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Abyssinian Baptist Church Press Conference
Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III
Sheraton Addis Ababa
9.28.07, 12:00pm (Addis)
• Beloved, I stand before you today as a collective of The Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York in this great land of Ethiopia for the final time before we embark on our trip back to the United States, returning to our homes in the various parts of the country from which we’ve traveled. Since our arrival here on September 16, we have experienced life-altering events, challenged ourselves to reach new levels of spirituality (and physical fitness!) through a reconnection with our Holy Land, and have all been witness to the many great wonders of this indescribably beautiful country. But while our physical journey to Ethiopia is coming to a close, our journey with Ethiopia is just beginning.
• When we first arrived, Dr. Ephraim Isaacs talked to us about “Ethiopianism” – the idea that the freedom of African-American people is connected to the ancient, spiritual, and ancestral homeland of Ethiopia. While many of us as African Americans have studied our cultural and historical connections to Africa, and specifically to Ethiopia, and have previously visited other parts of the continent, I think I can speak for most of us when I say that I don’t think any of us realized just how deep that connection – that Ethiopianism – runs until now.
• As some of you know, this journey has been “a long time coming” for me. I first began planning a visit to Ethiopia more than seven years ago – to pay homage to the homeland of our founding fathers, the world’s oldest Christian nation and the only African nation to have never been colonized. We are honored to have had the opportunity to be here to help celebrate Ethiopia’s millennium, and we are even more honored and humbled by the warm, welcoming manner in which you have embraced each of us since our arrival almost two weeks ago. We knew before we arrived that we were returning to our roots, and you have welcomed us home with open arms. As Ethiopia celebrates 2000 years of history, culture, tradition, and spirituality – although we know this land is much older than that – and we at Abyssinian Baptist Church are here celebrating 200 years – our bicentennial, we stand in awe and appreciation of the foundation that you have laid for us.
• For those of you here today who may not be as familiar with the role of the African-American church in America, I want to share a bit of our history – so that we can all more fully understand how the history of Ethiopia – Abyssinia – and Abyssinian Baptist Church will forever be inextricably linked. Our church was founded in 1808 by a group of Ethiopian sea merchants and free African Americans who refused to worship in a segregated church and formed their own church, naming it Abyssinian Baptist Church, in honor of Abyssinia. From our roots, from our beginning, Abyssinian Baptist Church has been on a spiritual journey that has always kept us in the struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
• Historically, the African-American church has been a galvanizing force in the active building of beloved communities in the United States. As we celebrate 200 years of our church as an empowering center of spiritual and community transformation, as the oldest Black Baptist church in New York State and one of the oldest African-American institutions in America, we have been a sustained leader of spiritual transformation in the context of real world issues – including housing, education, culture and the arts, family tradition and ownership of capital. We seek to further advance that cause as part of our global mission – beginning here in our native land, Ethiopia.
• So, we began this trip with a few things in mind that we wanted to accomplish. First, we wanted to experience a spiritual pilgrimage that would allow us to find our way back to our homeland – to reconnect Abyssinian with the people and the country for which it is named and strengthen ecclesiastical ties with the nation that is our sacred land. Secondly, we wanted to strengthen our own faith by increasing our knowledge of Christian Orthodox traditions in the earliest Christian communities. Third, we wanted to have the first-hand experiences necessary for us to obtain the valuable information that will assist in our consideration of a viable, long-term course of action supporting the people and progress of Ethiopia. I am happy to be here before you to report that we successfully accomplished all of these goals. But I am even happier to tell you that we also accomplished so much more.
• Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments we’ve made during this journey is our active building of relationships that will help ensure that this pilgrimage, while our first, will certainly not be our last. Our visits to the cities on the Holy Route – Gondar, Bahir Dar, Lalibela, Axum and Mekelle – provided us with incredible views of the great achievements and rich culture of Ethiopia...from the Imperial Castle, Gondar Medical School & Hospital, Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Ura Kidane Mihret, the Rock Hewn Churches, Oblisques, Queen of Sheba’s Palace and Tomb, Adowa where the Ethiopian army defeated Italian invaders, and many more. Through these experiences, we were able to witness the natural beauty and historic innovation upon which this country was built.
• However, we have also witnessed and been inspired by something just as, and perhaps more, beautiful – the kind, generous, faithful people of this nation. Our brothers and sisters here in Ethiopia have cared for us as only family can. We have been met by Ministers of the Ethiopian Government, Heads of Regions and States, mayors, leading clergy, other officials and dignitaries, and scores of local residents at each of our stops along the way, and we have been culturally inspired by the traditional ceremonies, dances, and foods that have been so warmly and graciously provided for us.
• And while our gratitude for what we have experienced and the kindness that we have received during this pilgrimage surpasses anything our words could ever express, this journey was not about what Ethiopia could give us. Over the course of the past two weeks, we have worked hard to ensure that we have had a phenomenal cultural exchange as well – one in which we each shared of our resources for the enlightenment of the other.
• To that end, I and other members of our delegation, including lawyers, educators, doctors, journalists, authors, artists, bankers and businesspersons, have had the distinct honor of meeting with leaders including President His Excellency Girma Wolde-Giorgis (who opened his home to our entire group for a magnificent dinner upon returning to Addis from the Holy Route), His Holiness Abune Paulos (who welcomed us at Holy Trinity Church last Sunday for an inspiring worship service and afterwards allowed us to be his first guests in the newly constructed hall on the church compound for a fellowship breakfast, and invited us back for an evening of fellowship last night for the grand Meskel celebration), Prime Minister His Excellency Meles Zenawi (who took time on Monday before flying to New York to address our group and conduct an informative question-and-answer session with us about the state of Ethiopia), and U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto (who welcomed us into his home …and whose 11-year-old daughter Laura so graciously baby-sat my 20-month-old grandson Calvin).
• Earlier this week, we also had the opportunity to meet with the Ethiopian Minister of Education to discuss the state and importance of education in Ethiopia and continued development and progress in the building of schools, recruitment and retention of teachers, and more opportunities for all children in Ethiopia to be able to receive a solid education – an area which is extremely vital in the ongoing progress of any nation, especially Ethiopia.
• As President of the State University of New York – Old Westbury, I was also especially interested to meet with Addis Ababa University President Andreas Eschete to sign an articulation and exchange agreement between our two universities, as well as to meet with Professor Abiyi Ford about the work they are doing in advanced education here in Ethiopia. All of these meetings provided new and deeper meaning to a notion that has long been my own personal mantra: “Education and faith are the twin rivers at the source of our redemption” – as a people, as an African church, as a nation. Without a strong faith in God and a trained mind, we cannot hope for redemption.
• We also spoke at length with the Ethiopian Minister of Health about advances in healthcare in this country and programs that are currently being implemented to help provide some level of medical care to people who have previously had very little or in some cases, none.
• Just yesterday, we held a roundtable at the United Nations - Economic Commission for Africa in which we shared a panel with President Eschete and Professor Ford and discussed economic development and investment, health, and education issues of concern in Ethiopia with each respective Ministry – sharing models of success that the Abyssinian Baptist Church has used in our efforts in to bring about progress in these areas…the ordained work that we have been able to do through Abyssinian Development Corporation – investing more than half a billion dollars in the Harlem community in New York; examples of patient engagement through the work of our health ministry in the community; and the building of schools to ensure our children have better opportunities to receive a quality education.
• But it doesn’t end there. On Wednesday during the ceremony in which I received an honorary degree from Addis Ababa University, we also participated in a music workshop and cultural exchange – including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (performing traditional chants), the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council (performing a Menzuma Chant), and an ensemble from the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir (performing good old gospel music, which we know has its roots here, too). This exchange particularly underscored one of the many great attributes of Ethiopia – the peaceful co-existence of a people who may worship differently, but who understand that one God is found in many houses and is called by many names. We profess Jesus Christ as the Son of God and accept Him as our savior, but we respect all people under God.
• I also want to take this opportunity now to clarify an incorrect statement that was attributed to me in a local newspaper. Contrary to what was reported, I believe that Ethiopia is the epitome of co-existence between three major faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The one thing that has impeded the strengthening of our church’s relationship with Ethiopia has been the struggles that we have each been engaged with in America and Ethiopia – struggles against social and racial injustice and struggles against imperialist aggression and attempted colonial invasion, respectively.
• As you can see, we have managed to fit perhaps a month’s worth of activities, meetings and visits (to fistula hospitals, AIDS centers, religious conferences and more) in the course of two weeks here …and later today, I will have additional meetings with the Minister of Culture and Tourism and the business community here in Addis. But as much as we have done during our time here, our work is just beginning. If we have learned nothing else thus far, it is that we have a spiritual foundation here on which we can help build a plan for social justice and improved conditions for our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, and that we cannot separate our struggles here from our struggles at home in the United States.
• We have a mandate to which I am holding each of us accountable…and that mandate is to continue the mission of Abyssinian Baptist Church in support of Ethiopia. We have been changed by our encounters with the brave, intelligent people of this nation and we will continue the struggle with you. We know the relationship won’t happen overnight. It may take a while to effect change in all of the areas we’ve seen since our arrival. But standing here today, I can say that we are committed to building a permanent bridge across the Atlantic. Just this week, I had the honor of laying the cornerstone at the future site of the Arnold J. Ford Center for the African Diaspora – which is intended to build better links between Africans in Africa and in the African Diaspora. We are committed to making a reconnection of our faith as a Christian people and our responsibility as an African people here in Ethiopia.
• Yes, we know that Ethiopia can eventually solve its own challenges, but we humbly offer our help to fulfill the vast potential that lies within this country – our country. And with our commitment to Ethiopia, we are not forgetting our struggles at home in the U.S. Let me repeat, and with our commitment to Ethiopia, we are not forgetting our struggles at home in the U.S. We are proud of America because we helped build it. But Africa is also our native land and as African Americans, we must help our brothers and sisters here as well. Ethiopia has a past and a legacy of which the whole world should be proud, and we are honored to work with this nation to highlight a great history, but to also help create an even greater future.
• When we return to the United States, we will hold a series of meetings to determine specifically how, given what we’ve learned here in the areas of economic, health, education and social needs, we can apply our resources to encourage advancement in Ethiopia – whether via public policy, direct aid, professional exchange programs, healthcare initiatives or other areas. So, as I stand before you today, I pledge on behalf of Abyssinian Baptist Church that we will be a partner to Ethiopia – working together as a united whole - in helping to defeat its greatest enemy…and that enemy is not a lack of dignity, morals, faith or religion. That enemy is not another nation or government. That enemy is poverty.
• As Prime Minister Zenawi so eloquently responded to a question by a journalist during our meeting concerning the priority of spirituality over economic growth – “we know that without faith, we can accomplish nothing.” So, as we return to America, we will be Ethiopia’s spiritual ambassadors – spreading the gospel of a great nation, of a beautiful country, of a faithful people. We will do everything in our power to make sure that our people – especially our young people – see and know Ethiopia as we have experienced it…not just as they read or hear about it, and we will work to create opportunities for them to visit here themselves.
• Before I close, I would like to thank the Ethiopian Government for receiving us in such a spirit of respect, love and fellowship. I would like to give special thanks to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture and Tourism who assigned members of their staffs to us for our entire journey to make sure we were taken care of…and I would like to particularly thank these gentlemen, and they stand here throughout the room today, who have so unselfishly given of their kindness, generosity, time, and limitless help over the course of these two weeks. Brothers, you will always have a home at Abyssinian.
• Lastly, just as we have been so graciously welcomed here during Ethiopia’s Millennium celebration, I invite each of you to New York to help celebrate Abyssinian Baptist Church’s bicentennial celebration in November 2008. Our theme of “True to Our God, True to Our Native Land” means that just as Ethiopia is our home, Abyssinian is yours and we hope you will join us there throughout the coming year and beyond. Our celebration activities include a first a first-time collaboration featuring Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, myself and a mass choir premiering Marsalis’ penned mass for the bicentennial; a theme song composed by legendary duo Ashford & Simpson; a published book featuring contributions from Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Cornel West and co-authored by Drs. Quinton H. Dixie (who accompanied us on this journey), Genna Rae McNeil, and Houston Roberson; a Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture exhibition tracing Abyssinian’s significant role in the history of New York City; a partnership with StoryCorps, the national oral-history project (in partnership with the Library of Congress) to document and preserve the stories of Abyssinian for future generations; a formal White-Tie gala for elected officials, dignitaries, business leaders, and the entertainment industry in recognition of Abyssinian’s significance to the global community; a formal Black-Tie event and auction in New York City for the Abyssinian congregation and community supporters; a music CD featuring the Abyssinian Choirs and special guests; and a specially commissioned abstract painting titled “Til Now We Stand at Last” by Harlem artist Dianne Smith.
• Now, in closing, beloved, having experienced here in Ethiopia a history that far exceeds our comprehension and a spirituality that permeates the very air we breathe, we leave here a much more faithful and humbled people than when we arrived.
• I gave a speech yesterday, and in it, I told a story of Jesus touching a blind man and then asking him, “Can you see?” The blind man replied, “Yes, Lord. But men look like trees.” So, Jesus touched him again – a second time – and it was then that he was able to see. I liken our experience here as “the second touch.”
• We were all touched the first time, over the course of years, in speaking with Ethiopian friends and associates who shared their first-hand knowledge of this country, reading books, researching on our own, and via other ways that we educated ourselves about Africa and Ethiopia. But it wasn’t until we came here, until we landed and walked on the soil of this land, felt its spirit, heard its sounds, and breathed its greatness that we were finally able to see. Yes, beloved, the second touch. We have seen a new heaven and a new earth, and that – is Ethiopia.
• Thank you, God Bless, and Keep the Faith.
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