Less than 400 miles up the coast from Somalia in east Africa, there is a small country called Eritrea. Though there is much greater freedom of religion in Eritrea than in Somalia (half the population is Christian, and the other half Sunni Muslim), Eritreans are leaving their country in droves.
At a rate of 3,000 people per month, nearly 10 percent of the population has fled to other countries like Ethiopia, Italy, the United States and Canada to evade forced conscription in Eritrea’s military (which can last indefinitely) and to embrace liberties like a free press and speech.
Among those who remain are a group of about 20,000 Christians who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the result of the Gospel sown by Swedish missionaries in the late 1800s.
Excited to share the Good News with those who hadn’t yet heard, Eritrean Lutherans were actually responsible for spreading the faith to the Oromo people in Ethiopia, where today Mekane Yesus numbers more than 9 million people!
This passion for the Gospel continues among the Eritrean people today, including those who have relocated to other countries.
The diaspora: Scattering the seed
“Diaspora is a word that refers to God’s scattered Church that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland,” explains Rev. Dr. Dinku Bato, LHF’s coordinator for African translation projects. “There is a large Eritrean Lutheran diaspora here in the United States, and they believe they are missionaries.
“Think of the parable of the sower and the seed. If you see Eritrean immigrants, they think they are missionaries to this land,” he said. “This is their second home, where they are sent to share the Gospel with us.”
Rev. Bato recently connected with part of the Eritrean diaspora who now lives in South Dakota, where he learned of their need for good Lutheran books in the Kunama language.
“So far, we’ve learned of nearly a dozen Eritrean congregations. They do have a version of the Kunama Small Catechism, but it was done in the 1960s. Church leaders estimate there are fewer than 10 copies that remain among the diaspora; lay people don’t have it,” he said.
The congregations have also asked for materials in the Tigrigna language, which is the official language of Eritrea. LHF has identified Kunama and Tigrigna translators, and work is now underway on a variety of projects, including the Jesus Never Fails devotional tract, the Small Catechism (Six Chief Parts) and A Child’s Garden of Bible Stories.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” commented Rev. Bato. “I met a young Eritrean vicar in St. Paul, Minnesota, who told me that though he knows about the Small Catechism with Explanation, his people have never seen it. So the need is great.”
A GIFT FOR THE HOMELAND
Once completed, these LHF translations will be used not only among Eritrean immigrants here in the United States, but also for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.
Rev. Bato said he looks forward to traveling to Eritrea to meet with church leaders about how the books can be used in their congregations.
“Though they now live on the other side of the world, the Eritrean diaspora has not forgotten their mother church,” Rev. Bato said. “As immigrants in a new land, they cannot offer a lot of financial support for their churches back home. But through their work with LHF, they can send them this great gift of the faith, which will help keep the faith strong in Eritrea for generations to come.”