A newsletter for friends of the Global Mission Institute, Luther Seminary

Global Vision - Spring 2011

View more articles in the Spring 2011 issue.

Ethiopian Students at Luther Seminary Continue Time-Honored Tradition

by Angela Busch, M.Div. Middler

Ethiopian international students Galgalo Elema and Gemechis Feyisa talk with Luther Seminary professor Guillermo Hansen at the 2010 GMI Donor Dinner.

Can you see Ethiopia? No, not those hazy magazine photographs from the terrible famine of 1984-85, the starving children with their wide eyes, the Live Aid concert, civil war, men in battle fatigues, Rastafarians and Emperor Haile Selassie.

Can you see Ethiopia?

Three thousand years ago, this rich land of plateaus, mountains, desert and grasslands, of giraffes, warthogs, baboons and camels, this land was part of a glorious kingdom. The Queen of Sheba reigned here; her visit to King Solomon is recorded in 2 Kings. An Ethiopian epic, the Kebra Nagast says Solomon's line continued here. Some believe the Ark of the Covenant rests here.

One thousand years later, an Ethiopian eunuch read Isaiah, listened to the Apostle Philip tell him of the Good News about Jesus, and finally the Ethiopian said: "Look here is water! What is there to prevent me from being baptized? ... And he went on his way rejoicing." Acts 8:36.

Ethiopia, the Bible tells us, is a land of great faith.

Bringing this Land of Great Faith to the U.S.

Today, we can see Ethiopia as near as Luther Seminary in the international students from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, EECMY officially the second-largest Lutheran church body in the world, and one that grew by one million members from 2002-07 and currently consists of about five million members.

In this issue, we profile four international students from the EECMY who are studying at Luther Seminary:

  • Dinku Bato, a second-year Ph.D. student
  • Etana Debel, a first-year Ph.D. student
  • Galgalo Elema, a Master of Arts senior
  • Gemechis Feyisa, a Master of Arts senior 

As Ethiopia is nearly 8,000 miles away from the United States, we may never hear the sounds of a begena at worship, never see the 8 and 9-year-old boys herding the goats to dry land in the great nomadic migrations, never scrape the stem and bury the leaves of a false banana. But through the faith testaments of these Ethiopian church leaders, Luther Seminary students can, in fact, see Ethiopia. By having these leaders of this church present in their daily lives, the Luther Seminary community is blessed to be able to learn from them about of one of the fastest growing Lutheran churches in the world.

A Lasting Legacy of Faith

Ethiopia and its great faith did not die 2,000 years ago with the Ethiopian eunuch. At a time when many mainline American seminary students and church leaders—lay and ordained—face dwindling membership, sometimes-apathetic congregations, and a hesitancy to change, the Mekane Yesus church represents a renaissance of sorts. You can't help being reminded of Pentecost.

"We (students) cannot pass a night without prayer," says Etana Debel, a first year Ph.D. student in history of Christianity. And so, every night the four students come together to pray as a group and share a meal, alternating cooking duties each week.

"I love to sing. I love to pray," says the Rev. Gemechis Feyisa, an M.A. senior in systematic theology, whose father was imprisoned because of his evangelical Christian faith. "For Lutherans, the cross reminds us that we have to pass through hardships (as we live out our faith). This is what Christianity means to us. (Even in the struggles), it is still a happy time. (As hard as it may be to believe), people were singing when they were being beaten and imprisoned."

"The day I visited the church, it was not what I expected. It was a new experience for me, a very life-changing experience for me," says Galgalo Elema, an M.A. senior in congregational mission and leadership. "The Holy Spirit was changing my life that moment I heard the sermon that day. I still remember the text: John 18".

"My father, one of the first generation of evangelical Christians and Lutheran pastors in Ethiopia, was
so appreciative of the grace he received through the missionaries from the German Hermannsburg Mission preaching the gospel," says the Rev. Dinku Bato, a second-year Ph.D. student in congregational mission and leadership.

The German Hermannsburg Mission was present in Aira, Bato's father's birth place, located in the western part of Ethiopia, since 1928. Bato describes the community his father lived in as being an "arid spiritual landscape." So, for Bato's father, "the good news and glad tidings (brought by these missionaries) was like an oasis or rather a platzregen (a sweeping thundershower and downpour) in a desert. (It) dramatically changed his life."

Preparing to be Leaders in the Ethiopian Church

Although all of these students made sacrifices to come to Luther Seminary, including leaving family and, for some, children, behind in Ethiopia, they continue a long, time-honored connection between Luther Seminary and Mekane Yesus.

All students mentioned this tradition and their pride to be at Luther after so many leaders of Mekane Yesus, including some of their professors in Ethiopia, had studied at Luther. Most frequently, they mentioned and spoke with great emotion about Luther Seminary alum Gudina Tumsa (M. Div. 1966). Tumsa, leader of Mekane Yesus during the Ethiopian Revolution, was martyred on July 28, 1979 by the revolutionary government of Ethiopia. He was awarded post-humously Luther's Christus Lux Mundi award in 2004.

"I'm proud to land where Tumsa came," Feyisa said.

While the Ethiopian students come to Luther to learn from the tradition and scholarship of the Western Lutheran faith, they bring with them the energy and passion of a church that is growing and changing into the 21st century, along with a certain awareness of the Holy Spirit that has sometimes been neglected in European mainline traditions.

They help us see Ethiopia, but it's more than that. In them we see, together with ourselves, the Body of Christ.

Learn more about Dinku Bato, Etana Debel, Galgalo Elema and Gemechis Feyisa by reading their profiles