I had no idea when I met Samuel Yonas Deressa that we would become such good friends, or that I would end up visiting Ethiopia someday, and certainly not that through his guidance I would stumble across one of the most amazing, inspiring, and excruciating (note the word crux, Latin for “cross,” hidden there in “excruciating”) stories of Christian discipleship ever. It was a lovely summer’s day in charming Strasbourg, the flower boxes full and fragrant, the canal poking along in its usual lazy way, the half-timbered houses as self-satisfied in their cuteness as ever—but the gospel invades worldly peace and beauty every bit as much as worldly violence and suffering.
Somehow or other Gudina Tumsa’s story came up. Maybe because Samuel had been working at the Gudina Tumsa Foundation in Addis Ababa. Maybe because of my manhunt, so to speak, for Lutheran saints (of which more on another occasion) and I asked who was remembered, honored, indeed venerated among the Lutherans of Ethiopia. One way or another, Samuel unfolded for me the basic story.
Gudina was a pastor who’d studied in America in the 1960s and returned to Ethiopia to be the General Secretary (the equivalent of bishop or church president) of the Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus right about the time the imperial regime under Haile Selassie was finally falling… only to be replaced by the far worse (and that’s saying something) communist regime of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam. Gudina struggled through these hard years, strengthening the church amidst growing persecution, not to mention threats to the personal safety of Gudina and his family, until one night in the summer of 1979 when he was seized off the street and disappeared. Not until 1991, when the regime fell, and even then only after extensive sleuthing, was his fate known. Probably the same night of his arrest, at the latest within the week, Gudina was brutally murdered and buried in the backyard of the imperial palace. Today he is rightly remembered and venerated as martyr for Jesus Christ.
In time I procured, with Samuel’s help, a basic collection of Gudina’ works produced in Ethiopia, and so was able to read Gudina’s efforts to deal not only with the late threat of communism but also to navigate the complex relationships between young church and old mission. Then I dug up what little secondary literature there is on Gudina in English. Helpful, but not nearly enough. Fascinated but frustrated, I pressed Samuel: isn’t there more? No extensive biography? Well, as a matter of fact, Samuel said, there is. Just one problem: it’s in German.
That, happily, was not a serious obstacle for me, though it turned out the linguistic issue was a bit more complicated still. The German book he was referring to, Der Langen Schatten der Macht (“The Long Shadow of Power”), was actually a translation from Norwegian. And the Norwegian version, I Ildovnen (“In the Furnace,” now apparently out of print), was a kind of ghost-written autobiography of Tsehay Tolessa, Gudina’s wife, assembled by Aud Saeverås, a Norwegian missionary in Ethiopia, who gleaned the information from Tsehay in Amharic—which was a second language for them both, Tsehay being a native Oromo speaker.
What I discovered in reading was that Tsehay’s story powerfully complements Gudina’s. I’ve often thought nobody other than Katharina von Bora had the sheer personal force, gravitas, and character to survive marriage to the emotional, irascible Martin Luther; and likewise I doubt anyone less extraordinary than Tsehay could have managed as companion to the impassioned and fearless Gudina. In fact, aside from Martin and Katie, I know no other such compelling story of a Christian marriage as a full partnership in both household and gospel. To be sure, they had training for it from an early age—and not the kind of training we normally desire for our children. Her earliest memories were of the retreat of the Italian army in World War II and their scorched-earth policy. Her father was poisoned by a rival merchant; her mother died of typhus. Tsehay found a home in the Swedish mission school, and in time she also found Gudina. For his part, he'd been won over by the proclamation of Jesus at the age of ten, promptly destroyed the ritual tree of the local paganism, and got expelled from his family for his troubles. But when Tsehay and Gudina found each other they were exceptional in their mutual devotion—people all around remarked on how they loved each other.
It was a love to be put to the test, though—not by each other, but by circumstances. They lived on nearly nothing as Gudina began his theological studies. Their first son died as an infant. When a few more children came along, Gudina had to be absent a whole three years for his studies in America. Once he returned, it was a nonstop schedule of evangelistic tours and church committees, to say nothing of the steady flow of visitors and needy people and threatening policemen demanding of their time. And then, of course, Gudina’s murder and the agonizing uncertainty about his fate.
As if that weren’t enough, not long after his disappearance—within weeks of their surviving children being evacuated to other countries—Tsehay herself was seized. Not charged and never sentenced, she was nevertheless brutally tortured and then tossed in prison… for ten years. Ten years with no appeal, in appalling conditions. I am still in awe of her plainspoken and unsparing description of what she suffered, from wounds to vermin to overcrowding to demonic mockery to her own despair, set by side with absolute confidence in Christ’s presence throughout. In time she became a missionary right there in prison, smuggling Bibles behind bars and praying with people far more desperate than she. And then one day, for no apparent reason, deliverance; and after that another twenty-five years with her daughters and laboring for the church until her peaceable death in October of 2014.
By the time I’d worked my way through the German version, I was so impressed that I had to put the book into English. I’m competent but hardly fluent in German, and by the time my translation was done the story had made its fourth linguistic transfer. By the grace of God, and no small amount of help from Samuel, I got it into the hands of Lensa Gudina, Gudina and Tsehay’s daughter. She had never read the story herself, and as she says in her preface, it was painful in the extreme to face the full unvarnished account of what her mother endured. But she was able to read it along with Tsehay, correct some mistakes, fill in some gaps, and finally create an authorized version just before Tsehay left this vale of tears. It turned out to be a beautiful example of providential timing.
And also, without any doubt, a story burning to be shared with a larger audience. Samuel and I now had Gudina’s papers—so far only known to certain Ethiopians and a small number of foreign Gudina-fans—and Tsehay’s incredible tale. I started shopping it around and was frankly amazed and dismayed at the “meh” response I got from theological publishers who otherwise paid lip service to Global South perspectives or missional studies. We finally found our ally in Paul Rorem of Lutheran Quarterly Books, and after a few more bureaucratic wrinkles far too tedious to relate here, we got a contract, an editor, and now, at last, a book!
The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tolessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer—so called because of his execution by an anti-Christian government for his combination of theological and political witness, and for his citation of Bonhoeffer’s famous line “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die” in his final essay—came out just last month as the first of Lutheran Quarterly Books in its new home at Fortress Press. In addition to Gudina’s essays and Tsehay’s memoir, Samuel and I have contributed interpretive essays, Lensa Gudina wrote a preface for her mother’s account, and Darrell Jodock (Gudina’s seminary roommate) composed the Foreword.
It is truly an incredible story, and it has been a tremendous honor for me to help share it with a larger audience. It will transform your understanding of the cost of discipleship and what it means to bear the cross in our world today. Thanks be to God for Saint Gudina and Saint Tsehay!
For more, read this interview featured in Living Lutheran.