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)