On a balmy night in Temple Hills, Maryland, two key voices within the Ethiopian community steps up courageously to speak against the ongoing ethnic strife taking place back home and among the diaspora. In a time when tribalism and inciting hatred have become norms, it takes courage for people to speak about unity. That is precisely what Memeher Zebene and Ambassador Fitsum did on Friday night at Debre Genet Medhan Alem Church during for Demera.
The tone was set by the sheer magnitude of the event; 37 churches from Virginia, Maryland, DC and as far as Delaware united as one to worship and celebrate together. Close to 10,000 people gathered outside the church to pray, sing and take in a superbly planned jubilee that highlighted the cultural and spiritual beauty of Ethiopia. It was as if Addis Abeba was imported to the DMV; for at least one night, Ethiopians were transplanted back to their homeland.
Though the high point of Demera is usually the lighting of the bonfire that commemorates how the true cross was discovered by Queen Eleni, this time around the most profound moment came when two officials from divergent institutions spoke as one about the need for unity and love in order to restore Ethiopia. Memeher Zebene, a pastor at Medhan Alem church, and Ambassador Fitsum Arega showed us that government and church can in fact work together when it comes to offering leadership and tamping down animosity that threaten society.
Memeher Zebene led off by noting that Ethiopia is for all and implicitly talked against some who try to incite violence by making it seem that the Orthodox Church represents one ethnicity. He spoke movingly about how the worshipers present at the celebration spoke Oromia, Amharinia, Tigrinia, Somali yet all were bound by Ethiopia. The massive crowd clapped enthusiastically, an outpouring of support that presents a reality completely different than the cacophony of ethnic grievances that dominate social media. Memeher Zebene proudly stated that Ethiopia is a land that welcomes all from Christians to Muslims and all believers and that the church is one that lives in peace with all believers.
After Memeher Zebene concluded, Ambassador Fitsum took to the podium and spoke about his memory of Meskel in Ethiopia and used an analogy of the hem of Ethiopian dresses that are vibrant in color and design as a nod to the diversity of our country. It took courage for Ambassador Fitsum to attend this event, given the increasingly divisive nature of political discourse in our community and the raw nature of emotions that church burnings and ethnic frictions are creating back home, the safe thing for him to do would have been to stay invisible like his predecessors. Instead he showed up and made a promise that the government will do more to protect churches and worshipers from persecution.
When it has been called for, we have been very critical of authorities in power and demanding better from the Ethiopian government. More has to be done to confront voices of hatred who try to incite violence and to dismantle a system of ethnic apartheid that is the root of division in Ethiopia, it is imperative to give credit when it is due. Ambassador Fitsum has been singular force within our community, he has traveled continuously and worked assiduously to listen to a broad array of constituencies in countless states. During a protest outside of the Ethiopian embassy in DC not too long ago, instead of being dismissive or ignoring dissent, he extended an olive branch. Humility from people who serve in government is the truest sign of leadership.
Memeher Zebene and Ambassador Fitsum did something that all of us should emulate. Instead of speaking against the ongoing violence and divisiveness that is taking place in Ethiopia with anger and resentment, they spoke with hope and inclusiveness. It is easy to get outraged and get caught up in the heat of passions, but as Martin Luther King once noted, you can’t drive out darkness with darkness. It takes love heal Ethiopia and it takes unity to lead us out of the wilderness. May more Ethiopians decide to be more like Memeher Zebene and Ambassador Fitsum instead of following ethnic politicians.