By SHARON LASSELLE
How do you go about preparing for a Catholic mission trip to Ethiopia?
I was posed this question a few months ago during an initial conference call with the Catholic Relief Services’ outreach, “Called to Witness 2017 Ethiopia.”
The question gave me pause.
I was to join seven other Catholic youth leaders and CRS staff members from around the United States in traveling to Ethiopia this May. Our purpose is to listen, learn and observe life in parts of rural Ethiopia served by CRS.
For four months now we have been in spiritual preparation and discernment, but the real mission “begins when you return,” said CRS staff person Mikaele Sansone.
A recent TED talk by Pope Francis hits the heart of this delegation’s focus, and is available online.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (“being made one”) Christian Church is in full communion with the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church. This community encompasses most of the 60 percent Christian population of the country. Various Protestant congregations comprise a percent of the Christian population, and Roman Catholics make up an even smaller portion.
Most of the remaining 40 percent of the Ethiopian population is Muslim, with traditional animist beliefs coming in at about 3 percent.
Coptic Orthodox Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopian Orthodox Church its own patriarch in 1959. Saint Mark, to whom the gospel of Mark is attributed, brought Christianity to Copts (Egyptians) in the year 42. About 400 years later, long before the existence of Roman Catholicism or the East-West split in Christianity, this group was declared out of communion with the rest of Catholicism, over their belief regarding the nature of Christ (miaphysitic vs. diaphysitic nature, with erroneous accusations of Coptic belief in monophysitic nature; I won’t dare to give explanations but they are available on the internet).
Ethiopia was second in the world only to Armenia in adopting Christianity as its state religion in the year 330, and much of its populace was Christian well before that time.
That is the ancient history of the land. Today, however, human suffering there is immense. Just image if there were 15,050 orphaned children running, playing or languishing about the streets of Anchorage — filthy, hungry, ill-dressed and parenting one another? Imagine that AIDS, untreated illness, hunger, drought and war took both parents of five percent of the population of children. That has all happened in Ethiopia.
With an intimate account of one Ethiopian woman’s self-gift to the capital’s orphans, Melissa Fay Greene breaks open hearts and teaches us to love who we do not know in “There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Africa’s Children.” While she’s at it, like draping lace along her path, she constantly teaches about Ethiopia’s language and culture. Catholic Relief Services has been a long-time partner in Ethiopia’s plight with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Sister Niemala, of the Little Sisters of Jesus in Anchorage, spent 6 months in Ethiopia almost 2 years ago. “Ethiopians are majestic, beautiful people,” she told me. Ethiopia, she said, has a unique challenge: Refugees from all sides find asylum there. Sudanese, Somalis, Djiboutis, Eritreans and Ugandans all flee to Ethiopia, from their own national struggles.
After a presentation in Anchorage last month, I had the pleasure of meeting four young Ethiopian immigrants; their ages ranging from 17-21 — students of East High. They are lively, adorable, beautiful young women, wearing traditional garb as comfortably as if Anchorage were Ethiopia. As I gathered them with the other East High immigrant students, for a group photo, a phone was pressed into my free hand by an indistinguishable soul among the bodies. The unspoken assumption was that I would take a photo with the proffered phone. Their trust and zest matches that our native teens, and that also of the Mexican immigrants who were my students 26 years ago, in New Mexico. These 2014 Anchorage arrivals were quick to say yes when I asked if they might come meet our teens at St. Michael Church in Palmer after the CRS delegation returns home. The East High teacher accompanying them said that they volunteer all the time; it is something she encourages.
Coffee drinkers may be familiar with the Kaladi’s logo, a dancing goat. Legends vary about an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaladi (or Kaldi, or Khalid…) who discovered his goats noticeably active, prancing and dancing. He saw they had been eating red berries from an unfamiliar plant. Curious and intrigued, he tried the berries, loved the results and told local Sufi Islamic monks. Stories vary about the monks’ response, so you might enjoy search results over your next brew of these roasted beans, whether or not they come from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, where tradition says coffee was first brewed, and from where the word coffee derives. Should you place your next Amazon order while breathing in the aroma, consider logging into Smile.Amazon.com. There is no difference in signing in to your account; it simply allows your purchases to go toward charities, and Catholic Relief Services is on their list.
As nerves rise, the list of things yet to be done lengthens and the time remaining until my May 13 departure shortens, the three and a half month phase of voracious study and excitement has given way to increased prayer, rest and preparing to travel safely. We depart out of Baltimore, Maryland on Tuesday, May 16, and leave Ethiopia May 26. Your prayers for God’s will in this relational endeavor will be powerful.