Orthodox Archbishop, Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia
The Love of GOD the Father & the Grace of the Only-begotten Son & the Counsel of the Holy Spirit be upon us and upon all of the faithful.
It is my privilege and honor to express the Blessings and the Greetings of His Holiness Mathias the First, Patriarch of all of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum, and the Supreme Abbot of the Holy See of Saint Tekle Haimanot upon this convocation and upon all of you.
My brethren in the clergy, and all beloved in the Lord:
Before addressing the subject at hand, "Religion and the Poor", I think that it would be helpful to define the two terms: what do we, as Christians, mean when we use the word "religion", and what is the definition of "poor"?
By religion, in the Christian sense, we may offer as one definition, a combination of doctrine and of liturgical expression, both emanating out of the commonly shared corpus of Holy Scripture, further interpreted by councils, and adopted as belief and in observance by a particular people.
By poor, we understand this to signify those who are impoverished physically through the absence of resources and through the burden of debt, and likewise those who are impoverished from faith, from hope, and from love, through external persecution and because of internal difficulties.
Ethiopia has been a piously religious Christian empire since the time that the Eunuch who was baptized by Philip returned to preach about the revelation of Jesus Christ through the 53rd chapter in the Prophecy of Isaiah which describes the suffering of the poor servant of the Lord. Ethiopia is blessed with a wealth of resources and at the same time is responsible for millions of impoverished people. Ethiopian Christianity and Ethiopian poverty, alas, are united through a common history and in a common struggle. Ethiopia therefore reflects a synthesis of religious identity and outreach to the poor.
Please allow me to provide a current example of how the Church in Ethiopia addresses and redresses the issues of impoverishment. The second chapter of the Catholic Epistle of James may have been written for the universal Church, but it is particularly poignant when describing the stance of religion in Ethiopia toward poverty in Ethiopia. James asks, "Has not GOD chosen the poor of this world, who are rich in faith, to also be heirs of the Kingdom which He Himself has promised to those who love Him?" (James 2:5) The role of religion in Ethiopia, and specifically the duty of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, is to develop faith amongst the people, to encourage them with hope, and to instill in them the love of GOD. Those who love GOD, regardless of their wealth, will inevitably rise above their physical impoverishment and become the heirs to the promised Kingdom of heaven.
How is this being accomplished today? On the physical side, the Ethiopian Church sustains thousands of parish churches and monasteries, and many of these institutions have significant access to acres of farmland, water wells, granaries, and bakeries across the nation. The Light of religious education shines across both the urban and rural areas of the nation, and includes a modern emphasis upon health, hygiene, family planning, communicable diseases, and social equality. Religious schools are just as likely to teach agricultural science and household economics, as they are to sing Psalms about the harvest and read Biblical passages about stewardship. The preaching by the clergy, both monastic and parochial, is centered upon the Grace of the Holy Trinity in each person's life, and the teaching of the Church remains firmly based upon the doublet of salvation through faith and of redemption through good works and charity. Hospitals, clinics, orphanages, nursing homes, facilities for the disabled, housing for the uprooted, clothing centers and food banks - these are all part of the on-going outreach of the Ethiopian Church to the poor and the needy across the nation.
Our Lord repeats, "you will always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), but He quickly advises all of us, "and whenever you so choose, you may do good toward them" (Mark 14:7). Today, the Ethiopian Church chooses to reach out and to do good things for the poor. It is very true that Ethiopia as a country remains underdeveloped in many instances. But, the Church remains pro-active in Her ministry. If there is one important lesson which religion teaches about the poor, it is that the poor are not alone in this world. Their suffering does not go unnoticed, and their souls are truly loved.
The history of Ethiopia has at many times been beautifully rich, and at other times, has been plunged into turmoil and blood. The Ethiopians sustain a pious veneration of Saint Mary the Virgin, and her great song of praise describes the presence of the Lord GOD as the only Savior during the tumultuous history of Ethiopia: "He has put down the mighty from their seats, and has exalted the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty" (Luke 1:52 - 53). Salvation is through Jesus Christ, and the Ethiopian Church brings the message of salvation through Her advice to the wealthy with regard to stewardship, and through Her preaching of hope and love to the poor.
The Ethiopian Church does not despise the rich, but instead preaches and teaches the rich to love GOD, and to extend mercy out of the fullness of their hearts and homes to the less fortunate. At the same time, the Ethiopian Church encourages the poor to rise up out of their status by preaching and teaching them that through faith and through good works, they will become the heirs to the great promised Kingdom.
It is the prayer of the Ethiopian Church that through the great example which Jesus Christ gives to all of us, even as He separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31 - 46), that religion will continue to minister pro-actively to the poor in body and the poor in spirit. In the experience of the Ethiopia, a preaching Church is effective in securing faith, in promoting hope, and in spreading love, and a teaching Church is effective in raising awareness in physical health and in emotional well-being. It is therefore the continued ministry of the Ethiopian Church which offers a religious solution to systemic poverty and to spiritual depression by fulfilling the great prophecy: "Blessed is he who gives consideration to the poor; in the day of tribulation, the Lord will save him" (Psalm 41:1).
Thank you for the opportunity to present the current situation of religion and outreach to the poor in Ethiopia.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, May love and peace prevail in our world.