SALUNGA, Pa. — She wrote countless lesson plans, graded hundreds of compositions, welcomed students who needed a listening ear at all hours, and poured many, many cups of tea. She had a quiet but profound influence on early leaders of Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia, the largest Anabaptist conference in the world today.
Esther Mae Becker (January 25, 1920—June 17, 2016) served with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) for 35 years in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Zambia. She “conversed readily in Amharic, but her caring spoke even louder. She was a ‘mother’ to many students and church workers,” wrote Harold Reed, former associate director of overseas ministries at EMM.
Becker began her teaching mission in Ethiopia in 1954, helping students at the Haile Selassie School for the Blind in Addis Ababa learn to lead productive lives. She distinguished herself by mastering braille and various handicraft skills for this specialized teaching. Many of her students there related to her as a guidance counselor long after they had completed their academic training.
When the School for the Blind moved out of Addis Ababa, Becker transferred to the Bible Academy in Nazareth, Ethiopia, teaching English to secondary students for 10 years. Here she taught, cared for, and counseled students who went on to become accountants, bankers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, and the early leaders of Meserete Kristos Church.
She also had the privilege of teaching with former students from the School for the Blind who joined the faculty at Nazareth Bible Academy. One such student turned colleague was Alemu Checole, who taught English literature, history, Bible, and music. Esther wrote: “When students heard that a blind teacher would be on the staff, they were dubious. ‘But how will he teach us?’ they asked. No longer do they ask for he has won their confidence. Particularly in music—vocal and piano—Ato Alemu is invaluable.”
After a 1967 visit with about 30 of the blind young men she had taught, Esther wrote: “Of course, I am biased, but I am proud of ‘my children and grandchildren.’ I am thankful that many spiritual eyes are alert although natural eyes have been blinded.”
Becker returned to the U.S. in 1973 and took a job at Provident Bookstore. However, she soon found herself in a secondary English classroom again, this time at a government school in Mogadishu, Somalia. After ten months in Somalia, Esther was transferred to a secondary school in Choma, Zambia.
Becker returned to Nazareth Bible Academy in Ethiopia in 1979, her love of teaching undiminished despite challenging teaching conditions in Zambia. She wrote: “To see a child grow physically, mentally, and emotionally is fascinating. For a teacher to see her students grow in spiritual depth and strength as well is not only inspiring but also accelerating; it simply compels her to go on, hopefully, challenging more students to become all that God has purposed for each life.”
When the Nazareth Bible Academy was nationalized by the Ethiopian government in the early 1980s, Becker again distinguished herself by applying for a teaching position at the University of Addis Ababa. She sat on the doorstep of the Ministry of Education for months in order to secure a position, confident that her ministry in Ethiopia had not ended.
Becker began teaching in the Foreign Languages and Literature Department at the university in 1982. Each semester, she worked with about 200 students in her freshman, sophomore, and intermediate English classes, including students she had taught at the Bible Academy and hundreds of others who’d had little exposure to genuine Christian faith. She listened to many students, men and women, who came to her flat to relax, chat, or talk about their problems.
Past retirement age, Becker maintained a heavy workload and was described by colleagues as conscientious, hardworking, and faithful in her teaching duties despite the long hours she spent caring for students and others. Becker finished teaching in Ethiopia in 1989 but continued to correspond with students and to pray for many in the country that had so deeply enriched her life.