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A church on the move

2.1. 2012 698 Times read

The Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia has shown great growth.

Back in 1967, when Vera and I first arrived in Ethiopia, we found a committed core of 13 Eastern Mennonite Mission (EMM) couples and 12 single missionaries engaged in two mission-founded hospitals, a major Christian bookstore, a few elementary schools, a boarding high school and a Christian publishing company. The emergence of an autonomous Meserete Kristos Church of 600 members organized into five congregations was a calculated byproduct of their unrelenting efforts at living as Christian servants where proselytizing was strictly forbidden.

Delegates at the 2010 assembly of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Photo provided

Delegates at the 2010 assembly of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Photo provided

Forty-four years later, Vera and I are the last of a genre of EMM workers in Ethiopia. The others have long since gone. Their byproduct remains, like seeds well planted, in the vibrant life of a vigorous church on the move that now numbers 591 congregations and 863 church-planting centers composed of 205,508 baptized members in a total faith community of 389,492. This past year alone 17,345 people were baptized.

The Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) is organized into 27 regions spread throughout a country of 80 million (about the size of Ontario, or twice the size of Texas). Each region has its own regional office that coordinates the ministries of its outlying congregations. These include evangelism and outreach programs, pastoral care and leadership concerns, grass-roots religious educational programs and stewardship concerns.

The MKC central office in Addis Ababa gives general oversight to all 27 regions and administers special programs in collaboration with the regions. Those programs include education, evangelism and missions, translation and production of important materials into local languages, peace and reconciliation, prison ministries, women’s ministry, and relief and development. The ministry of the Meserete Kristos Church is focused around six basic commitments.

Pastor Frew Zena gives the keynote address at the 2010 assembly of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Photo provided

Pastor Frew Zena gives the keynote address at the 2010 assembly of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Photo provided

First and foremost, the Meserete Kristos Church is committed to be a witnessing church. It continues to make the Great Commission its primary calling. Its Evangelism and Missions Department encourages congregations to reach out and establish “daughter” congregations. It supports 386 missionaries/church planters.

It collaborates with regional offices and congregations in supporting 252 church planters, sharing salary costs at 75 percent the first year, 50 percent the second year and 25 percent the third year. It provides full support for 109 missionaries to work within the country in places where there is no church. It also encourages 25 local church planters who support themselves. The department also gives short training to 100 international “tentmaking” missionaries who take jobs in neighboring countries. Some of these are quasi-clandestine operations, the details of which are kept secret due to security reasons.

Second, MKC is committed to be a teaching church. Since it was born in the nest of missionary-founded Bible schools and elementary schools and the Nazareth Bible Academy, the church remains committed to biblically based education. Even during the days of Marxist persecution, when all those institutions were lost, secret home-cell churches were nourished by carefully prepared lesson guides to their Bible studies.

Since 1994, to safeguard and consolidate and unite its leadership in a commonly held Anabaptist theological stance, MKC has developed the Meserete Kristos College as its national college, which now offers baccalaureate as well as diploma programs in Bible and Christian ministry. With financial support from hundreds of partners in the first world, the college has provided scholarships for more than 100 evangelists and pastors. It has already graduated 474 people from its various programs, leaders who already make a huge difference in their churches and communities.

Also, in collaboration with Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., the college offers graduate studies to 25 leaders who have earlier completed first degrees. Professors teach intensive courses each summer. The 25 students sacrifice their annual vacations from their places of service to advance their knowledge and skills through this disciplined summer study.

Further, seven of the more mature Regional Offices have launched local Bible Institutes offering Bible & ministry training on the post secondary diploma level to several hundred local leaders on weekends. Curriculum and qualifications of teachers are monitored by the Meserete Kristos College at Debre Zeit which grants the diploma and of which most of the teachers are graduates.

Third, MKC is committed to be a giving church. Although in one of the poorest countries in the world, all members are expected to bring a tithe of their income, no matter how small, to their local church office. Members also bring offerings to worship services on Sundays. Yet with the majority of members students or youth not yet employed, and those few fortunate enough to have jobs receiving low wages, church income is still small. A tithe of a little is little indeed.

With the annual income from all tithes and offerings from congregations this past year, the churches support 1,439 full-time ministers (pastors, evangelists, missionaries and teachers) and 1,282 support staff, pay administrative expenses and build or improve church facilities. Funds from outside help support some of the 386 missionaries and church planters.

Poverty is felt in the case of MKC leadership deciding to build a five-story central office building in Addis Ababa to house its head office with the intention of renting out several floors to generate income to assist its ongoing ministries. It will take many years to complete what could be completed in one year, were $1 million available. Congregations building houses of worship face the same dilemma as they commit themselves to build as money becomes available.

Fourth, the Meserete Kristos Church is committed to be a compassionate church. It engages in a holistic ministry to a society in great need. Its Relief and Development Association (MKC-RDA) operates as a semiautonomous branch of the head office, administers more than 65 projects to alleviate poverty (famine relief, food security, child and youth development, HIV-AIDS-related ministries, and conflict management and peace building). It employs more than 300 people and has an annual budget of $3.7 million supplied by international nongovernment agencies such as Mennonite Central Committee and others.

RDA’s vision is for “a poverty-free and transformed Ethiopian society where economic, social and spiritual needs are met and sustained for successive generations.” Its mission is “to glorify God by addressing basic and spiritual needs of rural and urban communities in a sustainable manner through tackling the root causes of poverty.”

RDA is committed to working with and empowering local communities to feed the hungry and destitute through famine relief and food or cash-for-work programs; to improve food security by soil enrichment and conservation through composting, terrace building and tree planting; to improve community health through basic education, protecting water sources, teaching sanitation and the use of latrines, and improving nutrition; to reduce the prevalence and spread of HIV-AIDS through education and providing medications and assistance to its victims; to provide educational opportunities through the creation or improvement of schools for the children and providing functional adult literacy programs; to enable the poorest children to get primary and secondary education through child sponsorship projects administered by local congregations and funded by international nongovernment organizations such as World Vision, Compassion International and others; to promote the development of self-help groups among the most destitute and marginalized population, especially among women and the disabled; and to encourage harmonious living within the community through peace building and conflict resolution training and promoting restorative justice practices.

Fifth, MKC is committed to visiting those in prison. Its prison ministry began in 1993, when prisoners at Jimma read MKC’s magazine, Miskir (Witness) and wrote to the church for help. Today, MKC’s prison ministry works in 40 of the nation’s 125 prisons. This ministry follows a holistic approach, meeting spiritual and humanitarian needs. In 15 prisons they have placed full-time ministers who evangelize, teach, counsel, lead Bible studies, give discipleship training and lead the congregations that have formed in the prisons. In 25 prisons, the ministry serves by regular visitation, counseling, giving discipleship training, supplying Bibles, tracts, magazines, books, newspapers and distributing used clothing. In some prisons the ministry builds latrines, dormitories for women and their dependent small children, and even chapels for worship. It also establishes kindergartens for the children who live with their incarcerated mothers. Congregations have emerged in most of these prisons. In some of the prisons more than one half of the prisoners are now committed Christians.

Many prisoners are enrolled in biblical courses through distance education on the certificate level. Last year alone, 30 prisoners graduated with certificates.

The MKC Prison Ministry’s goal is to bring transformation in the lives of prisoners mentally, spiritually, ethically, physically and socially. It hopes to see criminals transformed to become productive citizens committed to promoting peace and justice in their communities and to reduce and prevent crime in Ethiopia. It seeks to give a practical education to all prisoners in areas such as work ethics, government and citizenship responsibilities, human rights, mental health, children’s physical and mental development and the role of parents, HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention, peace and justice and reconciliation, and forgiveness as an alternative to revenge killing.
In some northern Ethiopian regions, because of the cultural practice of revenge killing, men in the community feel compelled to take revenge when a loved one is murdered and because of “honor” become “murderers.” In some prisons, up to two-thirds of the prisoners are “murderers.”

Since 2007, God has used the teaching on peace and justice and reconciliation to address this problem. Some regional government officials have asked MKC’s Prison Ministry and its Peace Office to bring this teaching from the prisons to their local community elders, religious leaders (both Ethiopian Orthodox and Muslim), law enforcement and judicial officials, and government officials. Consequently, in these northern regions, where the name “Meserete Kristos Church” was hated and opposed as “an evil, dangerous alien religion,” it is now welcomed because of its teaching on peace and restorative justice and reconciliation, a teaching seen as the key to the prevention of crime, especially revenge killing.

Even though the MKC Prison Ministry has an annual budget of $35,360 and only four full-time workers in the head office and 15 full-time ministers, it is active in 40 prisons. The constraint in resources is a huge challenge. The current budget is met by private donations and special offerings of willing congregations. But expansion of the work to the other 85 prisons requires an expansion of resources.

And finally, MKC is committed to be a peacemaking church. Its holistic concept of the church’s ministry includes one of reconciliation between the individual and God and between one another as well as working for peace in a society torn by conflict. Its Peace Ministry was begun in 2005 as a positive byproduct of an internal church conflict that started in 2002 and ended in 2003. As a result of the conflict, MKC leaders became more aware of the fragility of unity and the dangers and possibilities for disaster that conflict can bring to an otherwise healthy church. Fortunately, by God’s grace, the conflict was resolved through internal mediation. This became a lesson that made the leadership receptive to the idea of establishing a Peace Ministry.

The first responsibility of the Peace Ministry was to create awareness throughout the denomination’s leadership of the centrality and importance of living together in peace and harmony, the possibility of viewing conflict as a potentially positive growth factor and learning the techniques of transforming conflict into a resolution that brings health and positive growth to personal and institutional relationships.

The leadership began with peacebuilding seminars and retreats, first with about 80 key leaders from all over the country, then holding a peace conference for more than 500 delegates to the 2006 General Assembly of MKC, with Carl Stauffer as guest peace facilitator. Mennonite Central Committee Ethiopia also assisted by sending 11 peace change agents to be trained at Africa Peace Institute in Zambia. In addition, 50 key leaders from different ministries in the church have been trained in stress and trauma healing. Further, 50 key leaders from different regions and the MKC head office have been trained in managing group dynamics.

Since that time, the Peace Office has prepared training manuals for peace committee membership and for conflict transformation and peacebuilding, restorative justice, stress and trauma healing, and HIV-AIDS awareness. With these preparations and materials, the Peace Ministry is gearing up to transform MKC into a true historic peace church.
MKC is also contributing to the promotion of peacemaking as an integral part of the Christian ministry by offering a peace minor with its bachelor’s degree in Bible and Christian ministries. This has become popular with students. A new teacher, Fekadu Negussie, having just graduated with a master’s degree in peace studies from Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, has joined the teaching faculty to strengthen this emphasis.
As one especially privileged to look back and remember the small fledgling church of 44 years ago and see its vigorous and determined growth and its increasing impact on the society, we can joyously marvel how MKC is truly a church on the move. One can only speculate and pray that the momentum will continue and increase until the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge and the glory of God.

Carl and Vera Hansen serve as volunteers at Meserete Kristos College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Vera works in the college as librarian, and Carl is a lecturer and director of college advancement. They are members of Harrisonburg (Va.) Mennonite Church.

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