Friday, August 21, 2009

A Conversation with Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

Part Two

Issayas: You are Aboi Woldeab Woldemariam's nephew. I have a good friend, Dr. Nicole Saulsberry, who wrote her dissertation on Aboi Woldeab. I'm always urging her to publish it. Do you know if Aboi Woldeab had kept a diary or notes on events. If so, have you thought of writing a book about Aboi Woldeab using private (family) and public records?

Pastor Ezra: Yes I have a small notebook with material from an interview that I had with Aboi Woldeab. I don't know when and how I can use these notes, which were taken when he lived with us here in Uppsala for some months in the 1980s. I am sure that most of the things that he told me are things that he had told others. But, I haven't looked at these notes for some time.

Issayas: I read the late Prof. Gustav Aren's two books (Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia and Envoys of the Gospel in Ethiopia) about 8 years ago. What are the similarities and differences between your upcoming book and Prof. Aren's books?

The late Prof. Gustav Aren and Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

Pastor Ezra: Let me say that the book [whose subtitle is "The Roots and Development of The Evangelical Church of Eritrea 1866-1935" (Allow me to keep the main title a secret!)] is basically a work of the late Karl-Johan Lundstrom, a missionary of the Swedish Evangelical Mission (SEM) to Eritrea. Several sections of the coming book build on material from Gustav Aren's Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia (1978) and, to a lesser extent, his Envoys of the Gospel in Ethiopia (1999). This is not surprising. The book must begin with an introduction into the historical background of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (ECE). Not all future readers of the present book would have read Prof. Aren's books. Furthermore, the material taken from Aren is particularly appropriate for Eritrea and the ECE, though Gustav uses the same material as a prelude to the history of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). However, the present book by Karl Johan Lundstrom has given me a good deal of new knowledge about the history of the SEM and its mission in Eritrea, and the "prehistory" of the ECE. This is particularly true of Karl Johan Lundstrom's material on the history and culture of the Kunama and the Mensa. Furthermore, I have been impressed by K.J Lundstrom's contributions to our knowledge of the involvement of the Italian colonial powers, the Catholic Church and Catholic mission activity in the work and life of the SEM and the Evangelical community. The accounts on the roles played by missionaries from the Waldensian Church (a Protestant minory) in Italy in the work of the SEM and the ECE have also been very enlightening. Finally, it has been most revealing for me to read about some highly gifted, dedicated but stubborn Swedish missionary personalities on the mission field.The late Karl Johan Lundstrom

Let me explain to you as to how I came into the picture. Some three months before his death in December 2003, Karl Johan called me in Uppsala to tell me of the state of his health and to ask me to take over and complete the task of recording the history of the ECE. I couldn't believe my ears when he told me that the doctors had diagnosed an advance state of cancer. I visited Karl Johan and his wife, Maj-Britt at their home in the small community of Eksjo in the province of Smaland. My intention was to see him in person and to receive some more specific information and directions on the work he had started, before he became too weak to share information with me. We talked about the assignment in somewhat general terms. Even though he showed me some chapters of the emerging history of the ECE and some of the notes on which he had based his work , he felt that there was no need for any special hurry on specific directives to me. I must admit that I was a little uncertain about his optimism at the time. I continued my journey to Uppsala and never saw Karl Johan again. In hindsight, I must admit that the lack of a clearly defined mandate has led to uncertainty and unnecessary delays.

Next, part three.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Conversation with Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

A brief background note.

About a month or so ago, Seble Ephrem sent me an e-mail after she read an interview that I did with ELEM (Eritrean Life and Entertainment Magazine: for their latest issue(July/Sept. 2009) . Seble liked what I had to say in the interview and informed me that I needed to contact Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin because according to Seble, Pastor Ezra had finalized writing a book on the history of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (ECE). I contacted Pastor Ezra and he was willing to do an interview with me for my blog.

I would like to thank Seble for passing the information and for Pastor Ezra for his patience( from my endless and constant nagging) and graciousness. Since most of the questions that I had asked Pastor Ezra were already in his book, I'll present the truncated answers in parts.

This is part one.

Issayas :Can you tell my readers(briefly) about yourself?

Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin: I was born in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia on November 17, 1936 and received my B.A. from the University of Addis Abeba in 1957. I left for St. Paul, Minnesota the same year on a scholarship from the Lutheran World Federation. I received my M.A. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and my B.D. from the Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I took a year of internship at the Ethiopian Evangelical College in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, between 1960 and 1961 (the year of the coup d'etat by the bothers Mengistu and Germame Neway). Upon my return to Ethiopia in 1963, I was made the Executive Secretary of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) in which capacity I served up to 1966. Ordained in 1964, I served as pastor of the oldest Mekane Yesus congregation in Addis Abeba until 1970, when I left for Sweden for further studies. I was awarded a Doctor of Divinity at the University of Uppsala in 1977 and taught Theology between 1977 and 2000, the last fifteen years as Assistant Professor at the Theological Faculty of Uppsala University. From my Kenisha parents, who had moved to Ethiopia from the then Italian colony of Eritrea in the early 1920s, my siblings and I received a deep and lasting impression of the Evangelical faith which had nurtured them in the Eritrea of their youth. I have served as pastor among Diaspora Eritreans and Ethiopians of Evangelical Lutheran persuasion here in Sweden. My wife Gennet Awalom, also a person of Eritrean background, and I have three children and seven grandchildren. We are residents of Uppsala, Sweden.

Issayas: Can you tell us briefly, what was the story behind the establishment of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea?

Pastor Ezra: During the latter part of the 19th century there was a growing concern in missionary circles, especially in Great Britain, about ways of conducting mission and organizing indegnous Christians into churches. The motto, "A Self-governing and Self-propagating Church" had been adopted but, at the beginning, it didn't quite seem to catch. In time, it became the cornerstone of the Protestant missionary policy in Africa. The organization of the Church on the basis of a democratic constitution was meant to guarantee independence under African leadership.

In 1920 a newly appointed Mission Secretary, Nils Dahlberg, visited the SEM (Swedish Evangelical Mission) field in India and together with the Rev. P.O.Froberg, who was then the chairman of the mission conference, raised questions regarding the organization of the local church. Dalhberg presented a proposal for a church constitution to the India Field Conference and to the Board in Sweden. The constitution was solemnly approved at a conference in Chindwara on February 9, 1923. The name of the new church was to be "The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central Province". 31 delegates from different congregations and 7 missionaries were present at the meeting. A Synodical Council was set up, consisting of one missionary, three Indians and the President. The new church elected Rev. P.E. Froberg, who was also the chairman of the Field Conference, as President. Missionaries continued to hold the office of Church President up to 1945 when the office was transferred to an Indian, The Rev. Emanuel Raman.

Nils Dahlberg, Mission Director of the SEM, arrived in Eritrea just before Easter 1925, following a visit to Ethiopia in 1924. On Palm Sunday a gubae (meeting) was held in Asmara with some 1200 participants. The Mission Secretary was given a warm reception and he made a deep impression by his happy and dashing appearance and, even more, by his powerful preaching and the contributions he made during the conversations. Many Kenisha came to remember him and to compare his visit with that of Professor Kolmodin in 1909-1910. Dahlberg underlined the view that a growing congregation must strive to become self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating.

This philosophy had been propagated by Prof. Kolmodin 17 years earlier, but had not, due to many unfavorable conditions, been realized as yet. A committee was selected to prepare a proposal for a church constitution "in close keeping with the pattern of our sister fields in India and South Africa." Another important question was the upgrading of the education of indegenous co-workers. This proposal too was accepted at the mission conference in the autumn of 1925 and referred to the Board that gave its full approval. The hopes of Iwarson (the Field Director of SEM in Eritrea) were evidently not limited to the Church in Eritrea. Earlier on, in a letter to Dahlberg, Iwarson had expressed interest in seeing the formation of a wider organization that would include the Church in "Southern Ethiopia", possibly also the Presbyterians. He had also discussed the matter with Karl Nystrom of the Bible True Friends, who had shown interest in participating in such an organization.

The First Synodical meeting, which constituted the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (ECE), was held in Sept. 1926. 34 participants were present, 12 of these were pastors, 12 were laymen from the congregations and 10 were missionaries. The main item was the election of a president. This position went to Rev. Iwarson. Pastor Tewlde-Medhin Gebre-Medhin was elected Vice-President, while others were elected to different offices.

Next, part two.