March 7, 2018 // Bishop

Bishop’s trip to Ethiopia

Children pose with Bishop Rhoades on the first day of a Catholic Relief Services trip to visit its projects and programs in Ethiopia. CRS works with local Catholic churches and bishops in the country to provide humanitarian aid, assist with agricultural projects and carry out a range of social programs.

Click here for more photos from Bishop Rhoades and CRS in Ethiopia

Bishop Rhoades reflects on CRS trip to Ethiopia

Bishop Rhoades stands at St. George Church at Lalibela, Ethiopia. The Catholic Relief Services team viewed the process of food distribution to the poor in the northern city, and visited the famous rock-hewn churches from the 12th and 13th centuries, which prominently feature iconography.

Each year, as a member of the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Services, I have the opportunity to visit CRS projects in different parts of the world. Last week, I traveled to Ethiopia with Sean Callahan, the president and CEO of CRS, and a small group of CRS officials and benefactors. It was my first visit to Africa.

Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent country and second most populous nation, is unique in many ways. It was never colonized, though it was occupied for five years by Italy under the dictatorship of Mussolini. Its Rift Valley is known as the cradle of humanity due to the discovery of bones and fossils of the earliest human ancestors. While in Addis Ababa, the capital city, we got to visit the National Museum and see the skeletal remains of the famous 3.5 million-year-old “Lucy” and of other hominid species, as well as early stone tools used by ancient human ancestors.

Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, is home to over 80 ethnic groups. Its fascinating history includes the tradition, firmly held by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, that its early kingdoms go back to King Solomon of Israel who, according to that tradition, had a son with the Queen of Sheba. His name was Menelik I, Ethiopia’s first emperor. The Solomonic dynasty lasted until the end of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It was very interesting to learn about the history of Christianity in the region. Though some claim that it began with the baptism of the Ethiopian official by the deacon Philip, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, it is certain that Christianity was brought to the region, the kingdom of Aksum, by St. Frumentius in the early 4th century. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., the Church in Ethiopia, along with the Church in Alexandria, split from the Church of Rome due to their adherence to the Monophysite heresy condemned at Chalcedon. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the largest religious body in Ethiopia today, making up 44 percent of the population, followed by Islam at 34 percent.

The presence of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia can be traced back to St. Frumentius, however, since the Ethiopian Church separated from Rome after the Council of Chalcedon, it was not until the 19th century that the Catholic Church became present again in Ethiopia, thanks to the missionary efforts of St. Giustino de Jacobis. He was an Italian Vincentian priest who became Vicar Apostolic of Abyssinia, the first Catholic Bishop in Ethiopia in modern times. Today, Ethiopia has 13 territorial divisions led by bishops (1 archdiocese, 3 eparchies, 8 apostolic vicariates, and 1 apostolic prefecture).

CRS works closely with the local Catholic churches and bishops in several of the nine regional states of Ethiopia, as well as in the two chartered cities, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. Though the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is small in numbers, approximately 600,000 members (less than 1 percent of the population), it is a huge presence in terms of its many schools, social development projects and charitable works. The Ethiopian Catholic Church has two liturgical traditions: the Eastern Ge-ez Rite (the same rite as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) in the northern part of the country, and the Latin Rite in the southern part.

Catholic Relief Services has been present and active in Ethiopia for 60 years. After the devastating famines in 1983-1985 in which over 1 million people died and millions of others suffered, CRS undertook the largest relief operation in its history, the Joint Relief Partnership, an ecumenical effort delivering food that has saved millions of Ethiopian lives. Today, CRS continues to provide emergency food supplies in Ethiopia. CRS leads the Joint Emergency Operation Plan (JEOP), coordinating with the Ethiopian government and various NGOs the distribution of food from USAID.

CRS has many other programs and projects in Ethiopia besides emergency food distribution. These include food security activities, family livelihood projects, agricultural projects, support for internally displaced people, a girls’ empowerment project and very important water and sanitation activities. CRS is very active in Ethiopia, since it is a very poor country where the majority of people live on less than $2/day. More than 80 percent of the labor force is in agriculture, although urbanization is increasing in Ethiopia. There is growing frustration among young people at the lack of employment opportunities, even for those who graduate from universities.

John Shumlansky, the CRS Country Representative in Ethiopia, was our guide and host during our week-long visit. On March 5th, John accompanied Sean Callahan and I to a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, John Raynor. Ambassador Raynor expressed his gratitude for the excellent work of CRS and we expressed gratitude to him for the assistance of USAID. Ambassador Raynor shared with us about the difficult political situation in Ethiopia at this time, as he also was awaiting the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State in a few days. The prime minister of Ethiopia submitted his resignation the previous week and the government had declared a state of emergency. Because of strikes protesting the state of emergency, our itinerary for the week had to be changed. Two main areas we were scheduled to visit, Dire Dawa and Meki, were now blocked by the protest strikes.

After meeting with the ambassador, we joined the rest of our group at the main office of CRS in Addis Ababa. We were welcomed by the staff and had an opportunity to receive an overview of the work of CRS in Ethiopia.

Prevented from traveling to Dire Dawa that afternoon, we remained in Addis Ababa and visited the compound of the Missionaries of Charity. There the sisters have several buildings where they care for and house about 650 very sick and destitute men, women and children. There are separate sections for people with different diseases, including tuberculosis, AIDS, skin diseases and cancer. These people are truly the poorest of the poor and, if it were not for the Missionaries of Charity, most of them would probably simply die in the slums and on the streets. Volunteer doctors, nurses, and aides, together with the sisters, provide loving care for the sick and dying. CRS provides all the food for the residents. We were blessed to celebrate Holy Mass in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity on our first full day in Ethiopia.

On March 6th, we flew to the city of Mekele in the northernmost state of Tigray (not on our original schedule) and visited there with the workers at the CRS warehouses of USAID emergency food supplies. The warehouses were filled with large bags of wheat and yellow split peas and boxes of containers of vegetable oil that would be distributed at sites throughout northern Ethiopia. The JEOP program has saved many lives during the severe droughts of these past two years. In 2016, this USAID-funded operation, administered by CRS, provided food aid monthly to 2.8 million people and, in 2017, monthly to 1.8 million people.  

We visited two CRS water projects in the Tigray region on March 6th. At the first, we saw the terraces built along the hills to better keep the rainwater and prevent soil erosion, and saw water diversion by the building of canals to help irrigate more land. At the second site, we saw similar water management with a newly-built reservoir that now supports hundreds of people of the area with water for several months a year.

Only about 15 percent of Ethiopian land is arable, yet over 80 people of the Ethiopian people are subsistence farmers. These CRS projects help prevent the soil erosion caused by deforestation and periodic torrential rains. The capturing of water is important in the face of severe droughts. CRS has donated several drilling rigs to the Ethiopian Catholic Church to tap deep, essential groundwater on a wider scale.

It is important to note that CRS does not work alone in these projects. Besides collaboration with various partners, CRS always works in tandem with the local Catholic church and with the local people. In the above-mentioned water projects, the local people organize with the help of CRS, and are assisted in carrying out and maintaining the projects. CRS helps to build the capacity of the local communities so that the programs continue and become self-sustaining.

After visiting the water projects, we spent two hours with the social development staff of the Eparchy (diocese) of Adigrat. The Eparch, Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhim, and his staff hosted us for a delicious vegetarian dinner at the diocesan center next to the beautiful Cathedral of Our Savior in Adigrat. Ethiopian Catholics and Orthodox abstain from meat and dairy products throughout each of the 50 days of their Lenten fast.

On March 7th, we drove from Adigrat back to Mekele and celebrated Mass at the chapel of a Salesian school. We then flew back to Addis Abada and visited with the Archbishop, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. The Cardinal shared with us the challenges of the country’s poverty and his deep gratitude for the work of CRS. He also shared with us about the building of the new (and first and only) Catholic university in Ethiopia. It opened a few years ago in Addis Ababa, but much work still needs to be done to establish more educational programs and expand the campus.

On March 8th, we flew again to the north to Lalibela in the regional state of Amhara. This was also not part of our original itinerary. We drove 45 kilometers from Lalibela through the mountainous region, on mostly unpaved roads, to visit one of the food distribution sites of JEOP in Kulmesk. Since we had already toured a warehouse in Mekele, I was happy to get to observe the food distribution process. At Kulmesk, we observed the organized distribution of the food. Hundreds of people waited to receive their food allotment as determined by need. Elderly people and pregnant and nursing mothers awaited their allotment in a shady area constructed at the site. Over 1,500 beneficiaries were served at the Kulmesk site on the day we visited. CRS oversees and monitors the 253 JEOP distribution sites in Ethiopia. This CRS-led and USAID-funded JEOP consortium serves as the pipeline for about 33 percent of the emergency-affected population of Ethiopia.

On the drive back to Lalibela, we stopped to see some of the huts of the families of the region. Poor families live together in one-room huts, even sometimes sharing the room with livestock. In many, there is just one bed and children sleep on the floor. There is no electricity.

The next morning, before flying back to Addis Ababa, we visited the famous rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, an unexpected and welcome addition to our itinerary. It was amazing to see these 12th-13th century churches, with their unique architectural features and iconography. It was impressive to see the devotion of the local people praying at these churches and at other places we visited. We learned about the devotion of the Ethiopian Christians to their Old Testament roots, not only traced to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but also to the Ark of the Covenant. The Ethiopian Orthodox believe that the original Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik I and is now kept in Saint Mary’s Church in Aksum. Every Ethiopian Orthodox church has a “tabot” in the center, a wooden box containing a replica of the Tablets of the Law given to Moses. The tabot is kept in the Holy of Holies in the center of the church, like in the ancient temple of Jerusalem, and is veiled by curtains.

One of the areas that was on the original schedule was Meki, where the Bishop’s Secretariat works on several projects with CRS, including an impressive girls’ empowerment program that helps mostly rural girls to more fully reach their potential through education, leadership and decision-making. Since we were unable to visit Meki, the Apostolic Vicar of Meki, Bishop Abraham Desta, and the Diocesan Director of the Secretariat, Father Gobezayehu Getachew Yilma, came to Addis Ababa on March 10th to meet and have lunch with us. They were accompanied by three of the young women who participate in the girls’ empowerment program. They shared with us the positive impact of this joint program of CRS and the Meki Vicariate on their lives and futures. Later that day, we celebrated our final Mass in Ethiopia with Bishop Abraham at a chapel of a guest house of the Meki Vicariate in Addis Ababa before our flight home that night.

Though we and CRS were thanked many times throughout the week, I also felt much gratitude for the kindness and hospitality of our Ethiopian and CRS hosts. Throughout the trip, I experienced the wonderful friendliness of the Ethiopian people and was often moved by their beautiful expressions of faith. Though there is extreme poverty and much suffering in Ethiopia, and some fears due to the present political insecurity, there is also a joy, a hope and a resilience that has no natural explanation. The only explanation I can think of is the deeply rooted Christian faith, the nearly 2,000-year adherence to the suffering and crucified Lord who is risen from the dead!

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