Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state in East Africa; Christianity has been established there for almost 2000 years. At about 43 per cent, the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, but Islam is on the rise at 34 per cent. The Catholic Church only arrived on the territory of what is today Ethiopia in the 19th century. Its members are only a minority at one per cent of the population. In spite of this, the Church plays a very important role in the educational system and is active in caring for the poor, which has given it an esteemed position in society.
Sister Medhin Tesfay (44) has belonged to the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (Vincentians) for 26 years and works in the diocese of Adigrat in the northern part of Ethiopia. She talked about her work and her vocation with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The interview was held by Eva-Maria Kolmann.
Sister Medhin, you belong to the Daughters of Charity. Please tell us a little about your work!
One part of our work is taking care of children and adolescents who are living on the streets. Some are orphans, others have run away from home because of conflicts within the family. The fathers are often alcoholics and physically abuse their families. In other cases, there are psychological disorders within the family. For example, we are currently taking care of a girl whose mother has a psychological disorder that leads her to bring home all the garbage she finds on the streets. She throws all of the refuse on the bed and scatters it across the family’s small living area. There is no space left in the home for the child. We sisters visit the family members of the children to show them esteem and love and offer them our help. We listen to them and give them advice. In some cases, the problems can be solved and the children can return to their families. We support them and their family members in this process. If this is not possible, the children stay with us. We make sure that they can go to school and that they have everything they need.
But we also take care of the sick, for example those infected with AIDS, and run an eye clinic. We provide medical care, but it is also important to listen to the patients and to give them assistance and help of all kinds, also emotional and spiritual.
What do you consider the spiritual foundation of your service?
The founder of our order, St. Vincent de Paul, said, “Ten times a day a sister will go to visit the sick poor; ten times a day she will find God there.” That is exactly what has been my personal experience and I get a lot more back than I give!
In carrying out our work, it is important to always look beyond the superficial outward appearance. A person can be completely filthy and dressed in rags, but we need to recognise Christ in him. On the other hand, you should not turn anyone away just because he is well dressed and affluent and you don’t believe that he really needs help. Even the wealthy can be in great spiritual need. Supposed beauty or ugliness cannot be a criterion for us; instead, we always have to see Christ.
But how do you deal with the extreme poverty that you are faced with?
I consider the poverty that I am faced with a challenge to never cease doing good. The word “laziness” is not a part of my vocabulary. I have to give my best and use the abilities and opportunities that God has given me.
The poor can also never rest. Most of the people here are day labourers. If they don’t do anything today, then they will not have anything to eat tomorrow. With everything that I see, I do not want to waste any time, but answer the call that God has directed to me: namely, to love these people in the same way as God loves them.
How did you discover your own calling?
My family provided my first formation in faith. My parents, who were very deeply rooted in their faith, taught us to esteem God. They raised us in God’s love, the God who became incarnate and who loves us.
There were religious sisters in our village who worked in a clinic. When I was a pupil, I watched them carry out their service and felt a strong desire to do the same. I prayed, “Dear God, one day I also want to be like them!” Their example led me to the religious life and when I finished school, I joined the Daughters of Charity. That was 26 years ago. I wanted to change the lives of people in need out of a love for God. It was not that I didn’t have any other choice and all other doors were closed to me. No, although I had a large number of options, this was the path I chose and I am happy! If I were given the choice again today, I would do the same.
Has the relationship between the people and the faith also changed in Ethiopia since your childhood?
Yes, I believe so. Overall, there have been many changes. In many families, not all members share the same values. It is not uncommon for family members to belong to different religions. Many families fall apart. Overall, the faith is in decline. People think that they do not need God and that they are not dependent upon their family. Today, globalisation, the media and individualism play an ever more important role. In particular, for many the sacraments no longer hold the significance they once did. Today, the faith is in decline. Of course there still are deeply religious people, but overall, many things are changing.
What do you believe the Church should do to bring more people back to the faith?
First and foremost, the Church has to carry out its main task: the proclamation of faith. Life is meaningless if the spirit is not nurtured. Without Christ, there is no inner peace and everything just runs like a machine. We have to return Christ to the very centre of our lives. And no matter what else the Church does in terms of charitable activities, the spiritual always has to come first.
Ethiopia is one of the priority countries of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. Last year, the local Catholic Church received aid amounting to more than 1.36 million euros. The main areas of support were the building of churches and chapels, offering formation to priests and religious, helping parishes that extend over wide areas carry out pastoral care by supplying motor vehicles as well as supporting the work of religious sisters.