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Ato Mahay in 2006

Mahay Choramo
c. 1920 to 2014
Wolaitta Kale Heywat Church (WKHC)
Ethiopia

Mahay [1] Choramo was born in Kucha in southern Ethiopia. His mother, Paltore Posha, was from Humbo in Wolaitta. Choramo, her second husband and Mahey's father, was from Kucha. Mahay,--a name which in the local language means leopard,--had one brother, Daniel, and three sisters who died: Tera when she was two years old, Meskele in 1976 and Feteshey in 1979. In the mid-1920s, when Mahay was born, his life was much like that of every other boy in rural Ethiopia. But Mahay's future was not determined by the socio-economic or religious conditions in which he was born and grew up. It was shaped by the work of a handful of expatriates who came to Wolaitta about the time he was born.

In April 1928 the first expatriate missionaries, members of the Sudan Interior Mission, arrived in Soddo. They did itinerant evangelism and established a hospital. Almost nine years after they arrived they were expelled when the Italians invaded Ethiopia. Most of the expatriate missionaries left Soddo on April 17, 1937, and the last Sudan Interior Mission missionaries left Ethiopia on August 21, 1938. They left behind them a small number of converts, many of whom had a burning desire to emulate the expatriate missionaries.

The expatriate missionaries had used the local language in their preaching and teaching and they had done a small amount of translation work. They left behind them a translation of the Scripture Gift Mission booklet called God Hath Spoken [2] and the gospel of John, later published in the Wolaitta language. Believers always wanted the whole Bible which, unfortunately, was available only in Amharic, the language of the absentee landlords and avaricious government officials.

The government officials in southern Ethiopia were all from the central plateau, i.e. Tigre or the Amhara homelands. They were members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Christianity as promoted by Ethiopian Orthodox Church priests was an ethnic religion; it was the religion of the Tigres and Amharas. To become a Christian a person had to become part of the Tigre-Amhara culture. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's evangelism in southern Ethiopia was done through education rather than proclamation. In their eyes a non-Orthodox Christian Ethiopian was an oxymoron therefore most of the inhabitants of southern Ethiopia were excluded from any chance of becoming Christians.

Ethiopia's "Constantine," Emperor Haile Selassie, had his own agenda for allowing non-Orthodox missions to work in southern Ethiopia. He imposed very few restrictions on them but he ordered them not to learn the Amharic language. This was his attempt to distance them from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which used only Geez (in its liturgy) and Amharic (in social contacts). This was exactly what the Sudan Interior Mission (S.I.M.) staff wanted. It gave them carte blanche to plant new churches--something radically different from what all other missions in Ethiopia were intent on accomplishing [3].

Given this green light S.I.M. missionaries initiated the New Churches Movement [4]. The expatriate missionaries basically ignored the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and, at the orders of the emperor, the functionaries and followers of the church had to tolerate the missionaries. They were like two freight trains passing in the night. In this climate, millions of non-Orthodox people in southern Ethiopia were free to become non-Orthodox Christians. It was into this milieu that Mahay Choramo was born.

Conversion Experience

Like all ethnoreligionists, Mahay and his family were religious, concerned about spiritual alienation, accountability and judgment. At just the right moment for Mahay, itinerant evangelists from the New Churches' Movement in Wolaitta visited Kucha, preaching acceptance in place of rejection, and forgiveness in place of guilt. Mahay, who had had no previous exposure to Christian teaching, accepted that message at face value and began to live a transformed life. His conversion was a simple choice between two ways, the way of culture and tradition and the way of the Bible,--a movement from one world to another, from darkness to light. At the time of his conversion there were no other believers in the immediate area.

In Mahay's community the people believed Satan was a real person with real power even though there were also many other destructive forces in their world. "Get away Satan," was a common expression in Mahay's mother tongue. Mahay's conversion experience dispelled his fear of Satan. Later he understood that Satan had only one strategy: to prevent unbelievers from hearing the Good News by stopping believers from preaching it. The pranks and antics that the ethnoreligionists attributed to Satan did not worry him a great deal. Before he became a believer he had dabbled in the occult but had refused to allow himself to be possessed. His own experience convinced him that the preached word of God held a power that defeated Satan and transformed lives. For this reason preaching the Good News became his passion. For Mahay any sort of opposition was just Satan's effort to prevent the preaching of the Good News.

There was an unique element of individualism in all of Mahay's choices. He did not meet any expatriate missionaries until many years after his conversion [5] so they did not influence him initially. At first his understanding of conversion was experiential; gradually he understood the bigger picture. But like many new converts he wanted to find out for himself what the Book had to say. By hard work and prayer he eventually taught himself to read Amharic and obtained a Bible. Fortunately for him the translation he used was not at all a classical Amharic translation or even a dynamic equivalent thereof, but its choppy syntax made it easier for him to read and understand.

He admired the evangelists who traveled around preaching the Good News: they were the human instruments that brought him new life [6] and he wanted to emulate them almost from the moment of his conversion. Like the believers in Acts 4:20, he was unable to keep quiet and constantly created opportunities to talk about the Good News. Later another component was added to his desire to preach.

Mahay had eight children: Mattewos, who died in the north in 1985, a daughter who died in Bulki shortly after birth, Israel, a development worker in Addis Ababa, Lydia, a high school teacher in Soddo, Rebecca, a student in Addis Ababa, Sarah, who works in the Soddo hospital, Timoteos, a garage owner in Soddo and Rahel, who married a doctor who works at the Balcha Hospital.

Preaching

Mahay accepted the fact that preaching and opposition went hand in hand because this was the experience of the early church in the book of Acts. In southern Ethiopia in the 1940s every non-Orthodox Christian was treated unjustly at the whim of any government official or landowner. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church condoned this opposition simply because it had no categories with which to interpret the New Churches' Movement [7]. Mahay expected opposition [8] but he never resented or held grudges against those who opposed him, whether they were priests, landowners or government officials. His response was always the same: God loves you and the Holy Spirit who empowers me is greater than anything you can possibly do. The only times the prison was not a pulpit was when he was put in solitary confinement. On one such occasion he thanked to the judge who was very angry and asked him what there was to be thankful about. Mahay's reply was: "I will be able to pray and meditate better on my own."

But Mahay did not simply accept the inevitability of opposition: he worked, prayed and negotiated to lessen it, appealing to the law of the land and to individuals. Knowing that the Bible and the Ethiopian Constitution intended people to have freedom of worship he sought compromise and, in spite of the injustice, an acceptance of the status quo. He defended himself in the courts with his Bible and answered every question by: "This is what the Word of God says." But it was opposition that propelled Mahay into contact with other believers and the New Churches Movement.

Gradually Mahay sensed that God not only wanted him to be a preacher, but to be a missionary-evangelist [9]. As a missionary his passion was to go where people had not heard the Good News [10]. As an evangelist, he felt compelled to preach and move on, leaving the shepherding to others. He did not need to go very far south until he met people whose language and culture were different from his own. This was also true when he went into Kafa in western Ethiopia. He pursued this calling faithfully even though he had no formal education other than a few years in a rural Bible School. At one point he also suffered severely from tuberculosis.

For Mahay, being an itinerant missionary-evangelist meant being a church planter [11]. During his half-century career he has planted scores of congregations. But he would never have called himself a church planter because, for him, a local church happened spontaneously, as the natural and anticipated outcome of conversions. Any unevangelized group of people was his parish [12]. He would find some way to make contacts, to go and live with them and preach. For example in Gofa, an area south his home, he carried in salt and sat at the side of the road on market days selling it. There he talked to people, prayed for the sick and preached to all who would listen. He would encourage new converts to gather as often as possible to listen to his preaching. Then he would find someone else to be their shepherd and move on. Itineration was a strategy the expatriate missionaries had modeled [13] and that he found in the apostles' work in the book of Acts.

Connection with the Wolaitta Kale Heywat Church (WKHC)

All his life Mahay was an active member of the WKHC whom he considered his spiritual parents. Before going anywhere he always asked for the blessing of the WKHC Board of Elders. The WKHC considered him one of their workers and occasionally sent him small sums of money [14]. As the years passed the WKHC repeatedly asked him to retire but, as "retirement" was not a word he found in that Book, he would beg them to bless him and release him to some unevangelized area: "I am not ready to just sit around and allow my body to become fertilizer. I will continue to work and preach the Gospel." They did so over and over. "He continues to hear what seems to be an audible voice, 'Go, Go'" wrote Paul Balisky of his sense of calling. His life and ministry flowed from his theology.

His theology developed from four sources: experience, contact with unconverted ethnoreligionists, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the New Churches' Movement. But all four of them came under the rubic of the Book from whence he drew his teaching. He preached "about God the Creator, the fall of man, the consequences of sin, judgment, and the redemption that God gave through Christ. He also emphasized the resurrection of Christ, and the resurrection hope of believers. It was a lot to cover in one lesson, and Mahay did his best to make the message as clear as possible to these people who were hearing it for the first time, and who might not hear it again." [15] To every accusation, and every question, he would open the Book and read it saying, "The Word of God says..."

Mahay's teaching was marked by several recurring themes. First and foremost, in spite of continuous opposition, Mahay could never say enough about God's love. Even though he and his family lived on what they could eke from small plots of land and gifts from new converts and the occasional largesse from WKHC [16], his prayers were filled with thankfulness. Secondly, he gave the credit for every accomplishment to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Over the decades he accumulated hundreds of stories which were always about what God had done in specific situations.

Mahay felt a compulsive obligation to take the Good News to everyone. Nothing deterred him even though his heart was broken many times by the problems that surfaced in the churches he had planted and he saw many congregations disintegrate. But he also had the joy and satisfaction of seeing many of them multiply.

Mahay's passion marked him as a leader for Ethiopians and expatriates alike. He also charmed enemies and antagonists with his winsome smile, guileless personality and quiet voice. "Mahay was a veteran evangelist who, with his wife, had served the Lord for many years in other parts of Ethiopia before accepting the Bunna [17] challenge. Both he and his wife were quiet, kindly people, whose gentleness concealed an inner courage that springs from a childlike never-failing trust in God." [18] He motivated people with his drive, always being the first to take risks and to persevere when others gave up. Tenacity and focus were the two main qualities that dominated his life's work.

Mahay probably never thought of himself as a mentor because helping other missionary-evangelists was simply part of his greater vision. He walked hundreds of miles and stayed for months with young missionaries in order to help them get accustomed to the culture and languages of their mission field. He had no sooner completed one assignment than he was looking for another.

Regions Beyond

He sensed an urge to go to the regions beyond. But he was not a David Livingstone because he never went to test out whether people were going to be responsive or not. Sometimes he had to move on before many churches were established but he always knew that in due time the seed he had sown would bear fruit. His vision for ministry was much larger than his own accomplishments because he could begin a work and then walk away and let others carry on. "The evangelists did not see themselves as a permanent structure of the local salot bet (prayer house) which they assisted in establishing. They were as pilgrims who continued to move along. They preached, they baptized and trained leadership." [19] He was never chairman or president of anything but he was there at the sod breaking ceremonies. He often bore the brunt of opposition, and the disappointment with the struggles of first converts. Then he left others to erect large buildings and lead big congregations.

His critics point out that in some places he overstayed his welcome and spent too much time and energy farming and looking after his coffee trees. Others experienced his fatherly advice and oversight as unwanted paternalism.

He was satisfied to have preached. That was his passion--the results were God's gifts. He asked for nothing more than the opportunity to preach the Good News to people who had not heard or understood it.

During the Dark Years and After [20]

During Ethiopia's Cultural Revolution (1974-1991) most of the churches in Wolaitta were closed between approximately 1985 and 1990. Even preaching at funerals was stopped. Mahay and others began to form small groups and inspired believers to push at the boundaries and run risks. Baptisms and instruction classes all had to be held at night. Mahay continued to assist missionary-evangelists still working in distant areas. He carried salaries and tape recorders to them. He recalled that on one occasion near the town of Araba Minch eight tape recorders and 1600 birr were taken from him. After the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took over in 1991, Mahay and others began to move around more openly but once again he was arrested and detained for some time. After 1998 he worked with national and expatriate missionary-evangelists, especially Malcolm Hunter, to establish permanent workers in Borana and other areas of southern Ethiopia bordering Kenya.

The role Mahay and his fellow missionary-evangelists have played is one that ought not to be quickly forgotten. "The evangelists have not taken over any position from the traditional society. They derive their authority from the missionaries or the congregations which sent them. [21] But their courage and willingness to confront the leaders of the possession cults have marked their ministry. They, possibly more than anybody else, are the heralds of a new community; a community, though related to the traditional society, still signifies the inception of something completely new." [22]

His Death

On the night of Sunday, April 13, 2014, at 9 p.m., Ato Mahae Choramo the Ethiopian evangelist, passed away, aged 94, at his home in Soddo, Wolaitta.  His funeral is Tuesday morning, April 15.  No doubt thousands of people will attend from many parts of Ethiopia – family, friends, dozens of “adopted” children that they raised, and fellow-workers. 

Belaynesh, his wife of about 70 years, and his helpmeet through the long years of ministry, will receive the mourners for several weeks.  Many Christians from a dozen different tribes in the Omo River Valley and surrounding areas will come to farewell the old warrior who brought them the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I wish I could be there to celebrate the life of that wonderful old man who I am glad to call my brother.  More than 59 years ago I first met Mahae at Bulki.  Battered, bruised and bleeding from a severe beating, he sat in chains, imprisoned for preaching the Gospel.  That time was one of at least thirty-five times Mahae was arrested and suffered for Christ.

With these words, Dick McLellan, Mahae’s closest missionary friend and cohort, paid tribute to him on the day he died.*

Brian Fargher


*Editor's Note: This tribute was added from a piece written by Dick McLellan on the day Mahae died.

Notes:

1.His father gave him the name "Mahay," but like many non-Amharas he often Amharized his name. In the autobiography he firmly insisted on the name Mahari, which means merciful.
2. Clarence W. Duff, Cords of Love. A Pioneer Mission in Ethiopia (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980): 266.
3. Edith Buxton, Reluctant Missionary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968): 169. Buxton's dream for Ethiopia, and that of all other missions except S.I.M., was to bring about revival in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
4. Brian L. Fargher, The Origins of the New Churches Movement in Southern Ethiopia 1928-1943 (E. J. Brill, 1998).
5. W. Harold Fuller, Run While the Sun is Hot (Chicago: Moody, 1967): 178-208. Fuller writes of evangelists like Bangay, Warrasa and Beyena, all of whom worked with the expatriate missionaries. For the others it was "out of sight, out of mind."
6. F. Peter Cotterell, Born at Midnight (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973). Ch. 12, "1940-1950," pp. 112-123, gives a very brief overview of what some of the national missionary-evangelists accomplished in various part of Ethiopia. R. V. Bingham's "Dear Prayer Helper" letters often consisted almost exclusively of reports on his travels as he was perpetually on the move. Bingham was founder of the Sudan Interior Mission and the first general director.
7. Norman Grubb, Alfred Buxton of Abyssinia and Congo (London: Lutterworth Press, 1942): ch. 17, pp. 129-139 covering the years 1934-1935. In spite of Buxton's best intentions, his evangelists also experienced intense opposition from the state church.
8. Ed and Edna Ratzliff, Letters from the Uttermost Parts of the Earth (privately published, 1987). On pp. 16-136, "May 20, 1951 - January 8, 1952," the authors tell of the intense opposition that took place in Gamo, an area south of where Mahay originally worked.
9. He was probably unaware of the fact that "missionary work" was something very strategic. "It will be obvious that the greatest task before the missions [and churches in Ethiopia] is the adequate occupation of vast unevangelized areas." J. Spencer Trimingham The Christian Church and Missions in Ethiopia (World Dominion Press, 1950): 54.
10. Perhaps he had heard the story of the four missionary-evangelists who had crossed the Bilate river into Sidamo, were whipped and sent back home, only to return and establish churches after their wounds had healed. Guy W. Playfair, Trials and Triumphs in Ethiopia (Toronto, Canada: undated, ca. 1943): 31. Playfair's report of what had happened in Ethiopia between 1938 and 1942 was summarized in a small booklet entitled Ethiopia is Stretching out her hands unto God and distributed to the mission's constituency. As Cotterell points out, many of these missionary-evangelists had no initial language problems because they itinerated in areas that spoke related languages; but they gradually moved beyond those boundaries. "An Indigenous Church in Southern Ethiopia" in The Bulletin for African Church History, Vol. III, Nos. 1, 2 (1970), pp. 68-104, esp. pp. 82-85.
11. His early years are recorded briefly in Awakening at Midnight: the story of the Kale Heywet Church in Ethiopia Vol. 2, 1942-1973 (Amharic), Wondiye Ali, pp. 147-150, published by the KHC Literature Department, Addis Ababa, 2000.
12. A. G. H. Quinton, Ethiopia and the Evangel (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1949): 58. Quinton tells how the majority of the returning missionaries spent most of their time and energy training "pastors and elders."
13. Alfred G. Roke, An Indigenous Church in Action (Auckland, New Zealand: Sudan Interior Mission, 1938): 53. The expatriate missionaries called this go-and-preach principle "spontaneous testimony" which included not only the missionary-evangelist taking the initiative, but also finding his own financial support. Raymond Davis, Fire on the Mountain. The story of a miracle-the Church in Ethiopia (New York/Toronto: S.I.M., 1966). Ch. 10, pp. 99-105, tells the story of Toro who not only wanted to go out preaching but insisted on looking to God alone to supply his financial needs. Later Mahay worked for brief periods with a number of pioneer expatiate missionaries; "The Origins of the New Churches Movement in the Hammer Bako Area 1954-1961," unpublished MS by Brian Fargher with Donald and Christine Gray (March 1996). On one occasion (March 1956) Mahay walked six days from Soddo to Bako and return to take mail to the Grays.
14. Peter Cotterell, Cry Ethiopia (Eastbourne: MARC, 1988), p. 45. Special offerings were taken up at annual conferences and distributed among the evangelists (those working in their home areas) and the missionary-evangelists, such as Mahay.
15. Raymond J. Davis, The Winds of God (Canada: SIM International Publication, 1984): 104.
16. Lucy Winifred (Freda) Horn, Hearth and Home in Ethiopia (London: S.I.M., 1960), pages 60-71 tell the stories of the wives of some of the missionary-evangelists and their struggles.
17. Bunna is also glossed as Banna. A group of people in the lowlands of southern Ethiopia.
18. Raymond J. Davis, The Winds of God (Canada: SIM International Publications, 1984), Ch. 7 is part of Mahay's story. The quotation is from p. 100.
19. E. Paul Balisky, "Wolaitta Evangelists: A Study of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia, 1937-1975," (PhD thesis, University of Aberdeen, 1997): 337. Mahay's story is told briefly on pp. 215ff. Balisky's thesis is a definitive study of the Wolaitta missionary-evangelists.
20. The information in this section comes from an interview between Paul Balisky and Mahay on March 20, 2001 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
21. I would prefer to say that they derived their authority from the God who called and sent them.
22. Johnny Bakke, Christian Ministry Patterns and Functions within the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (New Jersay: Humanities Press, 1987): 135.


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY about Ethiopian missionary-evangelists: Wondiye Ali, Awakening at Midnight: the story of the Kale Heywet Church in Ethiopia Vol. 2, 1942-1973 (Amharic), published by the KHC Literature Department, Addis Ababa, 2000.
Johnny Bakke, Christian Ministry Patterns and Functions within the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1987).
E. Paul Balisky, "Wolaitta Evangelists: A Study of Religious Innovation in Southern Ethiopia, 1936-1975," (PhD thesis, University of Aberdeen, 1997).
Albert E. Brant, In the Wake of Martyrs (Langley, B.C.: Omega Publications, 1992).
Edith Buxton, Reluctant Missionary (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968).
Mahari Choramo, Ethiopian Evangelist: Autobiography of Evangelist Mahari Choramo, annotated by Brian L. Fargher, (Edmonton: Enterprise Publications, 1997).
F. Peter Cotterell, Born at Midnight (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973).
--------, Cry Ethiopia (Eastbourne: MARCO, 1988).
Raymond Davis, Fire on the Mountain (New York/Toronto: SIM, 1966).
--------, Winds of God (Canada: SIM International Publications, 1984).
Clarence W. Duff, Cords of Love. A Pioneer Misssion in Ethiopia (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1980).
Brian L. Fargher, The New Churches Movement in Ethiopia 1928-1944 (E.J. Brill, 1998).
--------, "The Origins of the New Churches Movement in the Hammer Bako Area 1954- 1961," unpublished MS by Brian Fargher with Donald and Christine Gray (March 1996).
W. Harold Fuller, Run While the Sun is Hot (Chicago: Moody, 1967).
Norman Grubb, Alfred Buxton of Abyssinia & Congo (London & Redhill: Lutterworth Press, 1942).
Lucy Winifred Horn, Hearth and Home in Ethiopia (London: SIM, 1960).
Thomas A. Lambie, A Doctor without a Country (London: Fleming & Revell Company, 1939).
Guy W. Playfair, Trials and Triumphs in Ethiopia (Toronto, Canada: SIM, undated, ca. 1943).
A. G. H. Quinton, Ethiopia and the Evangel (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1949).
Ed & Edna Ratzliff, Letters from the Uttermost Parts of the Earth (Privately published, 1987).
Alfred G. Roke, An Indigenous Church in Action (Auckland, N.Z.: Sudan Interior Mission, 1938).
J. Spencer Trimingham, The Christian Church and Missions in Ethiopia (World Dominion Press, 1950).


This article, received in 2001, was written and researched by Dr. Brian Fargher, Executive Directive of the Leadership Training Center with Campus Crusade for Christ in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.