Around the world, MCC works alongside and through churches. Through this Q & A, we invite you to learn more about MCC's partnership with Ethiopia's Meserete Kristos Church.
MCC’s first involvement in Ethiopia was in 1945 when it co-operated with Mennonite Relief Committee (MRC) to send a shipment of clothing and medicine to post-World War II Ethiopia. In the years that followed, MRC established Haile Mariam Mamo Hospital in Nazareth and turned it over in 1951 to Eastern Board (now Eastern Mennonite Mission, EMM), whose first missionaries had arrived in 1947. Also, in 1951, Eastern Board missionaries baptized the first believers in what would become the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC).
In 1974, a Communist military regime known as the Derg overthrew the emperor Haile Selasie and brought in an era of reform, imprisonment and persecution. The MKC was one of the churches that was forced underground, and the persecution it experienced was matched by rapid growth.In 2019, MKC is the largest Anabaptist body in the world, with a worship community of nearly 500,000.
MCC sat down with three people who've been involved in the Mennonite movement in Ethiopia since its beginning to hear the incredible story of a church that flourished under hardship.
MCC photo/Rose Shenk
The interviewees are:
MD = Mekonnen Dessalegn, a peace practitioner who has served with MCC for 41 years at different levels before retiring and a member of MKC for 50 years.
AD = Aster Debose, a long-term employee of the Ethiopian Mennonite Mission who worked as a health assistant in the mission hospital and retired many years ago.
FB = Felekech “Fele” Bekele, a member of MKC for 52 years.
MCC photo/Sarah Adams
Birth of the MKC
The first question is about beginning experiences with Meserete Kristos Church and Mennonite Central Committee. MCC began a partnership with MKC in 1974, and we are aware that before that time Eastern Board and MCC were together and at times it’s not entirely clear which organization did which work. How did you become part of MKC, and how did you learn about MCC?
AD: There was no "Meserete Kristos" when the church was founded. At that time, my husband and some Mennonite missionaries used to go downtown and speak to people, tell the good news to people, and they had been calling people to the Lord through that kind of work.
Later, we had a big spiritual conference at the mission compound and many people came to the Lord. It is after that we said, "OK, why do we call ourselves Mennonite Mission? Why don’t we find an Ethiopian name?" So that’s when we called ourselves Meserete Kristos Church [which means “Christ is the foundation" Church.] We didn’t just decide all at once to do that, it took a long time to decide on a name. The mission and the church worked side by side — they wanted to have Ethiopian leaders and an Ethiopian name.
Do you remember where you were or what you were doing at that time?
AD: I used to work at the hospital as a dresser. Because I was trained as a dresser by Dr. Rohrer Eshleman, the medical doctor at the hospital. He was the main medical doctor during those days there.
MD: The MKC was there when I came to the church. I was 17 or 18 years old and a high school student. I was not really in the mission process, you know, during the mission. MKC was already there, but there were just a few members, not really any more than 25 people in the church.
But before that, I was in a young men’s bible study called Heavenly Sunshine Association. In that group, we used to worship in a rented house and the youth worshipped together. Eventually, the Mennonite missionaries said, "Why can’t we work together?" But there was a problem because we were very young people, emotionally we were energetic.
So, the missionaries decided, "OK, you just stay at your chapel and we will pay the rent for it. We will train your leaders by calling them on the weekend." They just started training our leaders. So, that group eventually merged with the MKC.
"I think the first thing is the freedom I had in MCC. There is no boss and subordinate—that kind of structure. It is always teamwork."
- Mekonnen Dessalegn
What do you remember about the work that MCC was doing at that time? And the work of MKC and whether there was interaction?
MD: There was no as such "MCC" program or "MKC" program. It was a merged program. We used to work together. We used to call it Meserete Kristos Relief and Development Association. So MCC assigns the country reps and some other service workers. We were really involved in different development activities such as soil and water conservation, small-scale housing programs here in Nazareth — very low-cost housing programs — poultry, and cattle fattening. And the extension service for the farmers.
MCC photo/Melissa Engle
You probably had opportunities to develop your career by choosing a different direction or taking a different job. Is there something that kept you with MCC?
MD: I think the first thing is the freedom I had in MCC. There is no boss and subordinate — that kind of structure. It is always teamwork. If I remember, when I joined, those country reps were very young guys, 21 or 22. We were almost the same age; it was easy to learn from them and it was easy for them to learn from us, on both sides.
After that, I kept myself with MCC because, when I went to the field or when we were involved in relief work, things were really genuine ... you take the thing, you give it to the needy people, and you enjoy with that, you praise God with that because those people got something to eat.
MCC photo/Matthew Lester
I really learned a lot from MCC, and it kept me to stay there. Even for the people from Akron, [Pennsylvania], from Canada, whoever comes here, we are just… family. Yes, we know the hierarchy is there, but still, MCC still has volunteer-based service.
So, if you were working in evangelism, that would be more with the mission board. If you were working in development, that would be MCC?
MD: Yes. And when we have projects in the community or we hire Christian believers to work in the project, those believers they used to be a member of one congregation in that area, they used to preach, not on the behalf of MCC, but as a member of that congregation. So because of that, there were many, many congregations being established. It was not that MCC was pushing towards that, but those individuals' commitment really impacted in different areas.
Is there a particular congregation that comes to mind now, that you say, "That one started because MCC went there with a relief program"?
MD: Oh, yes. If you go to Boricha in the south, there are more than 600 congregations.
MCC photo/Benjamin Chleboun
The Derg and church revolution
Thinking pre-revolution time, can you, for the benefit of the people in the U.S. and Canada who are not aware of what was happening in Ethiopia at that time, tell us about the situation in Ethiopia and in the church?
AD: Because it was a Communist regime, a Communist government, they came with a new regulation for the young people. They restricted young people under 25 years old from attending the church or going to the church at all. That was really a big challenge for our children and for the young people in the church.
So, though we were not able to meet at the church — the church building was taken by the government — we used to worship together in cell groups in different homes. So that was the big challenge. Especially after the regulation came from the government about young people.
"They were saying to us, 'You say, Jesus is your saviour. Now we are going to kill you in front of the church’s main gate and we will see if he comes and saves you.'"
- Aster Debose
AD: When the church was closed and the building was taken by the government, the elders came with a new strategy and arranged people to worship together in small groups. We were not able to meet in this room [indicating the living room near the front of her home and close to the street]. We used to meet at the back, in the servants' quarters. Neighbours can see when people come in and when they go out. They may hear if we sing. So, we used to have our meeting at the back in the servants’ quarters.
FB: The government had that new regulation about youth involvement in the church. But an opportunity was created for young people to speak to their peers, to students in high school, about Christ. And in this process, some new students were coming. Because we didn’t have the church, it’s at the home chapel that those young people came, and then we taught them, and they get baptized there. So, young people were not really out of the church. They were kept, within the home chapels.
That was different than before the revolution?
MD: Yes, before that, the church was open and everybody came directly to the church. But when the church was closed and nobody came to the church, cell groups were assigned in each home. So, if I [as a student] went to school and witnessed to someone about Christ, I would just bring him to that house, to that group. So, that group would take care of that guy.
What happened in Ethiopia and in society, and what happened in the church when the Communist revolution occurred?
AD: We [the Christian staff in the hospital] were imprisoned. The politicians were questioning us: "Who rules this country? Jesus or the revolution?" We were imprisoned for six days and were suffering day in, day out. They were saying to us, "You say, Jesus is your saviour. Now we are going to kill you in front of the church’s main gate and we will see if he comes and saves you."
MCC photo/Rose Shenk
I was working in the hospital in the pediatrics department, so they took me to the hospital to work because there was no one to work in my place. When I finished my work in the hospital and was getting ready to go back to the prison, I saw that they were burning Bibles, so I rescued five Bibles and took them back to prison. Someone asked me, what are those? I said, "These are Bibles," and he continued his question, "What are you going to do with the Bibles?"
We were 40 prisoners, most of us students, and there were also three high officials from the city’s municipality, and all of them were beaten except me. They were threatening to beat me, but God intervened and saved me from being beaten.
They said, "Leaving aside everything else, we know that you have signed an agreement with five expats [the Mennonite missionaries] to sell your own country; that is what your court case will be." Then I responded, "Ethiopia, my country, is not a cloth or salt that I can sell it. I love my country; I don’t sell it. Maybe you, yourself want to sell it."
He was upset with my response and threatened me: "I will send you, and the others to the Lord Jesus who you say will save you."
When I took my Bible, he asked me, "Why are you taking the Bible?" Then I said, "Does a soldier go to the battlefield without a weapon?" He said, "Is this a battlefield?" I said, "Yes, this is a battlefield. You brought me from the hospital where I was doing my job and then took me back to the hospital to work with armed soldiers, so yes, this is a battlefield for me. That is why I am taking my weapon with me."
He wanted to kill me right there. Then he said, "I will talk to you privately." I said, "Why do you want to talk to me privately? If you have anything, just say it in the presence of other prisoners." Then he called another young officer and told him, "This woman has signed an agreement with five expats to sell this country; this is her case." Then I said, "I don’t sell my own country, you are the ones who have money and sell this country, but me, I just take care of patients in the hospital, that is what I do." Then he told his comrades to keep an eye on me, threatened to kill me and left around 10 in the morning.
While he was driving to Sodere, he hit a parked truck and died in the accident.
"Ethiopia, my country, is not a cloth or salt that I can sell it. I love my country; I don’t sell it."
- Aster Debose
What effect did that death have?
AD: There was one young political officer who was keeping an eye on me. They told him not to inform me about the death of this person. They said to him, "If she hears about his death, she will say, 'My God killed the person who was threatening to kill me.'" But this young officer came to me and said, "What kind of God do you worship?"
"I worship the God who created the heavens and the earth, He is the one who protects us."
He continued, "Teshome, who threatened to kill you, died in a car accident." Then I said to him, "I'm sorry to hear that. He died without repenting of his sins; now you also need to repent of your sins. I don’t want to judge anyone, but you have to know, this is the God I worship, so you yourself, don’t torture these students but repent and turn to God."
If he didn’t die in that car accident, maybe all of us would have been killed. But because of this incident, we were released the next day. The officers ordered that we be released and get back to our work without any pay cuts or anything.
They related the death of this officer with our treatment and were scared. That is why they released all the hospital staff.
I asked that young officer, "Can I visit these prisoners?" He said yes. Then I continued my question, "Can I give them Bibles (the Gideon Bible, New Testament and Psalms)?" He said, "Yes, you can, but not to me."
Do you think the guards were afraid of you?
AD: They were really frightened. When this guy died, because they knew what he was doing to the prisoners, and even to the Christians there, they were frightened.
What effect did all this have on you?
AD: This incident helped to strengthen my faith and I felt I was given the responsibility of talking to the officers. There were also priest prisoners who were accused of selling pistols. I asked permission from the officer and he allowed me to give them Bibles and I did. So, in general, I think, God controlled this harsh young officer.
No other person who was released from prison was allowed to go back to prison and minister to prisoners, but I was allowed to go inside the prison and teach the Bible. I remember once, one of the prison officials told his colleagues, "You know what her Bible says? 'If you obey, you will be blessed but if you don't obey and rebel you will be devoured by the sword'" [Isaiah 1:20]. Then the other colleague said, "We shouldn't imprison this lady; if we do, she will spoil all of the prisoners." Then I said to him, "Do you want a copy of the Bible?" Then he said, "You see, she has already started teaching now," and said, "Now go back to your prison cells."
"It was really difficult, but the Holy Spirit was giving us strength because we were praying a lot."
- Aster Debose
What did you do after that? It’s my understanding that you became a leader in the church.
AD: One day, soldiers went to the hospital and asked my husband to give them the key to the church building. He refused by saying, "I don’t have the key, but even if I have it, I wouldn’t give the key to my Father’s house to you."
My responsibility was teaching and active participation in the women’s Bible study program [cell groups] and visiting other Christians. We were involved in visiting and searching for people who had been away from the church.
MD: Especially in the Nazareth church, the mothers had a big role. Culturally, if we have a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, you can invite anybody. No one will ask, "What are you doing here?" Because it is a coffee ceremony. The women can go through this process, they can visit people, sit with people. But if men do this, it will be a problem.
What was that time like for the faith of the MKC members and what gave them hope? Or did they feel hope?
AD: It is the Holy Spirit that gave us strength. The political officers used to come in the middle of the night and ring the doorbell and were checking whether we were praying or not. It was really difficult, but the Holy Spirit was giving us strength because we were praying a lot.
My children were taken to the national military service. One of the good things that happened was that my children were assigned here in Nazareth, they didn’t go to another place because they said they will preach the gospel wherever they go. But one day, they were going to take one of my sons [Daniel, who was 15 at that time] to national military service in another place, and I went to the city mayor’s home in the middle of the night and pleaded the mayor, so he said to me, "Stay here and I will look for him and bring him." So, he went, searched for him everywhere and brought him back.
"We didn’t hate them. We greeted them. When there was a funeral, we went; we participated in the community. That was our approach. God has given us grace to pass through that."
- Felekech Bekele
When the Derg came in, they took down the monarchy and were distributing land — it seemed like a good chance, but then what happened?
AD: At first the Derg was seen positively, but later when they started to kill youngsters and declared that they were communists, that was the time when the church was able to see who they really were. The major problem was not the outsiders but those who were members of the church who later became political officers. They created problems for us.
How did those people persecute the Christians?
MD: They became political officers. So now, they know the secrets; they know the teachings. They know where the Bible studies are going on. They know who the pastor is. They know who the elders, the deacons are. So, it was easy for them to pick people.
Why did those people turn and align themselves with the regime? Was it money? Threats?
AD: They thought they would have power.
Fele, how were these years for you? You were quite a bit younger than Aster, but you also lived through this. You were married at the time of the Derg. And had children?
FB: Because we were younger, the political officers were approaching us differently than the Asters, the older people. They were telling us to stand in front of the audience, the public within that area, and talk about politics. Sometimes they give us to read some materials and want us to speak about them to the audience.
MCC photo/Rose Shenk
When you were being asked to speak in front of the crowd, were the requests directed to you personally or to the group of Christians generally?
FB: In a group.
How did you feel at that time?
FB: It was difficult and challenging—when somebody tells you to do something that you don’t want to. There was a grace of God with us, and we tolerated all that through the grace of God. When we knew these people were really against us, there was no way that we hated these people. They used to insult us. We didn’t hate them. We greeted them. When there was a funeral, we went; we participated in the community. That was our approach. God has given us grace to pass through that.
How did the role of women in leadership evolve over this time?
AD: With the new strategy of home chapels, the leaders picked some women — teachers, professional government-school teachers, Christians. Those women were trained, and they came to the cell groups and trained the women. So, the women came to the leadership gradually through this process. They didn't know what was happening at the top, but down there, the women started coming up through those cell groups. I think, in Addis Ababa, the most active people were the women. They really carried the burden, more than the men.
These women get the materials, they study, they get trained, and they go back to their group. They always met for coffee ceremonies. If the officers come, if the police come, they will say, "It’s the coffee!" The coffee ceremony takes more than two hours. You have to clean it, roast it, you do all this process. Maybe one woman is preparing the coffee at the back but the other women are teaching.
MCC photo/Melissa Engle
Was MCC here in Ethiopia during the revolution or, if not, were there seeds of previous MCC work that remained in place?
MD: When everything was nationalized by the government, all MCC’s properties were also taken by the government because they believed it was MKC’s property because it was in the name of MKC. So, what we did was, MCC went to Addis Ababa from Nazareth — because the office was here in Nazareth — and rented a house.
The country reps sat with the church leadership and said, "What can we do now? Because all the buildings, all the properties, have been taken. All the programs have been closed and the church is underground. What can we do now for the existence of MCC and of MKC?" The church leadership agreed with MCC, "Let MCC register as an independent organization." So MCC was registered as a relief and development organization.
MCC photo/Ken Litwiller
Then we started a new project in Gerado. By having that project, MCC got the right to be in the country.
Was MCC able to be resourceful to the church at all? Be helpful?
MD: Yes and no. When our five top leaders were in prison, it was EMM that was supporting the families. And of course, the church was also doing something, but mostly it was EMM.
But not MCC?
MD: Yes, because we were really very careful. If MCC was found doing something for the church, then MCC would be in problem. But for EMM, that’s the church, and they are just doing it from outside. Nobody knew who EMM was because it was not a legally registered organization in Ethiopia. So, MCC was careful, but there were different ways that MCC was being supportive.
You know, when we went underground, we were just 14 congregations. Fourteen. But after eight years, we were almost 50,000, about 52 congregations.
MCC photo/Matthew Lester
Because we know all the leaders — they were in each congregation — we invited them to Addis and arranged a seminar. We invited [MCC country reps] Peter and Jan Shetler from Tanzania. They came here and gave the seminar, thinking to raise the awareness of the leadership about development. It was a three-day seminar, and some leaders were very, very upset. They were aggressive because they didn’t want to have any development program. They wanted to preach only the gospel. They said, "Don’t mix this development and evangelism." It was in 1989. There was a big debate between the leaders about this issue. But on the third day there was a consensus of the leadership saying, "Yes, we need development work. That will make the scripture, our service, full. We will come with a holistic approach to the people. We will preach the gospel, give them something to eat, or whatever kind of holistic service." So that was decided in that meeting and the Meserete Kristos Relief and Development Association was re-established in 1991.
In 2020, MCC continues to partner with the Meserete Kristos Church. This is one example of the many ways that MCC works alongside churches and Christians around the world to share God's love and compassion for all in the name of Christ. Check out this video to learn more about MCC and the church.