Young people in Ethiopia seek to experience deep spiritual knowledge, says Gemechu Bekele Lemu, Christian Life Community co-ordinator in Addis Ababa. Photo by Michael Swan.

Ethiopians yearn for religious experience

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  • September 26, 2015

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - Ethiopia is not like the rest of Africa. Just ask an Ethiopian.

Ethiopians cook the hottest food in Africa, endure the coldest rainy season, speak the most languages and brag they have no significant history of being anyone’s colony. The Italians moved in and called themselves colonial masters for six years, but most Ethiopians were barely aware of their presence in the late 1930s.

This was never a mission country. Christianity was introduced in the first century and its rulers declared the Ethiopian empire officially Christian early in the fourth century. The country is still almost two-thirds Christian.

Christians have lived side by side and at peace with Muslims since Mohammed and a few dozen of his followers fled persecution in Mecca and found refuge under the Christian emperor of the Kingdom of Aksum. Today Muslims are a third of the population and Harar is still one of the four pilgrimage cities of Islam.

Catholics are a tiny part of the mix — 0.8 per cent of the population, just over 800,000 people. Capuchin Franciscan Father Tilaye Alemeshet, rector of Addis Ababa’s Catholic seminary, is an expert in the Ethiopian Easternrite liturgy and is well aware of the huge numbers in the corresponding Orthodox Church — 40 million Orthodox Christians, 700,000 clergy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. But numbers are not his measure of success.

“Our goal is not increasing our number or competing with other communities. We want to really serve any human person here. And we do it in different ways,” he said. “As long as we work for the Kingdom of God, our wish is that people will see our work and our service and give glory to God.”

As far as Tilaye can see, the great rush in recent years into Pentecostal and Evangelical churches has had little effect on the Catholic population. In just two generations the Protestants have grown from insignificance to 18.5 per cent of the population.

“I’m not sure that they really find a satisfying answer to their questions about the meaning of life. It has become a fashion. They enjoy it, but after a while they question whether they have found an answer,” he said. “Some of them turn back.”

The spiritual search among Ethiopians is much wider than the extraordinary numbers of ordinations, the crowds of sisters running schools, orphanages and parish programs, the crosses around every other neck and the students and office workers in Addis Ababa who stop and cross themselves when walking past a church. The growth in Protestant, revivalist churches promising more direct access to Jesus than the hierarchical Orthodox and Catholic Churches is part of the religious yearning of Ethiopians. The construction of new mosques in every corner of the country and the extraordinary popularity of Muslim preachers on radio and television also fits the pattern.

Among young Catholics the search for meaning and direction in unsettled times is on a more intimate scale. Young, urban, university-educated Catholics are finding community and spirituality in the Christian Life Community — a global lay movement for Ignatian spirituality.

The Christian Life Community is new to Ethiopia with an interesting Canadian connection.

“The person in the middle of this movement is Abba Groum, for sure,” said CLC Addis Ababa coordinator Gemechu Bekele Lemu.

“He is the one who introduced CLC to Ethiopia 12 years ago.”

Jesuit Father Groum Tesfaye studied theology in Canada in the 1970s — when the Christian Life Community was a growing new movement under the leadership of Canadian Jesuits, including Fr. John English. Groum returned from Canada to lead an incredibly varied and active life as the first Ethiopian-born Jesuit, including years spent as a university chaplain.

On campus, he nurtured a generation of young Ethiopian leaders with The Spiritual Exercises. As these students graduated they formed faith-sharing circles that meet regularly to discuss their prayer, their difficulties, their hope, their consolations and desolations.

Elsabeth Efrem shows me a picture of the group she is part of.

There are perhaps 30 young people in the photo gathered for a picnic.

Where in North America university is often the place where young people lose touch with the Church and come to doubt their faith, in Ethiopia university is where young Catholics deepen their faith.

“The way that some Catholics are raised is a bit formulaic,” said Elsabeth. “You need something to fill a gap. There isn’t really a movement that caters to people’s spirituality (in parish life). In a way, CLC fills that gap.”

And university is a natural place for that to happen.

“We’re very churchy to begin with. In your country, your experience is that if you go to university you are challenged and then the idea of spirituality and all that stuff comes under question more,” said Elsabeth. “Here, my experience working with university students is the opposite. I feel like we find ourselves more after joining campus (life). When you join the university you actually have more of a chance to learn more about the Church... You have more of a voice after 18, as opposed to being in a parish and under your parents, where you come to the church and that’s it. Our experience is different. It actually builds us.”

For young Ethiopians this experience of faith and learning has not happened at Catholic colleges or universities. The first Catholic university in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Catholic University of St. Thomas Aquinas, is just in the process of becoming established with a building under construction and a couple of college programs on offer in social work and medical laboratory technology.

For many North Americans the CLC experience of sitting in a circle and talking about faith, prayer and movements of the heart sounds incredibly contrived, artificial or, if genuine, just plain frightening. But it connects with Ethiopians, said Elsabeth.

“We as a culture are very communal. When we come together it’s much more — we come together more often. Even in our neighbourhoods we come together,” she said. “To discern together comes almost naturally to us.”

The Christian Life Community in Ethiopia is not yet recognized by the global movement. The groups in Ethiopia struggle to put on programs, rent space for meetings, put together the application to become part of the global family. They look at the movement in neighbouring Kenya with its much larger Catholic community, and admire its boldness of CLC in Nairobi which has founded a remarkable school for children of Africa’s second largest slum.

Ethiopia is going through enormous social changes. Seventy per cent of the population is under 30. The economy is growing at an average rate of 10 per cent each year. What were once small towns are suddenly blossoming into cities as the traditionally rural population moves to cities looking for education and jobs. Nobody in Ethiopia’s government actually knows the population of Addis Ababa, but guesses run from six million to nine million.

New ways of life and the emerging generation are raising profound spiritual questions.

“Young people in Ethiopia, like CLC members, they want to experience this deep spiritual knowledge. There’s this deep spiritual experience they want to have,” said Gemechu. “They’re happy if they can know that the way they are following is the surest way for them.”

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