Chapter V


The Orthodox Student Association

If I could not leave Ethiopia, and if government work was not interesting to me, I could only increase the scope of my religious work. I was already teaching in several of the colleges in Addis Ababa. With the Emperorís permission, and the approval of my students, we began organising the Haimanote Abew Orthodox Student Organisation. Many people helped me in the task, but the students did not want very close association with the official church. I remember I took about 100 college students to a one day retreat in the private chapel of the palace of the former Prime Minister, Bitwoded (later Ras) Makonnen Endalkachew, a senior aristocrat for whom I had the highest regard. The Rev. Abba Habtemariam, the young Ethiopian monk who had helped me several years earlier at the Kotabe Secondary School, now joined hands with me.

In those days, Ethiopians took communion only when they were small children or after they became very old. The idea was that so long as oneís sexual powers were operative, one was a sinner and should not take communion. It took me a great deal of persuasion and effort to make my students see that this was not a Christian assumption, that there was forgiveness available for every human being in Christ, and that frequent communion was the norm for a true practising Christian. Several students partook of Communion during that one day retreat at the palace of the former Prime Minister, beautifully situated on a wooded hill. A deep bond was formed among all of us, and that was the beginning of the Haimanote Abew (means The Faith of our Fathers). We then organized several study classes and conferences, and this work gave me a lot of satisfaction and occasion for praising God.

My classes at the University College of Addis Ababa two evenings a week and at the Mahandis Engineering College once a week gave me a great deal of spiritual satisfaction, and seemed to be useful to the young university students. There was no obligation to attend, but 50 to 100 students came regularly. We had also occasional retreats and conferences, which often meant much to the young people. But it was rather difficult for them to relate to the regular Ethiopian Orthodox clergy and worship, both of which belonged to an antiquated, uncritical, feudal framework from which the young university student had been significantly alienated.

When I finally left Ethiopia in 1959, this work with university students, which was entirely voluntary on my part and which formed no part of my official responsibilities, was the most painful for me to leave behind. The Haimanote Abew organisation itself became even more active after I left. But there was one significant change. The movement, without losing its religious foundations, became increasingly politically aware, which meant necessarily critical of the Haile Sellassie regime and policy.

On the one hand, the Communist ideology had already spread among the university student body, even though the Emperor had taken care to see that the university was run by anticommunist Jesuits from French Canadian universities. Some of the professors were East European refugees for whom fighting communism was virtually their creed: Communist ideas had been coming in from many sources, only one of which was the local Soviet Embassy. Several of the young Ethiopians who had gone abroad to study came back with a frame of mind that could not accept the corrupt social and economic structure that prevailed in a basically feudal Ethiopia.