Lynell Bergen exchanged the snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures of a Winnipeg winter this year for the warm sunshine and mountains of Ethiopia.
Bergen is a pastor of Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg and is currently spending a sabbatical teaching at Meserete Kristos College in Bishoftu, Ethiopia.
“I was tired and just felt like I had run out of things to say,” she says. “So I knew I needed to shift my focus for a while.” But she also knew she needed structure, and she couldn’t just spend four months doing self-directed research in a library.
Her husband, Brian Dyck, suggested she teach at the college, which he had learned about when visiting Ethiopia a few years earlier. Soon they were packing their suitcases and boarding a plane, arriving last December. They will be staying until the end of March.
Dyck is the national migration and resettlement coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada and is doing his work remotely, while also connecting with MCC Ethiopia on refugee and migration issues there. Bergen is teaching two upper-level courses, Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counselling, and Wisdom Literature and the Psalms, with more than 40 students in each class.
“I think my students have learned some things. I know I’ve learned lots of things,” she says. “I’ve just so enjoyed studying to prepare to teach because that’s really one of the best ways that I learn . . . but it’s also been really frustrating and hard at times.”
This is mainly due to the language barrier that separates her from her students. English proficiency in Ethiopia is low, much more than she expected. “They are very proud of never having been colonized, so they’re fiercely independent people, and it’s wonderful and beautiful,” she says. But since she doesn’t speak the local languages, this has turned out to be a big obstacle in the classroom. In the first several classes, she wondered how they would ever be able to understand each other.
Cultural differences also pose challenges to communication, but those are not a new experience for her. Bergen and Dyck lived in Mthatha, South Africa, from 1999 to 2005, serving with Mennonite Church Canada Witness. They worked with African-initiated churches and ran an informal school for rural communities.
“In any cross-cultural teaching setting . . . there are lots of things that are hard, because we have our cultural assumptions and they have their cultural assumptions,” she says. “But I didn’t come here to make things easy.”
With effort and patience on both sides, comprehension in the classroom has started to progress. The students have become more familiar with her accent, and she now gives notes at the beginning of every class so they can follow along on paper. But it’s an ongoing challenge.
She also began to realize that she wasn’t getting to know her students because her classes were so large. “That was feeling like a loss for me. I want to get to know these people,” she says. So she started “Coffee with Pastor Lynell” events. She offered to buy coffee for anyone who came to speak with her in English.
She had a lovely visit with three students who came on the first day. The next time, more than 10 showed up. “We sat around and we talked about all kinds of things,” she says. “They asked about marriage and what life is like in Canada. They asked me what I thought of Ethiopia, and I asked them why they were studying and what they planned to do.”
Sometimes students share stories of hardship, like those who come from areas where the church is still persecuted. They bring these experiences to both coffee time and class, along with their dreams and their thoughts on the church and many other conversations. “It’s been a real privilege to begin to get to know them, to hear their stories, to walk with them,” says Bergen.
These conversations and relationships, as well as teaching and studying, have been stretching experiences for her, and their impacts will surely follow her home across the ocean. She says, too, that the chance to rest and think in a different way, and have “a break from the routine I was in, or maybe the rut I was in sometimes,” has given her a fresh perspective.
“I have heard stories of struggle and hope, which have shaped the church here,” she says. “These stories do not necessarily directly shape how I work in my Winnipeg church, but they influence how I see and understand the global church, and what we can learn from each other. The church here is incredibly dynamic, growing rapidly, living in the midst of significant political and ethnic tensions, trying to be a voice of peace and compassion.”
“I do hope that others will consider this as an opportunity, because, to experience God at work in the church in Ethiopia, it’s a lovely thing, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity.”
—Corrected March 31, 2020
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Lynell Bergen and Brian Dyck have done a lot of bird watching during their time in Ethiopia. This cinnamon-chested bee-eater visited them outside their home. (Photo by Brian Dyck)
Bergen teaches a class on Wisdom Literature, with over 40 students, at Meserete Kristos College. (Photo courtesy of Lynell Bergen)
Bergen and Dyck travelled around Ethiopia with their two sons before they began their work. This view was from a hike in Lalibela. (Photo by Brian Dyck)
A Sunday sunrise walk led Bergen and Dyck to Chelekleka Lake, about ten minutes on foot from the school where they are staying. (Photo by Brian Dyck)
There is a never-ending abundance of birds outside their home. “These two showed up just as we were thinking about supper,” says Dyck. (Photo by Brian Dyck)
Bergen and Dyck are living on the campus of Meserete Kristos College for three months. (Photo by Brian Dyck)