12 Years of Perseverance

In fits and starts, an Ethiopian village builds a church

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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The prayers lasted through the night, carrying into Sunday’s liturgy. On Saturday night 20 priests had assembled in the adobe-hut chapel near Babogaya, a small Ethiopian village some 80 miles south of Addis Ababa.

The priests chanted until 6 a.m., when the village faithful began to show up. “They are farmers and used to getting up early,” explained Eresi Megersa, an elder in the local Ethiopian Orthodox community.

The eucharistic liturgy, or Qeddase, that followed lasted for several hours, as is customary throughout the country.

Drums could be heard inside the hut, which was too small to accommodate the hundreds of parishioners, most of whom stood outside listening to the liturgy over loudspeakers.

Two deacons, boys still, dressed in magenta and gold robes, moved among the congregation, collecting offerings to complete a new church - some 12 years in the making - that stood nearby.

It is not unusual for the building of churches to span many years. It took about 100 years to complete the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, for instance. But this church, dedicated to Medhane Alem, (or Savior of the World in Amharic) was a simple project that could have been finished much sooner, were funds collected in the modern, Western manner. But this church was built in the traditional Ethiopian way, one penny at a time.

The first financial thrust, however, came not from the villagers, but from the Galilee Center, a Jesuit-run center for the formation of Catholic clergy and religious located a few miles from Babogaya.

Jesuit Father Miguel Garcia, a Chilean on staff at the center who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for 22 years, works closely with the local Orthodox community and secured, more than a decade ago, the funding to lay the church’s foundations.

A close friend and collaborator of CNEWA, he also secured an additional grant of $3,000 from the agency, but the burden of the funding came from the villagers themselves, in small installments. All told, the church, which was eventually completed last December and consecrated in January, cost $35,000. “We’ve needed this church for a long time,” said Abba Melake Tsehaye Dibekulu Melese, the parish’s pastor. “The hut we’ve been using temporarily is 12 years old. Before that, people had to walk six miles to the nearest church.”

The church stands atop a hill overlooking the village, a dusty scattering of a few hundred simple homes. There is electricity, but no running water. The residents fetch water from nearby Lake Kuriftu. Young children tend the cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats that share the dirt roads with the villagers.

Babogaya is a farming village. The residents work the nearby fields, cultivating tef, the region’s staple grain. Others work in nurseries, industrial greenhouses that cultivate roses, carnations and other luxuries for export. The average income is about $55 a month.

The children attend classes, with the majority dropping out after primary school. Very few will finish 12th grade and go on to college.

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Tags: Ethiopia Village life Ethiopian Orthodox Church Funding