A Church Born in a War – History Part 3

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This is the third post in a series.  For the first post, click here.  For the second, click here.

When we last left our story, the missionaries in Soddo were seeing new converts under the looming threat of war.  What had once been a stronghold of Satan worship and paganism, was beginning to see its first evangelical church!

In February of 1935, the missionaries began building the first mission hospital in Soddo.  Only eight months later, the Italian General de Bono marched into Ethiopia with troops without even a declaration of war.  The occupation was underway, but in remote Wolaitta Soddo, the missionary work continued on.   News came to the missionaries in Soddo as various events unfolded.  They worked ever harder to win more and more converts to Christ, knowing that their time in the country may be limited.

Ethiopian troops assemble during the Italian invasion

Ethiopian troops assemble during the Italian invasion

On May 5, 1937, Addis Ababa fell to the Italian invaders.  It was not known how long, or even if, the invaders would make their way to the southern regions.  But they did, and on January 19, 1937, Soddo itself was occupied with Italian troops.  Just three months later, the missionaries were forced to leave.  Nineteen adults and seven children boarded an Italian army convoy which took them to Addis to depart the country.

In those two years between the first rumblings of war and the evacuation, God added several dozen new converts to the young Soddo church.  It was not known what would happen in the years that followed.  What ensued was a vigorous persecution of the new Christians.  Wandaro himself was jailed and beaten almost to the point of death.  As other leaders were imprisoned, and yet stayed strong in their faith, it only gave credibility to the young church.  The gospel spread like a wildfire, and converts were added by the hundreds, and then thousands.

In 1945, as World War II ended and the Italians had been defeated, missionaries started to return to Ethiopia.  Upon arriving to Soddo, they were greeted and welcomed back by the thousands of Christian believers in Wolaitta.   Over 150 churches had sprung up in their absence.  They rejoiced to see what God had done in the midst of the suffering that had taken place.  A huge vibrant church had been born!

Early Wolaittan believers who suffered persecution during the 1930s and 40s.

Early Wolaittan believers who suffered persecution during the 1930s and 40s.

The new converts had done the best they could with no missionaries around.  Some rather humorous practices had developed.  Some of them recalled seeing only believers at Communion.  So the first Wolaittan church adopted the custom of dismissing all non-Christians when the Lord’s Supper was served.  And they swore the participants to secrecy – not to describe the Lord’s supper to anyone.  They had also stopped raising goats – due to Jesus’s warning that the “goats” would be sent to eternal damnation in Matthew 25!

They had to wait until the fall of 1946 before they were permitted to move back onto the old mission station.  At that point, all of the hospital and the residences had been occupied by squatters and their animals.   The Ohmans, now with Dr. and Mrs. Nathan Barlow, began taking possession of the hospital back, and gradually restored the place to a usable condition.  Even though it would be a while before they could start doing surgery again, the word of their return traveled fast, and already patients were lining up to be seen.

Dr. Nathan Barlow - one of the first missionary doctors after the Italian occupation

Dr. Nathan Barlow – one of the first missionary doctors after the Italian occupation.  He would live in Soddo until 1967.

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