January 31, 2017

I was sure I would die: Arlene Kreider's story of fear and inner trust while living in Ethiopia

Written by  Emily Jones

In the 1970s, a Marxist military group called the Derg gained control of Ethiopia by force. There followed several years of civil unrest, in which gunfire seemed to resound beyond every horizon, friends and neighbors were divided by fear and betrayal, and the church was forced deep underground.


Arlene and fellow missionary Peg Groff stand with their Toyota, in which they traveled to Ethiopian refugee camps to administer and promote healthcare. 1979 photo by John Buckwalter.

One rainy day, I sat on Arlene Kreider's couch opposite a window overlooking Landis Homes and listened as she spoke about life in Ethiopia during the Marxist revolution. Arlene was a missionary in Ethiopia from 1967–89, which included nearly the entire span of the revolution — what she called a "fearful time." In a day when many were being imprisoned, tortured, and assassinated, I wondered how Arlene chose to stay under an anti-American, anti-Christian government at great personal risk. The answer, in her own words:

I managed the Ethiopian church guesthouse for two years before the government closed us down. In that context, I thought, "All my life, I've been taught to love your enemies. This is an ideal time to put this into practice. They've closed us down. How can I love these enemies?"

So I said I was willing to teach English at the nearby Christian school, now a government school. For seven years, I taught English in the government school that was once run by the church. I probably had a personal spy checking on me; that government was so anti-American. But it was during that time that more people came to us Christians inquiring about our lives. They could see there was something there — maybe lack of fear.

Fear, and its absence, seemed to be a key issue during those years in Ethiopia. Arlene told me how she gained the ability to cope in a place where fear seemed to fill the air:

During the early years of the revolution, we woke up to shooting and fell asleep to shooting. I would drive to my job at the bookstore in that environment each day. One morning on the way to work, I realized I was scared. I was afraid of getting caught in crossfire. 

Immediately, an inner voice said, "If you're going to be afraid, you need to go home. You can't function here if you're going to be afraid." I stopped the car right there. I'd had the profound realization that it was decision time: either I was afraid and needed to leave, or I could trust God in the midst of this. I chose the latter and became calm.

Although Arlene's spirit of fear was conquered in one miraculous encounter, fear would still surface in threatening situations. As Arlene said, "My experiences gradually developed deep in my heart the reality that God can handle anything. That doesn't mean I wouldn't be afraid if I faced trauma. I don't want to give the illusion that I'll never be afraid anymore." She told me about her experiences with fear in moments of crisis:

One evening Marxist officials came into the Ethiopian Meserete Kristos church guesthouse where I was a manager and took over the whole compound. A young woman from our congregation just up the street called me about five minutes before they got there. She was very distressed, saying, "The government officials have closed our church up the street, and they will arrive at our compound any minute." It was Sunday evening and I was the only person in authority on the whole compound. My knees were trembling.

In those five or ten minutes until the men entered, I kept praying that God would calm me down so I could think. It seems that when I've been really fearful, that has been my inner cry — "God, calm me down so I can think." It's almost as though I'm afraid of fear. I can't  cope unless I'm calm.

When they entered, I was completely calm and composed.

Another time, a couple of thieves broke into my apartment and I was held at gunpoint. Again, I asked God to calm me down so I could think. God told me, "Look through your life. Look at this crisis, look at that major event. Couldn't I handle that? I can handle this too."

The calming that I experienced was not God saying, “You’re going to live.” That night, I was sure I was going to die.
Again, there was no promise that my life would be spared. I marvel when I think of that. The calming that I experienced was not God saying, "You're going to live." That night, I was sure I was going to die.

In 1989, after 22 years that included working in a Christian bookstore, traveling with a mobile clinic to refugee camps, managing a guesthouse, teaching English, and more, Arlene moved back to America. The revolution ended two years later; its surprising impact on Arlene remains:

It seems the experiences of my journey in Ethiopia have helped me to learn trust, whatever comes. Keeping my physical life safe is not the most important thing. I feel that Jesus would have me work at not being afraid. When I'm scared, life shrinks. All I can think of is being rescued or defending myself. Fear makes me think there aren't options; that the only option is saving myself.


Arlene helps a customer in the Christian bookstore in capital city Addis Ababa. 1971 photo by Omar Eby. 

The impact of the revolution upon Ethiopian Christians was similarly enriching, against all odds. The Ethiopian church, under attack as it was, thrived underground during those years and emerged in much greater numbers than before. Is it possible for us, the American church, to cultivate something of the courage and resilience possessed by our family across the sea, I wondered? Arlene reflected:

The Christians in Ethiopia had more inner security. They weren't so troubled about keeping their lives safe. Being faithful to God "in the midst" was their priority.   

Here, there is more a concern for what I would call "outer security." People want most of all to keep their physical lives safe. This culture, with its technological advancement, tries to keep the "outer" safe. But there is no safety down here. Any security that we cook up is not real security.

I think the community of believers needs to develop a spirit of inner trust in God. We can't do it in isolation very well. This was true in Ethiopia too: one was not alone; prayer was priority. If we as a body of believers could intentionally work at trusting God to develop an inner trust, I think that would make a difference.

Arlene Kreider was an EMM missionary in Ethiopia from 1967-89, where she worked at a Christian bookstore, traveled with a mobile clinic to refugee camps for two years, managed the Ethiopian church guesthouse in Addis Ababa, and taught English under the Derg for seven years. Arlene currently lives in Lititz, Pa., where she volunteers in several capacities at Landis Homes. She is a Stephen Minister at her church, James Street Mennonite, and a "grandpal" in a program that matches seniors with schoolchildren.

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