Ethiopia, Lebanon, and South Africa: My Heroes

by Tad Mitsui – recipient of Honarary Degree of Doctor of Divinity

United Theological College, May 13, 1992

I was expelled from South Africa in 1972.  The authorities did not give me the reasons.  I could as well have been a drug smuggler.  A few years later the Canadian Ambassador advised me that it was a case of guilt by association.  He discovered that my expulsion was due to the company I kept, with people like Desmosnd Tutu and Steve Biko that bothered South African Government. I was not a particularly articulate and powerful demagogue, nor was I effectively subversive.  I was not a dangerous person, but I had bad friends.

The honour you have given me today must be of the same nature.  Honour by association.  I was lucky to have met many brave Christians in my life.  Principal Goldberger wrote in his letter that the United Theological College was giving me the Honourary Degree, and that in doing so the college wanted to emphasize the communal aspect of ministry.  I took that to mean that this is an honour given to a community of people, who were important in my ministry.   Many of them have remained nameless, so I am receiving it on their behalf.  Of those people, today I wish to mention five persons.   All of them are dead now and have no chance of receiving any recognition otherwise.

J”aimerais rappeler en cette soirée le souvenir de cinq amis décédés, mais qui ont vécu en accord avec l”Évangile.  Ces amis ont été d”une grande importance dans mon ministère, que vous honorez ce soir.  Ils sont trois Sud-Africains, une Ethiopienne, et un Palestinien.  They are Maphetla Mohapi, Steve Biko, Abram Tiro, a name-less Ethiopian peasant woman, and Emil Aghaby.

Maphetla Mohapi and Steve Biko were murdered in the same South African prison but one year apart.  Abram Tiro was blown to bits by a letter bomb while exiled in Botswana.  I met those three in Lesotho, where I taught Religion with Desmond Tutu.  They were leaders of the University Christian Movement.  Abram was killed because he was exiled General Secretary of SASO, a black students organization, after it was banned in 1974.  Mapetla was tortured to death.  He was alleged to have taken part in teenagers” up-rising in Soweto in 1976.  I am convinced that the allegation was wrong.  He lived in King Williams Town under a Banning Order unable to go anywhere, and students rioted in Johannesburg, thousands of kilometres away.  Steve”s death in 1977 needs no explanation.  They did not mean to be martyrs.  They were too busy doing things they had to do for Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic, and Khotso in Sotho.  They never had time to finish even first degrees.

In Ethiopia, I met this peasant woman in a feeding camp in Makele in 1985, during the height of the famine. We never had time to take the names of victims down.  We had no staff nor time. Thousands died everyday.  I was working for the World Council of Churches as the coordinator of famine relief in Africa.  She was nearly dead by the time she reached the camp.  What struck me was her appearance of dignity and pride even though she was in rags that looked like wounded flesh.  Staff at the camp were having difficulty helping her because she kept insisting that she could do things on her own.  Farmers are like that all over the world: independent and too proud to receive charity.  The reason why she came in such a bad state, was because, even after most of the villagers left in search of food, she stayed behind.  She insisted that she still had something in the house to sell to buy food.  She represents in my mind one million other Ethiopians who died during that period.  She was, like most of other Ethiopians in Tigray, a devout Orthodox Christian.

Emil Aghaby was kidnapped in 1986 in Lebanon.  A mistake: they thought that he was someone else.  Nevertheless, they killed him and dumped his body on a highway.  He was one of the fifty thousand nameless victims of kidnapping.  Only a handful of Western kidnap victims became celebrities.  Western media do not report the names of Arab victims.  He was a Palestinian Christian, Director of Palestinian Refugee Programme in Lebanon.  And I was a liaison person for the Canadian Churches which supported this programme.  I used to meet with him every year for annual programme review.  He was a man of means, and could have comfortably retired in Montreal or Paris surrounded by  grandchildren, who are all well to do professionals.  But he was passionately committed to the welfare of underprivileged Palestinian exiles, overseeing health clinics, vocational schools, and other projects in the refugee camps, which are cesspools of poverty and sickness.

You are honouring those five people today, and many others represented by them.  I am glad that I could do this for them by still being alive.  I was no where near harm”s way because I was a Canadian, not a black South African, an Ethiopian, nor a Palestinian.  I was like a Roman passer-by.  I was an on-looker at the foot of the Cross on a hill.  The hill in Jerusalem.  I was there, but as a witness: privileged, protected, and safe.

It is for me to tell their stories.

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