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God in Gambella

Posted on: September 5, 2016 3:29 PM
Sarah, who is from the Nuer tribe, helps lead the local Mothers’ Union in Gambella
Photo Credit: Church Mission Society

[Church Mission Society] The world has focused on refugees arriving in the EU from the Middle East but there is a story seldom told about refugees in Ethiopia – and how God is moving through them. Bishop Grant and Dr Wendy LeMarquand visited the Church Mission Society offices in Oxford, England, this summer and provided an inside view of what’s happening in the Gambella region, in the far west of Ethiopia, near the South Sudan border.

“Gambella is a two-day drive from Addis Ababa,” Bishop Grant explained, adding, “Everything from cars and roads to clothing and money are new there. This is the first generation that’s had any of those things. People live in houses made with mud and sticks and thatched roofs. The temperatures are harsh; it can be easily up to 40s, 50s or even 60s Celsius in the dry season – it’s one of the hottest places on earth. The power goes off most days, water supply is not constant and the internet only works sometimes.”

Most people live by subsistence farming. Healthcare is minimal. Ethnic violence and squabbles over land and local politics present frequent challenges.

Massive migration

Yet against this backdrop, the Anglican Church in Gambella is growing rapidly, thanks in large part to the influx of Sudanese refugees. For a long time, there was only one Anglican church in Ethiopia, in Addis. When the LeMarquands first arrived in Gambella in 2012 there were 53 Anglican churches, which were mostly set up by refugees who fled conflict between Sudan and South Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s and shared their faith among other refugees and local Ethiopians.

Today, with a further 300,000 South Sudanese refugees who’ve crossed into Gambella since December 2013 (doubling the population) there are about 90 Anglican churches, including 35 to 40 in refugee camps throughout the area, while others are in villages and towns.

As area bishop for the Horn of Africa, Bishop Grant is responsible for the Anglican churches in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia. Most of the area’s churches are in Ethiopia and a majority of those are in Gambella, where currently over half the population consists of refugees. Many are based in large refugee camps. Several new refugee camps have been built to accommodate the most recent influx of refugees, each hosting about 40,000 people.

Bishop Grant said: “Wendy and I are quite aware of the fact that migration, emigration and refugees are getting a huge amount of press around the world. We are a little disturbed that our refugees don’t get much press.”

He traced the background to the refugees’ arrival: “Sudan’s civil war between the north and south began in the 1950s, there was a break in the 1970s but until South Sudan became independent (9 July 2011) there was a war going on in the southern part of Sudan for decades. When that war ended in 2005 and South Sudan formed there was a short period of peace. Then in December 2013 a civil war began in South Sudan – which quickly became ethnically charged. The Nuer and Dinka people were fighting for control and power. Many Nuer people fled into Gambella in Ethiopia, while some of the Dinka (from other parts of South Sudan) had to leave and flee into Kenya or Uganda.”

Most of the refugees are Nuer people. There are also Anuak, Opo, some Dinka, Mezhenger, Murle and Mabaan people among the displaced.

Wendy said, “We hear people’s stories of having to flee from the bullets, grasping whatever they can. We ask them, ‘What can you carry?’ They tell us, ‘It’s mainly our children.’”

Rapid church growth through refugees

The rapid growth of the Anglican Church in Gambella is thanks largely to the Sudanese refugees who fled Sudan and South Sudan and brought their faith into the refugee camps in the Gambella region. As the Sudanese Christian refugees started evangelising in the area, the local Ethiopians of traditional African religion became interested in the gospel, which spread from the camps to the surrounding villages and more churches were planted.

Building the chapel in Gambella

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Constructing the chapel at St Frumentius Anglican Theological College.
Photo: Church Mission Society

Bishop Grant elaborated: “People in this part of Africa have believed in one God but have always thought that God was distant from them; now they hear about a God who has come to them in Jesus. The story of Jesus fits into their faith in God and they see that as a completion of what they have known before.

“Church draws people into community and also draws people together across ethnic divisions. Whereas traditional African religion is ethnically based the Church is not ethnically based – it’s a global family of people from every tribe, people and language.”

A church Bishop Grant visited recently demonstrates this unity. Bishop Grant: “This church is in a camp in the southern part of Gambella, near the town of Dima. The camp is ethnically mixed: Nuer, Dinka, Anuak and Murle – all traditional enemies. When I went there they told me they did not want separate churches. They wanted to show their people that it was possible to live together. So I called the church Holy Family, both because Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees and because this church was demonstrating what holiness means.” With so many churches springing up, the bishop spends many Sundays visiting and naming new congregations.

The LeMarquands are based at the Gambella Anglican Centre and have been there for four years, sent through SAMS-USA. They were missionaries in Kenya in the 1980s and Bishop Grant taught at St Paul’s, Limuru Theological College, just outside Nairobi. He has travelled regularly to Africa over many years, directing the academic work of African church leaders. A graduate of Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada, he most recently taught at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, USA – where he was a professor and academic dean. Dr Wendy is a medical general practitioner with more than 30 years’ experience. She currently encourages women in the churches to improve their health and hygiene, doing so with Mothers’ Union leaders, and prays with them.

The Gambella Anglican Centre opened in November 2010 when the first bishop, Bishop Andrew Proud, was in office. Today it provides a central gathering place for the 90 Anglican congregations in the region. It hosts clergy training, a chapel, library facilities, sports programmes and also hosts literacy workshops and Mothers’ Union meetings. It’s also where St Frumentius Anglican Theological College is based. Bishop Grant serves as chair of the board of this new college and teaches courses there.

The need for theological training

Church Mission Society has until recently had one mission partner in Ethiopia – Rosemary Burke, secretary-general of the Anglican Church of Ethiopia, based in Gambella and Addis. But in recognition of this growing mission field and at the invitation of the diocese, CMS has recently appointed Chris and Suzy Wilson to work in theological training at St Frumentius.

The churches in Gambella are currently served by just 17 clergy, only one of whom has a theological degree. The congregations worship in a variety of languages – including Anuak, Dinka, Nuer, Mabaan, Jum-Jum and Opo. The need for theological training for the current and next generation is something that Bishop Grant and Dr Wendy are passionate about; this is what led them to take up the post four years ago.

Wendy explains: “This is one of the few areas in the world where there has been almost no opportunity for people to access education. The Church is growing rapidly. The pastors have said that they know how to plant churches, they know how to bring people to Christ but they don’t know how to make disciples, they don’t know the Bible.

“When Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, the Bishop of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, travelled to Gambella in 2011 and asked the Gambella clergy what they wanted in a new area bishop, they asked for someone who can teach theology and empower people. This helped us to say ‘yes, we would like to be part of that process of empowerment.’”

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“Our refugees don't get much press” – Dr Wendy and Bishop Grant LeMarquand.
Photo: Church Mission Society

Bishop Grant says: “When we got here four years ago we had a group of clergy who were keen to lead their churches but had virtually no training (the previous bishop had started a programme of theological education by extension, which served the area well but the clergy needed to go deeper). So our priority has been to do this.”

It was a great answer to prayer when, with the help of many people around the world, St Frumentius Anglican Theological College began its first year of operation in September 2015. Frumentius was the first missionary and the first bishop in Ethiopia in the early fourth century. Nine full-time students at the college have just completed their first academic year and will go on to do another two years. A further 11 students joined at the beginning of this academic year. The dean of the college is Johann Vanderbijl from Namibia.

Meet one of the new intake: Samuel Gatwech Keat is a 21-year-old Nuer refugee living in the Jewi refugee camp just outside of Gambella town. He is married to Nyakuacha Chot and they have one son named Keat Gatwech. Samuel told Johann that when his father died, his uncle refused to take care of him so he cried out to God who provided him with a place to live with his grandmother. Because of this, he decided to become a follower of this God who hears and answers. He is active in the Church and wants to get his diploma from St Frumentius so that he can serve the Church better.

The Call in Action

  • PRAY for the Church to continue to flourish in Gambella despite all the challenges

  • PRAY for St Frumentius College – that more church leaders will be equipped to make disciples inside refugee camps and in the wider communities

  • SUPPORT Chris and Suzy Wilson, new mission partners in Gambella