Ethiopia and the Early African Roots of Christianity

Desmond Drummer is one of eight seminarians from Mundelein Seminary who recently traveled with CRS Ethiopia as part of the Global Fellows program. Here he shares his thoughts after visiting the ancient churches of Lalibela.

There is little-known connection between Atlanta, Georgia—my archdiocese—and Lalibela, Ethiopia. When Father Edward Branch launched the endeavor to build a permanent Newman Center for the six historically black colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center consortium, he looked to Lalibela for architectural inspiration. In so doing, Father Branch sought to give the Black American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, and African students of the Atlanta University Center institutions a physical and spiritual connection to the early African roots of Christianity—the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Ethiopian church

A Mundelein seminarian in front of the Church of St. George at Lalibela. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

Eight hundred years ago, before the construction of the great cathedrals and basilicas in Europe, King Lalibela commissioned a project that is unmatched to this day. We are told that King Lalibela had a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem and was compelled to travel to Jerusalem, where he stayed for 20 years. Upon his return to his kingdom, King Lalibela sought to give the faithful a model of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Indeed, every church structure ought to offer a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, but what makes the churches of Lalibela utterly unique is the medium: King Lalibela’s 11 churches are carved out of volcanic rock. Most churches in other places are erected by extracting stones from the earth and forming them into a temple. At Lalibela, however, the awe-inspiring aggregation of churches and chapels is carved directly into the earth, connected by an extensive network of tunnels and passageways.

The rock-hewn churches, as they are commonly called, physically exemplify the synthesis of the Axumite Empire and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Axum was among the first Christian empires in the world and was centered in modern-day Ethiopia.

Today people of all kinds flock to Lalibela’s churches. Some journey to Lalibela as Christian pilgrims, while others seek to simply see the churches as tourists. Despite the tourism, however, the prayers and liturgies continue as if nothing has changed in 800 years. The Ethiopian Orthodox priests lead the faithful in elaborate liturgies replete with the sort of chant characteristic of Eastern Christianity. Lalibela is completely saturated with prayers. Around every corner, one finds priests—old and young—reciting ages-old psalms and prayers. Groups of tourists find themselves yielding to pilgrims so as not get in the way. No one is able to overlook the spiritual significance of Lalibela. The divinely inspired plan of King Lalibela to create a physical example of the Heavenly Jerusalem bears fruit to this day.

Like King Lalibela, Father Edward Branch wanted the temple he built to speak to the fact that Christianity had met his own people and culture. In a secular and ecclesiastical culture that assumes that Christianity’s hinges are in Europe, the Catholic campus ministry center at the Atlanta University Center reminds us of another side of Christian history, which I was fortunate to see firsthand. 

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