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Being hospitable half a world away

The shifting locus of world Lutheranism

The vitality of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia, very specifically one Lutheran congregation in Addis Ababa, and most specifically that congregation’s aggressive mission outreach, were uplifting eye-openers for 17 visitors from Minnesota, including members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.

Among 5.3 million Ethiopian Lutherans are the members of one congregation, Mekane Yesus Kotebe, in Addis Ababa, whose pastor is Rev. Soboka Tesso. The Kotebe congregation on its own has planted nine self-supporting congregations and another seven preaching points (not yet self-supporting). Moreover, the nine self-supporting spinoffs have themselves started eight other congregations. That’s a total of 24 congregations. (Does any Lutheran congregation in the U.S. come remotely close to such a church planting record?)

Pastor Tesso is tall, lean, 50ish, and soft-spoken — almost resembling Ghandi with his round eyeglasses. He is constantly on the move. He recalls starting Mekane Yesus Kotebe congregation in the 1970s, with three persons attending the first worship service, along with a penny-and-a-half offering.

Megersa Kumbi

Those early years were particularly tough on him. He suffered imprisonment, and life-threatening ulcer attacks, during Communist occupation.

The visiting Minnesotans learned about, and spent several days with, the people of three new preaching points serving the poorest of the poor that the Kotebe congregation has formed in a rural area called Yerer. Yerer, named for a nearby mountain that is still a focus of worship for some followers of a witch doctor, is a 10-by-10-square-mile rural area about 20 miles south of Addis Ababa.

Despite its proximity to Addis Ababa, the area has no electricity, no mechanized vehicles, no roads, with virtually all residents living on whatever they can raise on one-acre plots. Lacking funds, families often keep their children out of school to help with chores.

One Yerer preaching point already has its own one-story concrete block building, about 24’ x 32’, into which more 100 worshippers are crammed. Three miles in one direction, another preaching point is partly completed. Families at that site are worshiping in a one-room home, pending completion of the building. Three miles in another direction, Kotebe has just acquired land for its third Yerer preaching point.

Local organization assists Ethiopia’s vulnerable people

Kotebe congregation maintains an evangelistic staff of about 10 men in their 20s and 30s. The church is a key participant in HMCHA, a multi-denominational organization with boards both in Ethiopia and Minnesota, a unique model that shares power in a manner that does not cause it to be an American-led group.

HMCHA stands for Holistic Ministry of the Children of the Horn of Africa. Its main activity is inviting Christians in the U.S. to provide financial assistance to poor families in Yerer. HMCHA sponsored the trip for Minnesotans so they could see the results of the congregation’s mission efforts for themselves.

Kotebe evangelists identify poor families whose children have not been enrolled in school. Sponsors are asked to contribute $1 a day, or $360 a year. In return a family accepting the funds agrees to send a non-attending child to school. The Ethiopian government maintains schools in the area, but attendance is voluntary.

The visitors learned these key messages:

1. The need for help is great, financially and spiritually. Most families have no jobs; they live mainly off what they can grow on their small plots of land. Most children don’t attend school. There is competition with adherents to Islam and with witch doctor religion.

2. The mission is being carried out very effectively. Persons making financial gifts can be assured that HMCHA and Kotebe are very responsible and demonstrating real success.

3. Donors can realize immediate, specific impact because of their gifts. Sponsoring a child with a gift of $1 a day, or $360 a year, will guarantee the child will now be enrolled in school and that the child’s family will receive valuable economic assistance, along with training in financial management.

Before the visit, Minnesotans were sponsoring 16 children in Yerer. In the first two months after the trip, donors from Minnesota provided at least 12 additional sponsorships.

Megersa Kumbi, founder of HMCHA and resident of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, came to the U.S. to attend Luther Seminary. He graduated with both M.A. and M.Th. degrees in 2004.

A Christian nation

About 60 percent of the population of Ethiopia is Christian. The dominant Christian denomination is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its roots going back perhaps to the 4th century.

While the Lutheran church in Ethiopia might be small relative to the Orthodox church, its position relative to the country’s population substantially exceeds that of the U.S. The Lutheran church in Ethiopia — officially called the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) — is large and growing. With about 5.3 million Lutherans in a total population of 82 million, a substantially higher percentage of Ethi-opians are Lutheran, about 6.5 percent, than is the case for the U.S., with 7.5 million Lutherans out of a total population of 311 million, or about 2.4 percent.

For more information, contact Kumbi at 763/503-9057 or go to http://www.hmcha.org/.

Paul Gilje lives in Burnsville, Minnesota. He is a member of the HMCHA board.

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