The Role of Oromo Evangelical Churches towards uplifting Oromumma and Oromo Unity

The following excerpt is taken from Reverend Dr Gemechu Olana’s presentation for Oromo Studies Association Mid-Year Conference held at the University of Minnesota on April 3, 2010.

The Empowering Role of the Oromo Evangelical Christianity in Historical Perspectives

Historically, it was the empowering presence of the Evangelical pioneers that enhanced the expansion of the Evangelical Christianity among there Oromo people. The evangelical churches were seen as an alternative to the disempowering religion of the Abyssinian colonial power. They were perceived by most Southern people and especially the Oromos as a medium toward modernity and independency. In the middle of the immense social crisis and economic miseries created by the colonial power evangelical Christianity become an alternative religion that offers hope and future. 14

This notion can be clearer, when we closely study the works of the pioneer Oromo evangelical leaders. The earlier indigenous Oromo pioneer evangelists saw their work in among their people not merely in terms of evangelization but also as a chance of introducing modern education to their people. Onesimos Nasib was a good example. For him, not only preaching religion but also providing education to the Oromo in their own vernacular was a passionate subject. When he first arrived in Oromo land in 1904 after 35 years of exile, the first thing he did was establish a school among the Oromo of Wallaga. His literary works integrated both the religious and the secular in a way that that created a great enthusiasm and a raised consciousness among the Oromo people.

When writing about the situation to his friends in Sweden, he says: ‘We have nothing to fear from this side of the people. The land is open to us. The master comes with his servants, the father with his son, brothers with brothers and friends with friends and insists and begs us to teach them’15 

The Oromo people and its leaders apparently felt that their dignity was restored by this work of Onesimos at the site of the conquest and Amhara cultural subordination.16 Later, concerns and activities of the indigenous local and national church leaders were always seen as a continuation of the work of the pioneer evangelists like Onesimos. Even today, this assumption has remained strong among all Oromo Speaking Evangelical Churches and leaders. 17

The other Example is the work of Rev Gudina Tumsa. His theological thinking and work was practically based on indignation with oppressed people of Ethiopian, especially the Oromo people. By making a clear detachment from the prevailing stand of Orthodox Christianity and the pietistic mission tradition, he saw man and his needs as a totality, in which the verbal communication of the Gospel and the social mission of the Church are seen not to be contradictory, but rather to be the integral parts of the total responsibility of the Church.  

He argued for a sound contextual and indigenous theology, a theology which takes the social-cultural, political and economic reality seriously.  In his Memorandum of 1972, for church leaders, Rev. Gudina argued that it is only by relating critically to its contextual social reality that the church develops in a give society toward its own identity and authenticity.18  That was what he tried to bring into the life of the church during his service as General Secretary of the EECMY, a daring attempt in the context of colonial sate, which finally cost him his life. 

The first indigenous Oromo Evangelical church leaders, including Rev. Gudina Tumsa, saw their role not as a mere religious leaders but nation builders. For instance the EECMY leaders soon after the official establishment in 1959, which gave the Church the legal status to work and expand its work through its synods, the Church, along with its modern education and medical work, became involved diversified multi-million rural community development in Oromia regions, which has continued to the present day.  In 1991, when ‘qubee’ , the latine based Afaan Oromo Alphabet became official, the EECMY leaders immediately  transcribed the previous Oromo Bible written on Amharic phonetics to ‘qube’ despite strong opposition from some church leaders and institutions influenced by  centralistic Ethiopian state ideology. Beside Bible translation, the EECMY has made enormous investment vernacular Gospel and literacy literatures. Aster Ganno Literature society of the EECMY, which publishes and distribute Gospel literatures in Afaan Oromo is another example.    

In the past, the national church leaders could not be indifferent to the need and misery of their people. To some extent, they saw it as their duty to mobilize all possible sources at their disposal for the development of their people.19 The same trend has continued among the Oromo and other Evangelical church leaders, which should not be over looked but need more objective study and documentation.   

The current Evangelical charismatic movement, which is characterized with wholistic healing, exorcism and prophecy, has its own empowering effect on the life of individual and the society in general. It has brought new experience of fellowship among all ages and groups of people in which everyone is acknowledged and has its place. This new experience of fellowship in the other hand created strong spiritual solidarity and brotherhood among all Oromo Christians of different denomination and regions.  More than any time in the history of evangelical Christianity in Oromia, the current charismatic movement has also brought a strong and effective indignation and enculturation processes of Christian faith. Christians songs and worship services with traditional tunes is flourished in every part of the region in Oromo language. 

This Evangelical charismatic movement has brought also a limited change in the life of our communities, particularly among the young people in terms of social relations and moral ethics. One of the main feature of the charismatic movement in Oromia is it’s strong resistance against all forms of a traditional authoritarian relationship and its strong option for participatory form of system,  particularly in the church leadership, which’s social impact in the larger community is undisputable. In terms of personal or social ethic, for instance, irresponsible alcohol consumption is reduced to its lowest level in history in regions where evangelical Christianity is dominant.  Under the charismatic movement same biblical ethical norms and spirituality, such as avoidances of adultery, criminality, alcohol and violence has got a new attention, which directly has an implication on the life of the community, especially under the current HIV/AIDS pandemic destroying a life of millions of people. The attention on prayer and healing ministry, in the context of helplessness and all kind of social, political and economic misery, and marginalization has gave the people  the power of hope, endurance and believe in the future.20  

In fact, we should not forget that this feature of the charismatic movement, particularly the emphasis on healing and reconciling ministry of the Holy Spirit, to see life in its totality, is related to the existing religious culture, which is one of the main factors for the rapid acceptance among all age groups of people resulted in radical church growth.  

One of the elements that should be noticed, however, from the dominant features of the evangelical charismatic movements in Oromia is about their reluctance on social actions. Unlike the classical revival movements in the church history, particularly in Europe and North America, a social concern21 in among some evangelical Churches influenced by the charismatic movements is very low or none. Despite the charismatic liturgy, which has more an egalitarian, empowering and democratizing effect on its participants, the adherents of the charismatic movements are generally indifferent to the social implication of the gospel and take no interest in politics.22 Social and political activism, in contrary to the tradition of Orthodox Christianity and other Evangelical Churches like EECMY, is generally viewed as something ‘unholy game’ nothing to do with Christian faith.  

This phenomenon of the evangelical charismatic movement is related to some degree to the dualistic, apocalyptic and pessimistic worldview inherent in Pentecostal doctrine that locates the socio-political problems not in history but in a spiritual world and preach apocalyptic gospel in which world is destined for immanent destruction.23 This view does not leave little room for any social and political action because of its pessimistic view of life.24   On the other hand, however, social disappointments and the increasingly deploring situation of poverty and social and political crises have their own contribution in strengthening this conviction among the majority of the young Christians. Even though the charismatic movement tremendously transforming the evangelical Christianity in Oromia in some positive aspects, in case of its social concerns and public responsibility, it is in a great crisis in advocating fleeing into a world of “religious dreams”25  However, we should be conscious not to overstate this negative trend among evangelical believers without considering the existing socio-cultural, economic and political reality that usually reinforce passivism and fatalistic views in terms of social action. Active social action without compromising on one’s Christian faith and value is hardly possible in the context of Ethiopia.

Read Dr Gemechu’s article in MS-Word : The Role of Oromo Evangelical churches

Dr Gemechu’s PPT Presentation: The Empowering and Reconciling Presence



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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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