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Global Vision - Spring 2011

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International Student Profile

Ethiopian Students at Luther Seminary

by Angela Busch, M.Div. Middler

Luther Seminary welcomes several 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 of these international students from the EECMY who are studying at Luther Seminary:

Dinku Bato  |  Etana Debel  |  Galgalo Elema  |  Gemechis Feyisa

Dinku Bato, Ph.D. Second Year, Congregational Mission and Leadership

The Rev. Dinku L. Bato comes from one of the early Lutheran families in the Mekane Yesus Church. His mother was baptized and grew up Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, while his father's family practiced the traditional Oromo religion.

After his father, Lamessa Bato, heard the gospel message from the German Hermannsburg missionaries who had served in his birth place since 1928, he joined the Mekane Yesus Church. Later he was called to be a pastor and eventually was ordained with the revered Ethiopian martyr Gudina Tumsa, ('66), the 2004 recipient of Luther Seminary's Christus Lux Mundi award  

Bato's father was deeply inspired by Tumsa's ability to translate the theology he learned from Western theologians such as Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer into an Ethiopian context, and went on to do the same for the EECMY by writing and publishing the first Oromo Christian spiritual songs based on Oromo musical folklore.

"He was so appreciative of the grace he received that he continued spreading it on in many ways (preaching, singing and playing music) in many places in his native land," Bato said of his father.

Bato was inspired in much the same way, taking his knowledge from church school to volunteer as a youth leader for Mekane Yesus at Addis Ababa University, where he did his undergraduate and graduate studies in social sciences.

After spending time working as a social worker in an orphanage, he was called to be a youth pastor at his home congregation and was ordained. He worked as a national coordinator of the Mekane Yesus University Student Ministry (EECMY-USM) from 1998-2009, and then had a chance to come to Luther to earn the Ph.D. degree.

While Bato's home congregation at Entoto (Addis Ababa), has struggled without him there—seeking to merge two congregations in two different languages, Amharic and Oromo—Bato keeps faith in his hope that his time at Luther will influence him positively, just as it did Tumsa, who returned to Ethiopia (amidst the terror and suffering of the Ethiopian Revolution) energized after earning his M. Div. at Luther Seminary in 1966.

In the meantime, Bato hopes to continue his ministry in Minnesota.

"I want to represent my church in this place," Bato said, speaking also of his research work and ministry with the Ethiopian diaspora in the Twin Cities. "Some people you thought were dead, they're here in the diaspora. Finding that community helped me a lot and gave me purpose in my Ph.D. program. I want to explore how this particular diaspora community lives missionally here in the Twin Cities and the United States at large."

Etana Debel, Ph.D., First Year, History of Christianity

While he grew up in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian family, no one in Etana Debel's family had ever understood the words of the Lord's Prayer or the 10 Commandments. That's because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still worships in Ge'ez, an ancient language that is not spoken currently, except in the liturgy of the church.

Debel's parents spoke the Oromo language. Although they were baptized, and Etana was baptized into the Orthodox faith as an infant, the liturgical language meant nothing to them.

Etana's parents first heard the message of the gospel in their own language when Etana was just a young boy.

"They didn't have a strong faith before that. But my father got such an impression when he heard the gospel," Etana said. "They walked three hours on foot to go listen to the gospel (at an evangelical congregation). My father was very happy."

Because his parents hadn't gotten the chance to go to school as children, the task of reading the gospel fell to Etana at just age 7.

"My father taught me the Lord's Prayer and the 10 Commandments by heart," Etana remembered. "And I wrote them (down) for him."

It was, to Etana and his parents, a treasure to hold in their hands, the gospel on paper—eventually even an Oromo Bible. For the first time God seemed to speak directly to them.

Lit by the Spirit, Etana's father helped start an evangelical congregation nearer to the family's home, and Etana's faith was nourished there. He continued to volunteer at churches throughout his life, even while working as an elementary school teacher. Then in 1992, the Central Synod of Mekane Yesus called Debel to Mekane Yesus Seminary, where he earned a bachelor of theology and went on to work as a teacher in a bible college, where he also served as academic dean, until being called again by the Central Synod to study in Norway at the School of Mission and Theology, where he earned the Masters of Philosophy degree and taught and served as dean and director.

Surrounded by professors who spoke glowingly of Luther Seminary, Debel taught at Mekane Yesus Seminary from Feb. 2004-Aug. 2010, where he also served as academic dean of theology from July 2004-June 2008. In August 2010, he got his chance to come to Luther Seminary, the end result of much prayer, faithfulness, and the reading and writing of a small boy in the Ethiopian countryside.

Galgalo Elema, M.A. Senior, Congregational Mission and Leadership

Thirty-some odd years ago, you might have seen Galgalo Elema in a National Geographic photo spread about Africa: just a young boy then, surrounded by a huge herd of young calves, gathering them together; responsible, shy, growing up amidst the wildlife and unpredictability of a nomadic tribe in Borana, Ethiopia.

He was the youngest of nine children, raised by parents who practiced the traditional African animist religions He says his tribe was among the most traditional of the eldest Oromo clans. He had no opportunity for education.

Then, at age 13, his brother whisked him into the city.

"He enticed me," Elema remembers, smiling. "He showed me money and new clothes."

While Elema's parents were upset at first, they allowed him to continue living with his brother and attending school in town. Galgalo says he loved his education from the beginning, studying hard enough to complete his first six years of school in four years. In ninth grade, when he was 15, his brother also found him a placement at a hostel sponsored by Mekane Yesus.

Part of the hostel's tradition was to teach Bible to all students.

"I didn't want to go to that," Elema said. "I felt it was an obligation."

But a classmate convinced him, after much debate, to finally attend a church service. That was when Elema's life changed forever. When he heard the choir sing and the preacher explain John 18 he knew the Holy Spirit was active.

"I started confirmation classes and joined the children's choir right away," he said. "I thought I should be like those people there singing."

His faith continued to blossom throughout college, where he led Bible studies and witnessed to Christ in every available situation, including the cafeteria. While the government only gave him an option to attend an agricultural college, he nonetheless earned a teaching degree, continued his involvement with local congregations, and finally was given a chance to study theology at the Mekane Yesus Seminary for four years.

After that, he returned to the hostel as director, and then was given a scholarship to attend Luther Seminary in August 2009. While his mother, now age 82, still worries that her son is going against the traditional religions, she frequently peppers her youngest son with theological questions. And while Elema was the first in his family to embrace Christianity, after his influence, three of his brothers have now become Christians.

Gemechis Feyisa, M.A. Senior, Systematic Theology

Many students around Luther Seminary might notice the Rev. Gemechis Feyisa for his urban-esque style: the fitted leather jacket or Western-style shirts. But they might not know that this second-year M.A. international student from Ethiopia loves most of all to sing, beginning his church leadership life as a choir member.

Feyisa's father, Bekele, was a pastor in the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus for 40 years, and Gemechis grew up with his family praying and singing in a house church. During his father's ministry, it was difficult for Christians who, like those in Mekane Yesus, weren't members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

"It was the dark time," said Feyisa, remembering a military dictatorship, persecution, and hunger.

His father, who grew up as a young child in the traditional African religions but heard Evangelical preaching and embraced the gospel from a young age with his parents, was often stopped by government agents. When Feyisa was young, his father was imprisoned several times, even beaten. Feyisa remembers watching church members singing and praising God even while they were beaten.

"That was the time of dark ... but even so it was a happy time for Christians," Feyisa said. "To us this is what Christianity is."

Growing up in the Western Synod of the EECMY, Feyisa ended up serving as an elder of his home congregation Bodji Dermji, and eventually his synod ordained him and then sent him to Luther Seminary for further training. He will graduate this spring with an M.A. in systematic theology.

While he has seen first-hand the terrifying costs of preaching the gospel, Feyisa seems only strengthened by his father's imprisonment and his fellow Christians' persecution.

"We go to church in Ethiopia because of hope," he said. "What we see is the hope of the future. It is not contained to physical needs, of which we have many. Our hope is tied to Christ."