Greetings From Addis Ababa

The campus at St. Frumentius has closed while the students begin their field education placements in Gambella, some in local churches in town and others in the refugee camps. I have returned to Addis Ababa to begin studying Amharic, which has been fun and challenging. I’ve enjoyed sharing reflections on Scripture at the guesthouse a couple of times a week with a small group of folks at the guesthouse as well. After Church last Sunday, I was invited to tag along with some of the residents on a hike on Mount Entoto. We had to stop the van so a family of baboons could cross the road. Later, we saw hyenas, and drank tea.  

It has been interesting to be in a country that was among the earliest to receive the Gospel outside of Jerusalem. Christianity arrived earlier in North Africa and Egypt, of course, in the region that the Romans referred to as “Africa.” Ethiopia was never a Roman colony and was evangelized a bit later, in the 4th century, by St. Frumentius. He was a Syrian convert ordained by St. Athanasius in Alexandria who then returned as Ethiopia as its first Bishop. The ancient link between the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is still alive today. North Africa was speaking vernacular Latin at a time when the Roman church was still using Greek. The first Bishop of Rome, Victor, was a Latin-speaking African. Martyrdom was primarily what moved Christianity into North Africa, a test of authentic faith that the Romans furnished with recurrent outbursts of persecutions. It was the suffering Christians in North Africa and Egypt that set the groundwork for early Christian thought and practice, not least by the likes of Origen. A little later, all lawyers, saints Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, codified Christian systematic thought in the language of Roman law. Monasticism was invented by Saint Anthony the Great, an Egyptian, though not a cosmopolitan from the Alexandrian catechetical school. What we often think of as modern movements like pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and liberation theology all have an origin in African Christianity.

Various factors eventually isolated African Christianity from the rest of European Christendom. Chalcedon began severing the so-called “monophysite” (a term not used at the time) churches of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria from the other churches, a division reinforced during the Muslim invasions of North Africa. Sudan was able to withstand Muslim invasion, but migration and inter-marriage eventually replaced its Christian population. Ethiopia, with its unique and ancient connection to Israel, continued in isolation from the other churches and became a Christian empire. We have come to think of our faith as a Western one, but it is not a stretch to say that European Christianity has been just as isolated from African Christianity since, at the very least, the 16th century. Freed Afro-American Christian slaves returning to Africa (Sierra Leone) in the 18th c. were among Africa’s first Protestant missionaries. As Christianity declines in the West, representative Christianity has turned to Africa; but it is not beginning or returning here. Decolonization has made it possible for a revival of African Christianity in recent decades as African Christians themselves have responded to God’s call, and apart from Western missionary and colonial presence.

The story of Stephen and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 connects Africa to the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and from there through southeastern Europe to Rome. It is a story that Luke writes which breaks up the narrative of Stephen and Saul and the church in Antioch. After Phillip baptized the eunuch, Luke tells us that the Spirit of the Lord “carried Phillip away” and that the Ethiopian saw him no more. Luke does not tell us what happened to the eunuch, but he affirms that their unexpected meeting is a providential one. It is part of Luke’s story about the Gospel moving out from “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), a reminder that the Gospel is going to the Gentiles, indeed, in the lands beyond the Nile, too. Interestingly, it is those same roads—well, in terms of the cardinal directions anyway—that the eunuch’s Christian descendants are now traveling again as they set off on missionary journeys into the West, North America, the U.K., and Europe, to re-bring the same message of redemption. May Christ succeed in opening our hearts through their ministry, not by helping us to regain confidence in the moral and spiritual strength some suppose were once the West’s surest possessions, but by returning our fidelity to the Trinity who has so ludicrously and wonderfully committed Himself to be with human beings and to grant them eternal life.

Where people’s hearts are open to the Lord, Christ will be with them, and so He is and has been. 

Gratefully,

Trent
Prayers:
  • Language acquisition/retention and time to prepare for remaining course work at Wycliffe and for the class I will be teaching in May
  • A permanent priest or dean for St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Addis Ababa
  • For the formation and protection of our students of St. Frumentius as they serve in their field education placements

If you would like to support the students of St. Frumentius and the ministries of the Anglican churches in Gambella, please consider giving here.

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Greetings from Gambella!

 Good Shepherd Anglican Church just outside Gambella. 

Two decades ago, Sudan experienced rapid, indigenous church growth. As a result, there are many Christians, but very few trained leaders. The confusion, internal conflict, and disorder created by civil war in South Sudan have made equipping leaders a difficult task. St. Frumentius Theological College was created exactly to address this problem and is committed to training pastors and lay leaders to serve the churches here in the Gambella region. Historic ethnic tensions continue to divide the area, but we hope that the church will embody peace and reconciliation as an aspect of their witness and ministry. One Nuer student, Tor, expressed to me that it was not until coming to St. Frumentius that he had ever eaten a meal with someone that was Anyuak or Mabaan, much less knew their names. “The college is about unity, our unity with Jesus Christ. He has made us one in the Body of Christ. Now I know that the Anyuak are not my enemy, but my brothers and sisters.” With this background in mind, one cannot help but see, staggeringly, what it means to celebrate the Eucharist and to pass the peace here. 

Below: The St. Frumentius students practicing a recent song project. They have begun translating a worship song into all of the different languages spoken in Gambella: Mabaan, Nuer, Anyuak, Jumjum, and Opo.

I sat in on two week’s worth of Chris’ classes, two sessions of which he designated for me to teach. Classes at St. Frumentius are taught very much in dialog, and necessarily so. Each school day, teacher and student encounter the Scriptures together, which is then slowly unpacked, translated, re-stated.

Below: Chris is teaching one of the classes at St. Frumentius.

The implications of the Gospel are then tested by the students themselves, who express what it means for their cultures, which often includes profound tension and difficulty, as well as relief, illumination, and joy. Some of the students are refugees while others belong to one of the Nilotic people groups that have been here for some time. Despite the tragedies they have faced, many of the students hope to return to do ministry where they are from in Sudan and South Sudan. Some will walk two or three days from where the road ends to reach them when that time comes. The students are hungry for Biblical training and are very hard working. Until a local faculty can be raised up, the students also learn English in order to communicate with us their teachers and with one another.[1]I am humbled to become one of these.  

Below: The handshake line at Good Shepherd. It is typical for everyone to shake hands after the service. 

One Thursday afternoon we visited Good Shepherd Anglican Church. Chris preached about Christian marriage and the problem of domestic violence. The Gospel teaches us that marriage is not about property, but about love, Christ’s love reflected necessarily in mutual spousal self-offering. Many women responded by gathering to ask for healing prayer. The pain and desperation of many was palatable as we spent time praying together. We returned to Good Shepherd for Sunday worship, where I finally met the famous “mother’s union,” whose determined and prayerful advocacy for their communities I heard about even before coming to Ethiopia. Elizabeth, a member of the mother’s union, also preached against domestic violence and the ways she discerned her community needed to continue to change, stepping away from this “normal” aspect of their culture, in an effort to more fully embrace the Gospel. This she did by appealing to stories familiar to Nilotic people. After this we prayed and sang, and then sang some more, all to the beat of Nuer drums.

My transition to life in Gambella so far has been comfortable, in most part due to the help of the Wilson family, who have made St. Frumentius their home for the past four years. The Wilson’s consist of the missionaries, teachers, and homesteaders, Chris and Suzy, along with their three, bright children: Abigail, Matthew, and Micah. I have been grateful for the developing friendship I have with them, along with the hospitality they readily offer, especially in the form of their seasoned advice, the homeliness of Suzy’s cakes (no small thing here), and the laughter we have shared together with the students of St. Frumentius.

Though I have not been in Ethiopia long, I am grateful to have been able to worship with Anglicans from distant parts of the communion all at once and already more than once. I am now preparing to go to Addis Ababa to begin studying Amharic, but will return to St. Frumentius in the spring. Thank you all for your continued prayers and support.

In Christ,

Trent Pettit

Praise:
  • No illness or serious insect encounters so far!
  • For Chris and Suzy Wilson, and all they have done to bless the students of St. Frumentius and the churches in Gambella

Prayers:
  • Language acquisition/retention and time to prepare for remaining course work at Wycliffe, ordination examinations, and for my first class in May

  • A permanent priest for St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Gambella

  • For the students of St. Frumentius beginning field education

  • For the Wilson family as they return to the U.K to visit their sponsor churches

Make Donations Here to help the Anglican Churches in Gambella. 

[1]There are at least five regional languages in the Gambella region, so it is helpful to have a uniting language that does not favor any one in particular.

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This blog is written by Trent Pettit who is going through the ordination process in the Dallas diocese. He's currently serving at St. Frumentius Theological College in Gambella, Ethiopia, and will provide occasional dispatches of his ministry there.