Two recent events emphasized the ways that the power of prayer combined with relief and peacemaking work are energizing the mission of God in the Ethiopian context. The first of these was a Zoom conference on February 15th featuring President Desalegn Abebe of the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC), an Anabaptist denomination in Ethiopia with around 400,000 members. The second event was a visit to the Elkhart-Goshen area in the preceding days by Abayneh Anjulo, the Director of the MKC Mission, Evangelism, and Church Planting Department. By highlighting the remarks of Desalegn and Abeyneh during these events, I want to showcase how the MKC integrates prayer into its relief, peacebuilding, and church growth activities as a way of prioritizing its reliance on the Holy Spirit.
In the Zoom conference Desalegn discussed the current political climate in Ethiopia and shared updates on what God is doing in the country. This virtual conversation was organized by MC Canada for their monthly Church-to-Church Conversations, and specifically featured the Meserete Kristos Church. Norm Dyck, the Mission Minister at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, was the facilitator for the event. Doug Klassen, the Executive Minister of Mennonite Church Canada, also participated in the conversation.
During the Zoom conference, Desalegn discussed the Meserete Kristos Church’s response to the conflict in the northern region of Ethiopia. He explained that the church took several measures, including praying for peace and stability and raising funds for displaced people. Desalegn mentioned that “prayer is not just a program” for the Meserete Kristos Church members, but an integral part of their lives. The Meserete Kristos Church believes in the power of prayer and prays for everything and every situation. They do not limit themselves to any specific program or time but pray whenever the need arises.
Because of the conflict, they had to resort to unconventional methods to transfer funds to the affected areas. The church has so far sent approximately 260,000 USD, or nearly 14 million Ethiopian birrs, through the UN Charter to help those in need.
They also mobilized resources to provide essential items like blankets, oil, and flour, and used social media platforms to share short videos and audios with the displaced people.
Additionally, they reached out to the affected communities through phone calls to encourage them and offer support. Desalegn also shared that the church sent representatives, including himself, to visit affected churches and Christians when possible to offer words of encouragement and prayer. Again, they strongly believe that prayer is essential and have a strong commitment to individual and collective prayer.
Once Desalegn finished his presentation, Norm gave Doug the first opportunity to respond before opening up the floor to all Zoom participants for any questions or comments directed at Desalegn.
Doug thanked Desalegn for his presentation and offered appreciation for the determination of MKC through very turbulent political times, which he found inspiring. Doug mentioned that he talked with Norm saying, “We don’t need to talk a lot about Mennonite Church Canada today because we’re just so yearning to hear more of the MKC story.” He then asked Desalegn a question regarding the balance between doing justice work and evangelism, which has been a struggle in North America. He mentioned that there seems to be no polarity between the two in Ethiopia, and that the MKC is unified and holistic. He asked Desalegn to explain more about how the church balances the two and make decisions around them.
Desalegn expressed gratitude for Doug’s kind words before addressing the question. He acknowledged the challenge of balancing humanitarian aid and evangelism efforts within the church, as they can sometimes overlap or occur simultaneously. To address this, the MKC has provided training in peacebuilding and reconciliation to its church leaders. Additionally, the communal lifestyle present in Ethiopian society has been instrumental in supporting these efforts.
Desalegn went on to explain that social justice issues in the Ethiopian context can be intertwined with politics, which can create a complex dynamic. Because Ethiopian politics are rooted in ethnic divisions, and there is an ethnic-based political arrangement in the country, justice issues are often viewed through a lens of who benefits from them. However, the church focuses on humanity first and supporting individuals, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. They have intentionally avoided explicitly mentioning their faith to prevent it from being a barrier to providing assistance to those in need.
Desalegn also shared an example of the church’s work in supporting individuals in northern Ethiopia, where it provided a significant amount of financial aid to those in need. While church workers did not explicitly mention their faith in these efforts, they did pray with those they were supporting. He emphasized that their ultimate goal is to support and help people in need, and that their faith guides their actions, even if it is not explicitly mentioned.
Desalegn reminded the participants that the MK church is a missional church, and that all believers are encouraged to share the good news of their faith in their workplace and in their daily lives by living according to the teachings of the Bible. He emphasized that in this way, all believers are missionaries. The church also engages in intentional and strategic missional outreach with the participation of all local church members. However, prayer is the most important aspect of their mission work. They pray for their country and its people, asking God to be with them and to draw them closer to Him through the Holy Spirit.
During his presentation, Desalegn mentioned that the church has been growing at a rate of 7% per year. However, their goal is to achieve a growth rate of 10%. To facilitate this growth, they limit their congregations to 500 members, so that once the congregation reaches this size, they can establish another outreach center. This strategy helps to ensure that the church continues to expand and reach more people.
Doug asked Desalegn to reflect on how leadership recruitment and training and, specifically, the work of the Meserete Kristos Seminary (Bishoftu, Ethiopia) might contribute to this vision of church growth.
Desalegn acknowledged the challenge of training leaders, emphasizing that leadership is fundamental to the church’s mission. He noted that the church is currently trying to transition part-time ministers into full-time ministry while maintaining unity, which has been difficult. Desalegn admitted that the church’s pastors are not yet where the church would like them to be in terms of leadership capacity and is working to fill the gaps through short-term training. The church has one regional Bible College and many local Bible schools, which offer three-month or three-week courses covering a range of contemporary issues. The focus on short-term training is due to the fact that sending pastors for three years of formal training would delay ministry and cause leadership gaps. Although the MKC is working on long-term formal training for pastors, it is also concentrating on updating lead pastors’ leadership skills through short-term training. Desalegn concluded that the church is trying to close the gap by training their lead pastors in the short term.
In response to a question from a participant about the church’s prison ministry, Desalegn demonstrated once again how the church’s mission work is woven into its identity and how evangelism and social activism are closely integrated.
“In Ethiopia, we have a total of 134 prisons,” Desalegn explained. “Of these, we have access to minister in 33 of them. In our country, if a person is suspected of a crime and sentenced to prison, their children are often allowed to stay with them. This means that many children are living in prison alongside their parents. As part of our prison ministry, we focus on caring for these children by providing them with food, a kindergarten program, clothes, and sanitary materials.” Desalegn’s response shed light on how the church’s prison ministry seeks to address the complex needs of those who are incarcerated, including the children who are often overlooked in traditional approaches to criminal justice.
Desalegn went on to explain how the church’s prison ministry provides social support and practical skills training to incarcerated individuals, in addition to building chapels in the prisons where prisoners can receive counseling and guidance. “We try to keep them busy while they’re in prison by providing technical skills training, such as woodworking,” he said. “We also provide basic necessities like socks, sanitary materials, and groceries, as well as educational materials like books.” The church’s chapels also serve as a place where inmates can seek guidance from those who are familiar with the country’s legal system. However, Desalegn acknowledged that the ministry is not without its challenges. “We have to be accountable to the government and other officials who help us gain access to prisons to do our work,” he noted. “But because we have been doing this for a long time and have a proven track record of positive outcomes, many government officials know us and trust our work.” Desalegn’s explanation highlighted how the church’s prison ministry operates within a complex system of legal and government regulations, while still providing vital support and guidance to those who are incarcerated.
Desalegn explained that the church’s prison ministry also focuses on facilitating the conservation between the victim and offenders. “We believe in the power of bringing together the victim and the offender,” he said. “Before an inmate finishes their time and rejoins the community, we facilitate a conversation between the offender and the victim to see if there is a sense of guilt and remorse for the harm that was caused. We encourage the offender to apologize, and we work with the victim and their family to seek forgiveness toward the offender.” This process is carried out using traditional conflict resolution methods that involve church elders and community leaders. By emphasizing the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, the church’s prison ministry seeks to promote healing and restore relationships between those who have been affected by crime. Desalegn’s explanation demonstrated how the ministry approaches criminal justice in a holistic and compassionate manner, with an eye toward healing and reconciliation.
Attending this Zoom call was an additional blessing for me, as I earlier had the opportunity to be with Abayneh Anjulo, the Director of the MK Church Missions, Evangelism, and Church Planting Department, during his visit to Goshen and Elkhart on February 11-13, 2023. I was fortunate to hear Abayneh as he shared about what God is doing in Ethiopia through the MK Church and its missional approach, which prioritizes caring for people above everything else. The themes of prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit stood out strongly to me as I listened to Abayneh’s presentations at Mennonite Mission Network, AMBS, and with local Goshen/ Elkhart pastors from the EVANA network. Finally, when he preached at Pleasant View Church in Goshen, Indiana, I was moved by his message.
One of the most striking things about hearing from MKC leaders about what God is doing in Ethiopia is the way that they always emphasize the importance of prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their work. While this emphasis may be difficult for some people in the global North to fully grasp, the leaders in Ethiopia do not rely on church structures or strategic plans to guide their activities. Instead, they focus on maintaining a mindset of humility and openness to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is moving in their midst. This approach enables them to be fully present and engaged in all of the church’s activities with the community. By emphasizing the power of prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, the MKC leaders demonstrate a deep faith in God’s presence and guidance in their ministry.
We do not just use the phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you” when we want to offer support during difficult times. Instead, we engage in acts of genuine prayer. The MK Church leadership teams and all MKC believers regularly retreat to their rooms, close the door, and seek solace with God. They also come together as a community of believers, seeking God’s intervention in their complex situations and asking God to guide them in their work. We can take comfort in the knowledge that God hears our prayers and responds accordingly. I recently learned about a nonstop prayer “revival” in Kentucky that’s gone viral on TikTok, with people traveling thousands of miles to take part. While I found this fascinating, I also wished I could showcase the reliance of the Ethiopian church on the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit, as well as their frequent prayers and fasts to seek God’s presence and guidance. There are negative stereotypes of Africa, as if people there are poor, uncivilized, and untrustworthy. The reality is much different, as our African brothers and sisters have much of value to share with the rest of the world!
At the core of the MK Church leadership team’s approach is the recognition that their power and guidance come from above, through the work of the Holy Spirit. This early realization led the team to prioritize prayer as a central component of their work. While they do have organizational strategies in place, these are seen as secondary to the importance of seeking guidance and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. This approach highlights the importance of relying on God in all situations, rather than simply relying on our own analytical skills and resources. Perhaps this is the most important lesson we can learn from the MK church leadership team – the importance of seeking God’s guidance earnestly in all aspects of our lives. By doing so, we can tap into a source of power and wisdom that goes beyond our own limited human abilities.