One of MEDA’s first international employees reflects on careers in Ethiopia and Virginia
By Russ Eanes
“You Mennonites messed up my religion.” Said with a smile and a laugh, Asrat Gebre — now 82, and living in Harrisonburg, VA — described his long history with Mennonites, economic development, and MEDA. Hired by MEDA in the late 1970s, he was one of its first two employees outside of North America. Gebre was born and raised in Ethiopia, in the town of Nazareth, about 60 miles east of the capital of Addis Ababa, a place that was coincidentally also the location of a Mennonite medical mission led at the time by Dr. Rohrer Eshelman.
He came from a comfortable background, educated in what he termed an “elitist” system that was influenced by the Americans and British. He started learning English in grade school and continued through university. In those years, Emperor Haile Selassie ruled a country rebuilding from the occupation of, and later expulsion of, Italian Fascists under Mussolini. Gebre went to work for a bank and said that had he not become a Mennonite, he would have been a very wealthy man, though he emphasized that he would not have been happy. Instead, he became involved in helping the very “poorest of the poor,” as he described them, as Ethiopia went through decades of incredible ecological, demographic, and political turmoil.
Between 1967 — the year he graduated from university — and 1992, the country’s population doubled. At the same time, tree coverage — once 60% of the land — was reduced to only 10%, causing disruption of the agricultural system, further exacerbated by drought. A Marxist revolution overthrew the emperor in 1974 and initiated 18 years of political and cultural turbulence and oppression. In the midst of all that were the twin disasters of famine (1984-85) and persecution of the Mennonite church — known already then as the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC).
Gebre became a part of the church himself in 1959 or 1960 and credits its later survival as an underground church to the fact that the control and leadership of the Mennonite church in Ethiopia was given to local leaders. As he said, the missionaries, “let THEM be the church.” Gebre began working in a volunteer capacity for MEDA in 1969, two years after he graduated from university. Orie Miller — a Mennonite entrepreneur involved in the founding of several church institutions, including MEDA —visited Ethiopia. Gebre met Miller during one of those trips and got involved (like Miller) as a volunteer with MEDA. His task was to administer small loans and to supervise their use. He recalled being especially successful in funding pharmacy training, but also in loaning to small shops and farms.
Around 1976, MEDA asked Gebre to work full-time. He accepted the offer, dividing his time between a MEDA office in Addis Ababa and time in the field, visiting and supervising projects. That same year, the Hesston Corporation, under Ray Schlichting, paid for him to come to the US for additional training and study. Gebre’s bank had previously offered him foreign training, but he would have had to go alone. MEDA allowed his wife, Meseret, to come along with him, and they stayed for 10 months, from October 1976 to August 1977. He then tacked on a semester at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1977 to study co-ops, inspired by models that he found coming out of Germany. He was interested in “humanized” socialism, as opposed to the “enforced” socialism of the Marxist government. Returning to Ethiopia, he went along on a delegation to the Soviet Union, to learn how a believers’ church can survive under a Marxist system.
The funding from MEDA ran out in 1981. At that point, MEDA Ethiopia became independent, eventually functioning more like the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), meaning that they emphasized more “direct aid,” though they never stopped making small loans. As he said, “we were doing microfinance before we knew what it was called.” Their emphasis was local empowerment. He noted that loans that were from local sources were more likely to be repaid. He observed that if they originated in a wealthy country, such as the US or Canada, the attitude was, “why should I pay it back?” When active persecution of the Meserete Kristos church began in 1984, his work was shut down by the government. He said that this never stopped he or his wife — they would just begin something new, even if it was kept out of view of the authorities.
Civil war and conflict with surrounding countries meant that there was always a stream of displaced people to work with; he referred to those as the “poorest of the poor,” who lacked a home and culture, as well as a means to live. Gebre and Meseret founded DAY, or Development Aid for Youth, which later employed 250 people, emphasizing education and vocational training. Gebre said that any of the work that he and his wife did would eventually get them in trouble with the authorities, no matter which government. In 1992, the Marxists (called “Derg”) were overthrown, and the Gebres began working with the former soldiers of the losing side. Some learned to raise bees; others received donated clothing from the Netherlands, which the soldiers mended and sold. This was not looked upon well by the new government.
The Gebres’ development work naturally got them involved with the local human rights council; economic aid naturally leads from one to the other. Meseret Gebre got involved with women who were street vendors (primarily illiterate) who dared to stand up for their right to operate their businesses, eventually overwhelming local community meetings, dominated by men, as they demanded their rights. This all became too much for the new government: in 1995, the American embassy warned Gebre that his human rights work meant he was in danger; it was unsafe to stay. As he said, “[the new Ethiopian government] simply did not wish us to exist.”
With assistance from the US government, they were able to relocate to the US, landing in Harrisonburg, VA. Asrat Gebre was 55, the age that a man can retire in Ethiopia, but instead, he took a job at Walmart, which he said he enjoyed. His entrepreneurial spirit wouldn’t rest, and when he found out that a local non-profit that constructed affordable housing — Hope Community Builders — was going to close, he offered instead to run it, which he has done now for 25 years. He said that they started by constructing homes in the traditionally African-American neighborhoods, in northeast Harrisonburg, but later took over the development of a large tract owned by a local church that had the vision to create affordable housing. It now has over 140 homes that he has been instrumental in constructing. Even over age 80, he is still involved in the day-to-day operations.
Over many decades, Gebre has studied and read about Anabaptism and now delights in teaching “white Mennonites” what their faith should be about. “I tell them that their heritage is not fundamentalism, not God and country.” It means to trust in God alone. Reflecting on his many long years in both the church and in economic development, he said that, ironically, “Being a Mennonite saved me from the government. [It] saved my life.”