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October 9, 2019

Meserete Kristos Church provides inspiration for LMC as it looks to the future

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Gebeyaw Alemu (right) interacts with James Sutton (center) and Rodney Martin (left) during the MKC General Assembly Meeting. Gebeyaw Alemu (right) interacts with James Sutton (center) and Rodney Martin (left) during the MKC General Assembly Meeting. Tom Eshleman/LMC

BISHOFTU, Ethiopia — Standing in one of the regional offices of the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC), the church’s former president, Tewodros Beyene introduced several LMC leaders to the church’s administrative staff. He explained that the LMC delegation had come to listen to MKC. 

Turning to the LMC leaders, tears began to well in Tewodros’ eyes. He continued to share that usually when Europeans and North Americans come to Ethiopia, they come to tell them how to do something. 

Tewodros concluded by telling the LMC leaders how much it meant to him that they came just to listen and to learn from the church. “It felt like such a holy moment,” explained Bishop Rodney Martin.

Formerly known as Lancaster Mennonite Conference, LMC — a fellowship of Anabaptist churches — embarked on a learning tour that included several of its leaders: Global Delegate Tom Eshleman, Bishop Glenn Kauffman, Bishop Rodney Martin, Bishop Alvin Motley, Bishop James Sutton, and Moderator Keith Weaver.

LMC’s purpose for the August 27–September 6 trip was “to represent the sending church (LMC) that the Holy Spirit used to birth MKC and to establish a relationship in our generation that honors that legacy and to learn from MKC leaders what God will impart to the group for us to carry home to the U.S. and impart into LMC,” said Eshleman.

In 2018, MKC Vice President Kelbessa Muleta and the chair of the Meserete Kristos College Board were in the U.S. on a fundraising and promotional tour. During this time, they also connected with several leaders from LMC. 

Kelbessa said that LMC was like a parent to them and asked why LMC had forgotten about their child. This humbling reflection initiated the planning of a delegation of LMC leaders to travel to Ethiopia.

As the planning of the trip continued, it became apparent that not only would there be historic significance for this meeting, but that it would also impact the future of LMC.

LMC wanted to learn about how MKC cultivates “such a deep commitment to multiplication across their system and bring that back,” said Weaver.

Motley celebrated the unity that was exemplified in the church, “I saw the solidarity — the value of operating as one.... they weren't operating as different entities.” MKC has an adaptive administrative structure that spans regions and various language groups throughout Ethiopia.

While in Ethiopia, LMC leaders asked questions about the structure of MKC. Tewodros explained that it isn’t about the structure — the structure keeps on changing to catch up to the growth they’re experiencing. He indicated that it’s really about the prayer that’s invested into it.

Kauffman reflected, “That doesn’t mean that they don’t organize. That doesn’t mean that they don’t structure. They have more specific structures and goals and counting of results … than what we do, [but] they also have a lot more prayer than we do.”

Sutton was particularly inspired by MKC’s commitment to making disciples of Jesus: “MKC has a passion for Christ and ... for seeking and saving the lost.”

“They were showing us what it means to be Anabaptist,” said Eshleman. “They hold together some things — that in the West we tend to separate — like evangelism and peace and justice. For them, they go together in ways that I rarely see in North American culture. Or even bringing together a priority for organization and procedure with a freedom of the Spirit.”

Weaver believes LMC is at a crossroads. “We’re even ready to look at our whole governing structure … and ask what needs to be changed. The Conference Executive Council took action in their last meeting to ask a task force” to look at the governing structure of LMC. Weaver believes that insights learned from their Ethiopia trip have influenced this conversation.

The October 25 Bishop Board meeting will provide an opportunity for an extended conversation about the roles and functions of LMC’s governing structure.

LMC leaders were received as honorary delegates at the MKC General Assembly Meeting. As LMC’s delegation sat among the other delegates, they were surprised to realize that a procedural vote for the church’s presidential election resulted in the conclusion of Tewodros’s tenure as president of the church.

While Tewodros had not been re-elected to a new term as president, LMC leaders witnessed an incredible moment of humility carried out by Tewodros. To the astonishment of delegates, Tewodros had a basin and pitcher placed on the stage. He invited the incoming president, Desalegn Abede, to be seated as Tewodros descended to his knees. Tewodros proceeded to wash the feet of his successor — LMC leaders were inspired by Tewodros’ servant spirit.

Beyene explained in an email to Weaver and other global Anabaptist leaders, “I believe, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Assembly has elected our brother Desalegn Abebe to serve the Lord as MKC president.” 

Kauffman visited a church in Adama, formerly known as Nazareth. En route, they drove past two sites where Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) workers had initiated important work: where Chester Wenger founded a school and where Rohrer Eshleman founded a hospital. 

After the church service was over, they met an older gentleman who served as a key evangelist during the years in which the church was underground. Kauffman was also introduced to a group of young adults who do street evangelism. In one morning, Kauffman had experienced what he described as “continuity of this evangelistic role, empowerment, and recognition of this deep, deep passion that remains there in the church.”

Although Mennonites had been involved in relief work in Ethiopia since 1945, it wasn’t until late 1947 that EMM would begin evangelistic work that would lead to the founding of MKC. 

An untitled history by A. Grace Wenger chronicled this 1945 initiation when the “joint meeting of the Eastern Mission Board and the Lancaster Bishop Board unanimously approved the recommendation” that missionaries be sent to Ethiopia.

Seventy-four years after that meeting, MKC has grown to be a church of more than 600,000 worshippers. The six LMC leaders were grateful for the things they had learned from MKC over these 10 days. 

Integral to the fulfillment of this vision of LMC leaders learning from MKC was a generous grant from the First Mennonite Church of Berne, Ind. — a congregation that joined LMC in 2016.