customary throughout the country.

Drums could be heard inside the hut, which was too small to accommodate the hundreds of parishioners, most of whom stood outside listening to the liturgy over loudspeakers.

Two deacons, boys still, dressed in magenta and gold robes, moved among the congregation, collecting offerings to complete a new church – some 12 years in the making – that stood nearby.

It is not unusual for the building of churches to span many years. It took about 100 years to complete the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, for instance. But this church, dedicated to Medhane Alem, (or Savior of the World in Amharic) was a simple project that could have been finished much sooner, were funds collected in the modern, Western manner. But this church was built in the traditional Ethiopian way, one penny at a time.

The first financial thrust, however, came not from the villagers, but from the Galilee Center, a Jesuit-run center for the formation of Catholic clergy and religious located a few miles from Babogaya.

Jesuit Father Miguel Garcia, a Chilean on staff at the center who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for 22 years, works closely with the local Orthodox community and secured, more than a decade ago, the funding to lay the church’s foundations.

A close friend and collaborator of CNEWA, he also secured an additional grant of $3,000 from the agency, but the burden of the funding came from the villagers themselves, in small installments. All told, the church, which was eventually completed last December and consecrated in January, cost $35,000. “We’ve needed this church for a long time,” said Abba Melake Tsehaye Dibekulu Melese, the parish’s pastor. “The hut we’ve been using temporarily is 12 years old. Before that, people had to walk six miles to the nearest church.”

The church stands atop a hill overlooking the village, a dusty scattering of a few hundred simple homes. There is electricity, but no running water. The residents fetch water from nearby Lake Kuriftu. Young children tend the cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats that share the dirt roads with the villagers.

Babogaya is a farming village. The residents work the nearby fields, cultivating tef, the region’s staple grain. Others work in nurseries, industrial greenhouses that cultivate roses, carnations and other luxuries for export. The average income is about $55 a month.

The children attend classes, with the majority dropping out after primary school. Very few will finish 12th grade and go on to college.

Babogaya and the nearby lakeshore community, with a total population of about 3,000, are predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox, the principal faith community in Ethiopia, but there are some Muslims who worship at a simple mosque built with Saudi funds. Relations among Christians and Muslims are amicable and intermarriage is not uncommon. (Typically, the wife converts to her husband’s faith.) There is also a small Pentecostal community.

An octagon, the church is about 100 feet in diameter, with stone walls and a corrugated-steel roof supported by wooden beams. Jutting from the roof of the lantern, which floods the sanctuary with light, is a canopy painted the colors of the Ethiopian flag (red, yellow and green). At its pinnacle is an eight-pointed cross, with seven metal balls. The balls are rendered as ostrich eggs, which in Ethiopian tradition symbolize the unconfessed sins of the faithful. The spikes that impale the eggs symbolize the nails used to nail Jesus to the cross.

The church is divided into three concentric rings. The outer ring, called the choir, holds the congregation and the debtera, a semiclerical caste of scribes who, to the accompaniment of drums and dance, chant the hymns during the liturgy.

The choir is covered by a roof, but is otherwise open to the outside. The second ring, or holy place, also holds the congregation, segregated by gender. Often this area is reserved only for those receiving the Eucharist. The inner ring, or holy of holies, houses the altar on which rests a wooden coffer, or tabot, that enshrines a copy of the Ten Commandments.

As in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches, the walls of Medhane Alem are covered with murals illustrating Jesus’ baptism, his miracles, death and resurrection as well as images commemorating the life of the Virgin Mary and the saints. The final construction push, costing about $5,000, was to complete these murals, which are essential guides in teaching the Ethiopian Orthodox faith to a largely illiterate community.

Though CNEWA’s role in this and other projects in the area is important, community leaders say, credit for projects such as the construction of the church of Medhane Alem rests with the area’s residents who provided most of the labor and the funds. For them, the project, however long, has been well worth it.“I have been here since the start,” said Mogas Mekonnen, 61, a villager who also oversaw the construction of the church. “Slowly but surely, it has been completed.”

Sean Sprague traveled throughout Ethiopia last November on assignment for ONE.

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