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What Happened When Alex Looked Up

What Happened When Alex Looked Up

Missionary to America Alex Mammo

Sometimes it feels like there is no way out. Like Isaac tied to a sacrificial altar by Father Abraham, or Joseph sweating it out in Potiphar’s prison, or three witnesses facing a fiery grave for not forsaking their faith. Alemayehu (Alex) Mammo was taken prisoner in a bloody civil war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. High barbed wire fences and soldiers with rifles  fenced him in.  It seemed like there was no way out. Alex’s life journey had brought him to a place that looked very much like a dead end.

Alex grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, but in the “suburbs.”

In those days the suburbs were past the edge of the city, cut out of a forest, with few modern comforts. He lived in a single room house with his single mother and a brother. His mother lived in that house for over fifty years. The living room, the kitchen, the bedroom were all part of that one room. But Alex was smart. He excelled in school and had plans for life as a professional, maybe in medicine – then the war began, Eritrean rebels fought to separate from Ethiopia. Family fights can be the most vicious.  

The seventeen year old joined the Ethiopian Navy as a medical corpsman. Stationed at the port of Massawa his base was set upon by rebel fighters. During the attack two thirds of the Ethiopian navy was destroyed, thousands were taken prisoner.  Even when Eritrean victors shared their food with the prisoners there was never enough for the prisoners to eat to keep the diseases at bay. Jaundice, malaria and hepatitis held many hostage. Alex expected to die in the camp.

Desperate, afraid, one day he walked  into the middle of the prison compound and looked up and thought to himself, “As the psalmist (David) said ‘There is but an inch between me and death.’ I understood what he said. There was no hope from north, or south or east or west. I understood one thing – there was only one opening from which nobody can stop you, to see up to heaven. So I started praying.” When Alex looked up he saw freedom: he saw his salvation. Alex looked up and saw salvation. 

Alex prayed. When he opened his eyes he saw others nearby he knew were Christians. He went to them and talked to them about God. One of the prisoners could play the guitar; they  left the courtyard to go inside to sing  hymns. Singing and praising God a sense of freedom  overcame Alex and he began to weep. He left to be alone, and fell apart, or was it together? At the end, after crying himself out, he swore to the Lord he would give his life to Him. You can hear the rest of the story from Alex himself by clicking the links below.

 When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thy will be done,” the disciples could not have imagined what would come next – an arrest, jail, condemnation at trial, then death? Those who fought against Him (chief priests, elders and scribes) said,  “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God. Let God deliver Him.”(Matthew 27)  When Jesus looked up from his cross He said, “Into Your hands O Lord I commend myself.”  And later a grave opened. 

Whatever dead end you are facing, whatever fantasized final option, whatever prison real, concrete or self-made, even if  there is but an inch between you and death, Look up. 

Click here to see a short introduction to Alex’s interview.

Click here to see the whole interview

MARMADUKE CARTER’S CHILDREN

Marmaduke Carter’s Children

In eighteen years as head of national missions a few experiences stand out. One of these I wish I could erase.

Once a year our national church’s Board for Missions would deepen its understanding of the challenges and joys of mission work by traveling to a mission field. That year it was a trip to Los Angeles to visit urban churches.

One of the churches was in an area that at one time had been a middle class African American neighborhood but the neighborhood was changing . Spanish speaking immigrants were moving in. Store signs were in Spanish.  African Americans were moving out. As we approached the church we saw a haggard building covered with graffiti – a sue sign the church was disconnected from its community. 

Inside we spoke with the long time president of the congregation, an older man who had left the neighborhood to find a nicer home in the suburbs, as had most of the African American members. It was my assignment to conduct a conversation to help our board understand ministry in one of the most diverse cities in America. But when I asked “What is your vision for the church for ten years from now?” the president responded, “To have church where our older members can be taken care of and from which they can be buried.” The members of our board could see my jaw drop. 

I heard a remarkably different and more wonderful account when I spoke with Rev. Elstner Lewis, pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in the Woodlawn and Hyde park neighborhoods of Chicago. St. Philip, the first African American LCMS Church in Chicago was committed to reach the people in their changing neighborhood. Their passion can be traced back to the missionary who founded St. Philip in 1937. Rev. Marmaduke Carter. Dr. Carter was a missionary for the old Synodical Conference. The name “Marmaduke” has an Irish background. The Irish Marmaduke was a missionary in the sixth and seventh centuries. Recognized as a saint he founded more than thirty churches in Ireland. 

The American Marmaduke came out of Virginia. After graduating from Concordia Seminary, Springfield Illinois in 1921 Carter was ordained a missionary and sent to Lutheran farmers in Nebraska and Minnesota- an African American bringing Christ to White Europeans. He learned to speak, write and preach in German.

In 1924 he came to Chicago to begin St. Philip Church. At that time the neighborhood was becoming African American, working class folks who were rising into middle class. He stayed as Pastor of St. Philip for forty years, and saw the church grow to more than five hundred members – middle and upper middle class African Americans. In time the church was complemented by a parochial school. However, as all communities, the neighborhood would change again.

A while after Pastor Lewis arrived the middle class members had begun moving to larger homes in the suburbs. Listening to the new people moving into the now older and less expensive homes Elstner Lewis adjusted worship. Gone was the cassock and surplice, no alb and stole – in came the academic gown, the more traditional African American hymns and a little more free wheeling worship. St. Philip thrived. Then, another change.

The community is not far from the University of Chicago and the nascent Obama Library. The neighborhood is becoming gentrified.  American Korean and American European professors and students from nearby colleges have begun attending St. Philip Lutheran. Elstner Lewis response? Listen to the people.

Rev. Lewis knows his community. The issue is always how to make the love of Christ real in word and in deed to the people of the community. That is a reasonable response. Reason can be used in a ministerial or magisterial way in this world. If a strategy is used in a ministerial way, in service to the Word of God, it can be a blessing.  

Pr. Lewis told us, “We are going to have to develop a mission strategy to reach out to the community. As we become a more diverse church we will have to change. Right now we are talking about what that means. One thing  is things will not be the same.” Right now it appears there is a need for a  more formal worship and more traditional Lutheran forms and hymns. This came from listening to the community. 

Pr. Elstner says the older African American members at St. Philip refer to the younger more diverse members as “our children.” And they are the children of Marmaduke Carter. 

I think Dr. Carter would be amazed and thankful that the mission he began still reaches people in the community – like the ones He preached to on Midwest farms and the more diverse neighborhood in the city where he served. 

How We Hallow

 How We Hallow:Missionary Zerit Yohannes:

Rev. Zerit Yohannes

This morning millions of us prayed “Hallowed be Thy name.” It is later in the day and I wonder if we thought about what we were praying – specifically, what does it mean to “hallow”?.  Dr. Martin Luther thought about it. Rev. Zerit Yohannes, a missionary in America from Eritrea, showed us.

I assume you know to “hallow” is to “make holy.” But how does a human hallow God’s name? In his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer’s first petition Luther points out,“God’s name was given to us when we were baptized.” Then this: “it becomes holy when both our teaching and our life are godly…” (The Large Catechism). 

 In my understanding the petitions following  “Hallowed be Thy name” explain how we do that, how humans “hallow” the Name of God. For instance “They kingdom come.”  We hallow God’s name when we help to usher in the Kingdom of God. We hallow God’s name when we pray “Thy will be done” – trusting God loves us and His will for us is for always good. “Give ‘us” this day our daily bread;” not only me, but the “us” of those around us, especially those in need.  When we pray “Forgive us our sins AS WE FORGIVE” we hallow God’s name, if we really mean what we are saying. As we pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us in the time of trial,” we are preparing to hallow the Name of God. We pray all these things because we know “Thine is the kingdom.” We do not rule ourselves – we want to live under the kingship of our Father in heaven. Which brings us back to the second petition. 

Although never fully realized here on earth, the Bible has much to say about signs that  Although never fully realized on earthGod’s kingdom is coming. When John the Baptist  (Mathew 11:3) called out to Jesus,”Are you the Coming One?” In his answer Jesus enumerated signs the prophets used to describe the coming of God’s kingdom “Go tell John …the blind see and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (see Isaiah 29:18, 35:4-6; Psalm 22.

God’s name is hallowed when those in distress hear the good news of Jesus and see His love in action.  Zerit Yohannes was an instrument God used to bring in the kingdom. At times it was harrowing.

Rev. Yohannes lived through “The Red Terror” in Eritrea. Through that time in the 1970s his faith held and grew; he was a missionary during the worst times,  an instrument to usher in the Kingdom to a war torn people .

Missionary Yohannes graduated from the largest Lutheran seminary in Africa, in Tanzania. He spread the good news of Jesus throughout Africa as a missionary broadcasting over the radio in Nairobi, Kenya, and through mercy work. He began a ministry among immigrants arriving in Kenya fleeing war and famine, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. An instrument to usher in the Kingdom of God. Zerit was hallowing God’s name as he made God’s kingdom real in that place and time.

The African Christians hallowed the name of God when they developed programs to aid victims of HIV, hunger and poverty: the church’s role as a servant of the people made lasting impressions in Tanzania and in Eritrea. Then, A door opened for Zerit and his family to go to Canada, where he began ministry to African immigrants in Toronto. He also attended Concordia Seminary in St. Catherine, as well as at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. 

The Kingdom of God was made concrete, the mission in Canada grew, the poor heard the good news and experienced it in the work the churches did. Then a call came for Pr. Yohannes to return to Eritrea to teach mission work at the Church’s seminary. For nine years he worked to equip new pastors and missionaries to usher in the Kingdom of God. He was hallowing the name of God. 

Rev. Zerit was called back to North America, to St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan, to train missionaries from Africa to the United States. When we recently spoke via Zoom, Rev. Yohannes with his fellow pastors of St. Luke Lutheran and Rev. Todd Jones, Mission Secretary of the Michigan District, were preparing to teach about thirty missionaries (men and women) who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo making God’s love real in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa and South Dakota. “Hallowed be Thy Name.” His insights on mission work are important for all who would bring the lost to Christ in America, for all those who hallow God’s Name.

Each petition of the Lord’s prayer is, finally, a way to hallow God’s Name. The next time you pray the Prayer – think about how you can hallow God’s name in the coming day – pray “Thy Kingdom come” -and then go out afterwards to heal and preach the gospel to a hurting world.  

It is a a gift of His grace that you and I have been allowed to pray the Lord’s  Prayer – and this day to hallow the Name of God.