Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Conversation with Qeshi Alazar Mengistu

Part Two
On the cover of your book, you used the word "goytana" with the names of the Swedes'. If I'm not mistaken, in Tigrigna, the word "goyta"/"goytana" is reserved for the Lord. Why do you have the word "goyta" with the names of the Swedes'?
Qeshi Alazar: "Goytana" has nothing to do with a savior . The old Eritreans used to call the missionaries "Goytana N N", "Emebet NN" respectively as a sign of respect. It was because they could not add "Ato" or "Weizero" to their names. Since "Ato" and "Weizero" is reserved for Eritreans.

Issayas: What are the differences and similarities between your book and Gustav Aren’s book?
Qeshi Alazar: My book is written to give the background and development of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea, and to identify the pioneers. Of course, there are similarities. The difference between my book and Gustav Aren´s is (except the similarity in the topics) that his is a doctoral work, while my work was written after my first degree. While I was working for my PhD (licensiat), an accident interrupted the whole thing. Regardless, my work is well researched.

Issayas: What were/are the differences between the missionaries of the EFS (Evangelical Fosterlandsstifelsen) and BV (Bibeltrogna Vänner)? BV-mission split from EFS. Did the split had an impact on the missionaries who were on the ground in Eritrea at that time?

Qeshi Alazar: By missionaries we mean those who were sent (for example from Sweden or from North to South) to Africa, in this case to the Horn of Africa, with a clear mission that was “to make Jesus known and to accept him as a savior”. Therefore, BV as a mission society in Sweden had some missionaries in East Africa, such as Karl and Agnes Nyström, Qeshi Marqos and Regina Girmay and Nils Karlsson. Nils Karlsson was an independent, though he worked for BV. The rest were, Anna Holmberg and Augusta Henriksson (all of them were formerly EFS Missionaries). The difference had a significant impact on the mission in Eritrea. The division in Sweden between EFS and BV was even echoed in Eritrea.

The division in Sweden started after Professor Adolph Kolmodin wrote that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) has some contradictory errors in names, places and dates. Axel Svensson disagreed with A. Kolmodin. As a result EFS split into two. The new Church became BV(Bibeltrogna Vänner /True Bible Friends). It is this different in theological opinion that gave rise to rumors in Eritrea among Eritreans as to whether EFS even believed in the entire Bible as a Word of God or not. Such kind of rumors could, of course, on the long run harm their work at the mission field. The outcome was, since the EFS-missionaries were on good terms with the Italians who colonized Eritrea from 1890-1941, the BV-missionaries were the ones who started to experience some difficulties working in Eritrea. They crossed the border to Tigray and started to evangelize there and beyond. Otherwise, EFS's work in Eritrea was not affected by the schism that much. Those that joined the new mission with the pioneers of BV were few in number.

Anna Holmberg

Nils Karlsson

 Swedish Evangelical Mission Congregation

Issayas: Over 100 years ago, the main purpose of the Swedish missionaries was to go to the Oromo in Ethiopia. Due to many reasons they were not able to do so. Eritrean missionaries, however, were able to achieve the long held dream of the Swedish missionaries. How were they able to do that and who were the pioneers?

Qeshi Alazar: That question is already answered by Dr. Gustav Aren in his book, Envoys of the gospel in Ethiopia: In the steps of the evangelical pioneers, 1898-1936 (Studia missionalia Upasaliensia) and Pastor Ezra (see the interview in the older posts section of my blog). The success had to do with the missionaries of EFS. In BV's case, the story is a little bit different. In 1904, Qeshi Marcos sent two pioneers to Ethiopia. These two evangelists were Oromo in origin. They knew their way to Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. Since there were merchants who were coming and going from Eritrea to Ethiopia and vice versa , the missionaries went with one of these merchants. Also, remember, in this period the railroad traveled from Djibouti to Harar, Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, one of these evangelists went as far as Harar and died there. Onesimos Nesib and Nystrom and two of his evangelists reached Addis Abeba for the first time. They were able to reach there on horse backs from Harar. To give you an example, Anna Holmberg from Asmara had been in Sweden on a vacation. I think this was in 1923, before the war between Italy and Ethiopia broke out. When she was on her way back to Asmara to resume her work, the Italians didn't let her in Eritrea. Instead, she went to Djibouti from Massawa, Eritrea and from there to Harar. In Harar, she was received by one of Qeshi Marcos' evangelists, who had already been stationed there and had some necessary contacts there which made BV's future mission easier to start there.

Issayas: The title of your book, The Background and History of the Lutheran Church from 1911-1932 Why does it start in 1911 and ends in 1932?

Qeshi Alazar: The answer is that Qeshi Marqos and Regina Ghirmay had already left the mission field in Eritrea for Sweden, and Qeshi has died in Sweden in 1924. The only leader left at the Mission field (in East Africa i.e, including Ethiopia) was Karl Nyström. He and his family had to leave Eritrea and that was at the end of 1932. That meant that he handed over the leadership to Eritreans and left Eritrea. This book which I wrote in Tigrigna in 2003 about the Lutheran Church was the first one on this subject. When I presented the first chapters at a seminar in Uppsala, I found out that, Qeshi Marqos was more known than the Church itself. The professors at the seminar had no knowledge about the existence of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea, but knew about Qeshi Marcos. In other words, the history of the church was unknown among the intellectuals. I was glad therefore to learn that my book became admired at the Mission newspapers and became an inspiration for others, for example, for The Evangelical Church in Eritrea.

In April 2010, I was invited by the Theological High School run by EFS in Uppsala to present a paper at a research symposium at Johannelund. The topic of that symposium was Den Rosenianska Väckelsenrörelsen circa 1890-1920 and bildandet av Missionssällskapet BV 1911. A Rosenian Revival circa 1890- 1920 and the forming of the Mission society of the Bible True Friends 1911 (Carl Olof Rosenius was the church father of EFS). The symposium's research paper was edited by Dr Rune Imberg and Tornbjörn LarsPers and published by Johannelund Theological Institute. The topic of my paper at the symposium was entitled "The formation of a Lutheran Church on African Soil (East Africa- Eritrea) and the unification (Wihdet) of an Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Eritrea 2006". Why this topic? As I have hinted before, I consider this Church as a mother Church . It presented a background on how BV as a mission society started missionary work in Eritrea. In other words, I gave a short history of the Church, the development of the Church and the first pioneers. The mission had a teacher training center in Asmara and between 25-30 village schools. In the paper, I also described as to how the process of a union between an Evangelical and Lutheran Churches in Eritrea became a reality in 2006 to become “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Eritrea”. In other words, the difference that split the EFS and BV over one hundred years ago and continues to be two independent missions in Sweden to this day was reversed in Eritrea in 2006 whereby the Evangelical and Lutheran Church formed a union.

Issayas: Would you go more into the Wihdet (Union)? Let me see if I understand it clearly. About a hundred or so years ago in Sweden, EFS split into two and became EFS and BV. The split in Sweden also affected the missionaries who were in Eritrea. In other words, the missionaries in Eritrea were also split into EFS and BV. However, in 2006, in Eritrea the two churches united and became to be called "Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Eritrea" but not in Sweden. In this case, the Swedes could learn from the Eritreans. Is my understanding correct ?

Qeshi Alazar: As I've indicated above, the thesis of my presentation was that the theological crises that started in Sweden had affected the mission work abroad. By that I meant, the split of the Mission organ or body has its origin in Sweden. The development which happened in Sweden caused a split at the mission field among the missionaries, too. In concluding my presentation, I argued that what happened at the mission field in Eritrea with the union (wihdet) in 2006 could be an inspiration to the mission bodies in Sweden for a unification. In other words, what happened in Eritrea in 2006 could and should be a role model for Sweden. We have started to sense a positive progress in the last few years in Sweden.That is, the two Swedish mission bodies-EFS and BV- coming together and having meetings on higher levels. The aforementioned symposium was an example of that effort. So we hope and pray that the union (wihdet) between the Evangelical and Lutheran Churches which became a reality in Eritrea, would be a reality in Sweden, too.

Next, Part III (the last part)

A Conversation with Qeshi Alazar Mengistu

I first read about Qeshi Marcos Ghirmay in Journal of Eritrean Studies Vol. IV 1982 written by Dr. Araia Tseggai. (I will repost the aforementioned at the end of this interview). Since then, I have read more about Qeshi Marcos.Qeshi Alazar Mengistu, author of The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932 (Qeshi Marcos’ story included) is currently visiting the United States with his family. Recently, I made an arrangement to meet with him for an interview in Santa Rosa, California. I would like to thank him for his time. 
Part One
Here are the excerpts:
Issayas: First, congratulations on your new book. Will you tell us about yourself?
Qeshi Alazar:  My name is Alazar Mengistu. I was born in the village of Cheat, Tzelema region, Eritrea in 1942. My father was a priest of the Tewahdo Ortodox Church. I attended my first school year at the Mission School in Quazien (formerly Hamasien, now Zoba Maekel), the village of Abboi Qeshi Marqos Girmay. My first teacher was, Abboi Yacob, Qeshi Marqos Girmay’s half brother. I started my schooling in Quazien because my older sister’s(Neghesti)husband , the late Memher (teacher) Araya Gebreegziabher, was the headmaster of the Mission school there, and they had the responsibility for my schooling.
The Swedish True Friends (Bibeltrogna Vänner, traditionally known as BV) opened a new mission school in Idaga Hamus, Asmara and as a result Memher Araya was transferred there as the new headmaster. That meant I had to go back to my birth place, Cheat, and continue my schooling at Dequtsnia, in our region, a school which was also run by the same Swedish Mission as in Quazien. This was around 1950. When I was in the fifth grade I moved to my sister’s and her husband’s house in Asmara and attended at the Mission school there.I finished 7th and 8th grades at the Evangelical Mission School in Geza Kenisha. After passing my 8th grade General Examination, I went to Luul Mekonnen School, and later completed my 12th grade at Santa Anna School in Asmara. By then, I was very much involved in reforming the Lutheran Church in Asmara (at Idda Hamus). I started a youth group (The Youth Group of the Lutheran Church in Asmara) and a Sunday school there. I led Sunday services and I was also the self- made leader of music at the Church. The church recognized the zeal I had to serve the Church, therefore the Church decided to send me to Sweden for further studies in theology and music. Even though the mission rejected the idea, with the insistence of the Church, a scholarship was arranged for me through an individual who was a missionary of BV (Bibeltrogna Vänner) in Eritrea from1953 to 1957. 
I left Eritrea for Sweden in 1967. After finishing my language studies in Swedish (1969), I enrolled as a theology student at the University of Uppsala. At the beginning of 1976, I had my degrees in Practical Philosophy (BA) and in Theology (Teol.kand). In June 1976 I was ordained as a priest by the Archbishop of Sweden, Olof Sundby, at the main Church Cathedral of Sweden in Uppsala, at the same Church, where Qeshi Marqos Girmay was ordained as the first African in 1898. I became the third African to be ordained after a Zulu Prince (1911). 
My intention with my priesthood was, to serve within the Swedish State Church for three years, get the experience and build some contacts in Eritrea. However, Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown and a new government, Dergue, came to power in 1974. Therefore, I was advised by my Church leader at home to stay in Sweden, until the political situation at home became clear. By this time, I had gotten married to a Swedish woman, Lisbeth. When we met, Lisbeth was working as a missionary in Barentu, and I was doing my studies in Uppsala. In 1978/1979 we were sent to Sudan by the Swedish Evangelical Mission (Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen, EFS) to start a refugee counseling service in Khartoum, Sudan. Until my retirement in 2007, I had served the Swedish Church as a priest and had different positions in different places, enjoyed equal opportunities as my Swedish colleagues, and ministered my fellow country people on my part time and freely. Now, I am writing and translating books in my mother language. 
Issayas: What is the main thesis of your first book: The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932?
Qeshi Alazar: The thesis of my first book, The History and Background of the Lutheran Church of Eritrea 1911-1932 is that The Lutheran Church of Eritrea (constituted in 1959 as an indigenous Church) was the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia, and indirectly, even of the Lutheran Church of Kenya.
Issayas: What was the significance of Qeshi Marqos Ghirmay for the Lutheran Church of Eritrea in particular and Eritrea in general?
Qeshi Alazar: Qeshi Marqos, with his wife Regina, and his missionary partners: Karl Nyström and his wife Agnes Nyström were the first missionaries who left the EFS (Evangelical Fosterlandsstifelsen) for BV- mission (Bibeltrogna Vänner) and started the BV mission work in Eritrea. Karl and Agnes Nyström started the mission work in MayZibo (Debarwa) and Qeshi Marqos and Regina Girmay started the mission at Quazien. Both Nyström and Girmay put the foundation for an indigenous Church in Eritrea. From the beginning, Qeshi Marqos had the intention of making the missionaries in Eritrea self sufficient, responsible and hard working. For instance, he sent his own evangelists in 1904 to Ethiopia from Eritrea. He used to say that evangelism should be carried out by Eritreans. Qeshi Marqos truly made a journey in many ways, and for me he was a source of an inspiration. I had knowingly and unknowingly followed his traces, as we say in Swedish, right from my youth, asking the question as to why the churches from the west were sending missionaries to Africa in one-way traffic instead of two-way traffic. I fought to have an indigenous church andI became the first African priest in Sweden for Swedes.

Qeshi Marcos Ghirmay

Regina Ghirmay


Karl Nyström

Next: Part Two.