By Cindy Novak
Milkom Abose does more than just attend church on Sundays. He surrounds himself with people who worship in his native language, share common struggles and enjoy the same foods, especially buna — coffee.
Milkom, who is 15 years old, and roughly 250 others from the Oromia region of Ethiopia have found community and a spiritual oasis at Oromo Evangelical Church of Washington, D.C., one of 24 Oromo-speaking ELCA congregations in the United States.
“This congregation is my family,” Milkom told his pastor. “I’m so happy that I can worship the Lord with my family. I love our music. I just can’t get enough of it. It expresses everyone’s joys and sorrows. This is why we come together.”
The center of life
Oromo Evangelical is the center of life for its members, and attending church is a big event of the week, just as it was in Africa, says Paul Wee, interim pastor.
“Our members live and breathe God’s presence,” says Paul. “To express that in community through prayers on Saturday or through worship on Sunday is very central to their existence. Everybody comes. Worship is loud, joyful and moving, with people swaying, clapping and dancing.”
Oromo Evangelical became an ELCA congregation in 2009, culminating two decades of ministry to Oromo people who have found sanctuary in the Washington, D.C., area. Over the years, some have won Diversity Immigration Visas, while others have sought asylum or refuge after suffering persecution, imprisonment or torture.
“Some of our members come to the United States carrying dark memories,” says Paul. To respond, he and other church leaders collaborate with area social service agencies, lawyers and partnering congregations to help members with mental health, immigration, employment, housing and health care issues.
This holistic ministry model reflects the work of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Mekane Yesus, the quickly growing church body from which many members of Oromo Evangelical Church have come, Paul says.
A strong ministry
Mekane Yesus “has grown so quickly because of its strong spiritual roots and because of its ministry to the whole person,” says Paul, citing one example: Mekane Yesus continued its commitment to the people of Ethiopia during times of famine.
We can learn much from our Ethiopian-American brothers and sisters, Paul says. They bring a sense of spiritual depth and joy in all things, in spite of challenges and problems, for example. “In the midst of darkness, they have been able to see this light — this awareness of God in all things,” he says.
They also bring a sense of relatedness, where Christ is Lord of body, soul, mind and heart, Paul says. “Most of us compartmentalize our lives,” he says. “We go to work, and then we do something religious and go to church. Their faith is a more integrated approach. It is at the heart and center of all activities, whether at home, work or school.”
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviours Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.