Lakew Tessema is a non-professional minister of the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church (EKHC) and has been an instrument of God for the growth and development of this church. He is considered one of the early “church fathers” of the EKHC.
Lakew was born in July, 1930, at Gellila Town in Gamo Gofa Province. His father was Tessema Tsedike and his mother, Ehete-Sellassie Argaw. He had six brothers and one sister, all of whom have died. His father was a soldier, and after he died during the war in Ogaden, the rest of the family moved to Addis Ababa.
Lakew began his early education in the Ge’ez language, which is the language used in the Orthodox Church. He then entered the Balabat School (the present Medhane Alem School) and completed his schooling at Beyene Merid High School. After that, he took evening classes in a commercial school. At the same time, he was employed at the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) to teach Amharic in 1946. He began attending mission Sunday school to learn the songs of the SIM choir and began studying the Bible. He accepted Christ Jesus as his personal savior when he was about eighteen years old.
He began his witnessing ministry as soon as he became a born-again Christian. He found creative ways to witness to Orthodox Christians, and brought some of them to evangelical Christianity. Once, he agreed with a few believers to witness to the Orthodox people near the Tekle Haymanot Church in Addis Ababa. A Christian group, composed of Lakew’s friends, started fighting with each other in front of the people there, as a strategy to get their attention. When everybody was watching the fighting, Lakew began to share Jesus Christ’s love with them. He said that fighting, stealing, and generally disobeying God’s Word is wrong, and that God sent Jesus Christ, His Son, to save us and to teach us to love one other. Some unbelievers were impressed and decided to go to the church Lakew attended. One of his converts on that particular day was Gosaye Zemedkun, a young Orthodox priest, who later became an evangelist of the Kale Heywet Church that was established by Ethiopians who were members of the SIM Church.
Lakew married Woizerit Beliyu Gebre Amlak (renamed at her marriage ceremony according to the tradition, as Menbere Gebre Amlak), a fourteen year old young lady, on January 29, 1955, and the couple was blessed with five children, four sons and a daughter. Along with those five–Yared, Benyam, Yodit, Ermias, and Hilawe–they also brought up and educated eight other children whose parents were fellow believers but not blood relatives. The first four of their biological children and the other eight live abroad. Only Hilawe, their last son, lives in Ethiopia with them.
The number of Ethiopian believers at the SIM increased and Lakew, with a few of his friends (Hawaz Welde Michael, Mamo Gebre Meskel, Berhanu Deresse, and others), desired to have their own church services in the vernacular. At first, the missionaries did not like this idea. However, since Lakew always went out to remote areas with the missionaries during their church planting ministry, he eventually convinced some of them to let them try it. His influence made it possible for them to establish their own church. They bought some land and built the church near the Merkato area, naming it the Geja Kale Heywet (Word of Life at Geja) Church. The church was first named Meserete Heywet (Base of Life) by Lakew, who later suggested the present name, Kale Heywet. That is how indigenization was first introduced to this church, which was founded through mission work. The church was especially helpful to rural believers who were coming to Addis Ababa because of religious persecution, as they now had a place to stay. Lakew had seen this problem, which is why he thought that buying land and starting a place of worship for them would help to solve it. In faith, he and his friends began to raise funds that eventually amounted to 100,000 Birr. The SIM mission raised about 50% of that amount. At present, the denomination has grown to 7,774 local churches, with over 6.5 million members, who are organized under the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church (EKHC). Most of the present generation in this denomination, however, do not seem to realize what a contribution Lakew made to this rapidly growing church.
During the Derg regime, he was chairman of the Meserete Heywet Church and was also leading the Brethren Church. Lakew endured a lot of suffering while he was laying the foundations for these churches. He was given the responsibility of caring for a local Brethren church located near his home when the missionary leaders were forced to leave Ethiopia. He endured suffering at that time without leaving the Kale Heywet Church, which was able to help the Brethren Church in many ways. He was denounced by the village administration officials (Kebele) because of his Christian activities, but God gave him wisdom when he was imprisoned. He defended that church and other churches by boldly reminding his accusers that he was simply following the principle set down by the emperor. According to that principle, faith is a matter of individual conviction, but love and loyalty to a nation is something that all citizens can have in common. God helped him to escape the death sentence, and he also used the opportunity to speak the Word of God to senior police officials at that time.
He was mainly an employee of the SIM, but he also served the two local churches as a leader for many years. During the day, he mostly worked as a translator for the SIM missionaries, doing his ministerial work in the evening. He also maintained a good relationship with the government and helped the EKHC with all government affairs. He helped to secure visas, work permits, and residence permits for the missionaries from the various government offices. He helped other churches with these issues because of his experience in dealing with problems of this kind, often solving them with his wisdom and good humor.
Lakew was responsible for obtaining a government permit for the EKHC to be registered with the Ministry of Justice. He continued his service with the SIM for fifty-eight years and retired in April of 2004, but he still participates in the services of the local churches. With his close friends he established a family union of senior Geja KHC members who meet once a month. This fellowship, called Base Fellowship (Meseret Fellowship), was formed in order to maintain the first love of the members of the original Geja Church. It is a well-organized fellowship that is administered by a chairman, a secretary, and a treasurer, as well as members who record the activities of the group. The members of this group come from different local churches that are established in Addis Ababa, and they grow in love and spiritual maturity together.
Lakew had good working relationships with the missionaries in the SIM, but he was imprisoned for teaching the Bible at Sunday school and for witnessing. Many government officials belonging to the Orthodox faith created trouble for him, but God repeatedly protected him from the harm they could have caused.
Lakew Tesema has been used by God and has helped the EKHC denomination to grow to its present status. In the KHC memory book, “From Past to Present,” many people wrote about how helpful he was to them, and commended him highly for his dedicated service and wisdom.
He and his family live an open, exemplary, and influential Christian life. Lakew honors God and does not consider himself a big figure in the church, preferring to give the praise and glory to God for all the good things God has done through him. He does not want his contribution and influence to be mentioned in publications that come out on church anniversaries and other special occasions. He lives very near the Gofa Sefer St. Gabriel Church with his family and is in good health, as humorous as ever till now, although getting physically weaker due to age. May God bless and favor him for his continuing influence.
Mennu, Worabo. Biography on Brother Lakew Tessema. Addis Ababa: EGST, 2004.
This biography was researched and written in 2005 and revised in February 2010 by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired assistant professor from Addis Ababa University and graduate of the Ethiopian graduate School of Theology. The liaison coordinator is Dr. John Wheeler-Waddell, who serves at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.