We are there.
The March 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine includes an article titled, “Africa’s Last Frontier: Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is still a place ruled by ritual and revenge. But change is coming from upriver.” As always, the photographs are stunning and the article itself is beautifully well written. The story about the changing lives of these ancient African tribes is fascinating. But I would not have paid careful attention to this article until I heard about the mission work of Presbyterian World Mission missionaries John and Gwen Haspel in the same region of Ethiopia. According to Haspel’s, change is also coming to this remote region through the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit. The Haspels have been our missionaries in Africa – primarily in Sudan and Ethiopia – since 1974. Their service builds on and supplants the years of service which both their parents also invested in Africa.
Our Big Spring Presbyterian Church, in the Presbytery of Carlisle, has supported the Haspels for many years. The Haspels recently visited Big Spring church as part of their home itineration. John started his presentation by saying, “It is good to be back with you here at Big Spring Church. We were here before, 25 years ago.” John and Gwen told a story of missionary service that enlivened my imagination, made my skin tingle with a sense of the sheer courage and perseverance of their commitment, and bolstered my pride with the simple knowledge that our Presbyterian Church has people there with among these primeval tribes of Ethiopia. What National Geographic called the last frontier, we call, in the jargon of today’s missiology, one of the few unreached people groups in the world. And the Haspels are there with a deep, sustained, evangelistic mission to spread the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Haspels are an exemplary witness to the effectiveness of persistent, long-suffering commitment to mission service. Consider this description of their work from their Mission Connections webpage: John and Gwenyth Haspels work on a multiphase project in Ethiopia that would be taxing to the patience of almost anyone. It took the Haspels four years to receive work permits and resident visas from the Ethiopian government for phase I of the project. "We have been learning to wait on and trust in the Lord," said Gwenyth. Phase I of the project is devoted to construction of a 70-kilometer road to Tum and a second road through the mountains to the Surma people in Kibish, and also the development of a good water system for Tum. Phase II of the project is a comprehensive program that includes evangelism, education, medical care, and development work. The Haspels' work is being carried out at the invitation of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.
Many of the same features of social life which are profiled in the National Geographic article were also described by the Haspels. For complex historical and geographic reasons, the assault of the colonial powers in the 19th century missed this region of Ethiopia. Until very recently this part of Africa has not been touched by western influence. In this region, in far southwestern Ethiopia, the international borders with Sudan and Kenya are less meaningful than the divisions between the tribes. Ancient language and cultural barriers are still powerful. But the long reach of the modern world is now felt in the tragic influx of AK-47 rifles from Sudan which takes the socially ingrained commitment to revenge killing to a new level. The government’s ambitious plan to build a hydro-electric plant on the agriculturally, life-giving Omo river will probably not benefit the tribes who depend on its ebb and flow but the distant, national government will make money. And, of course, change also comes in the slow work of missionaries bringing schools and churches, a message of reconciliation in Christ, and a vision of Christian community which crosses tribal lines. This spreading of the Word is, as everywhere, often compromised by the corrosive effect of every type of profit seeker, exploitive tourism, and the long reach of modern economic development typically connected in some way with oil.
Despite it all, the light shines in the darkness, the seed of truth in planted and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed. I believe that in our lives today the movements, thoughts, reflections and insights of our modern culture are completely separated from the spiritual and theological convictions of the church. Thus it is necessary when we read and study things from our culture to ask ourselves where the hidden and mysterious work of God may be seen. This for me was confirmed again by carefully reading this National Geographic article about the Ethiopian frontier. As I expected this article did not mention the good work of our missionaries in that area. But the National Geographic article told the powerful story about a young man named Dunga. Dunga’s father had been killed by a rival tribe and Dunga’s older brother, Kornan, has also been murdered. “After Kornan was killed, the double weight fell to Dunga along paths of tradition worn as hard as the trails leading down to the river.” The article tells a compelling story about the way Dunga finally broke free of the “duty of vengeance.” This change is, the article presumes, the result of Dunga’s desire for education and hard, personal effort to seek schooling for himself. But there is a little sentence tucked into this story which the National Geographic author does not develop as transformational or important. “He wears a silver crucifix, a symbol of newly acquired beliefs.” Only we Christians will know that this little detail is, in fact, the whole Truth. Dunga’s newly acquired beliefs have changed his life bringing him out of the darkness of spiraling violence and into the light of Christ. It is this change which has the power, maybe more than electricity or economic development, to bless his family and people. Dunga, in a small, personal step, broke the tradition of violence. “The tribal elders supported his decision. . . They saw the trap of tradition that awaited Dunga, the one that had claimed Kornan. The elders understood Dunga was now more than a man caught in a blood feud – he was an educated representative of his people, a future leader, and a role model.” John and Gwen Haspel would understand Dunga’s transformation as a gift of grace. May our eyes also be open to the mystery of God’s work all around us.