What Makes a Church? A Tiny, Leafy Forest

3 mins read

In Ethiopia, church forests are withstanding environmental destruction — but just barely.

By 

Mr. Seifert is a filmmaker.

I grew up attending churches surrounded by parking lots and populated by congregations that didn’t connect their spirituality to ecology. So when I first heard about the church forests of Ethiopia, I was intrigued.

One of my great passions has been the environment, fighting for it, telling stories of its abuse and our need to be caretakers and champions of our shared home. I was eager to meet people whose religion had some built-in practice of respecting trees and preserving biodiversity. And that belief, coupled with the ballooning threat of climate change and a growing sense of despair, propelled me to visit the church forests of Ethiopia.

A few months later I was in the office of a forest ecologist, Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, who started his interview by telling me, “A church, to be a church, must be enveloped by a forest.”

I had never heard those words before or that idea, but I was hearing a truth I already knew: The church should be immersed in creation, enjoying and protecting the forest and shores and mountains, the whole earth.

As I spent time with Dr. Alemayehu and filmed in the little pockets of old-growth forest that surround the churches of Ethiopia, my moments of awe at the beauty of the church forests were countered by feelings of despair. They were so small. So much of the surrounding forest had already disappeared.

I wrestled with judging the Ethiopian Church for holding its beliefs imperfectly, like all things human. Why not save more of the forest than just a small patch around the church? Where was the church when 97 percent of Ethiopia’s primary forest was destroyed?

For me, these little blips of green forest rising out of vast swaths of deforested brown earth represent hope. They are a powerful intersection of faith and science doing some good in the world.

E.O. Wilson, in his book “Half-Earth,” declared the church forests of Ethiopia “one of the best places in the biosphere.” They are proof that when faith and science make common cause on ecological issues, it results in a model that bears repeating. We have the blueprint of life held in these tiny circles of faith, and that’s something to rejoice over and protect and expand with every resource we can muster.

3 Comments

  1. Dear Sir,
    This is in response to your question “..I wrestled with judging the Ethiopian Church for holding its beliefs imperfectly, like all things human. Why not save more of the forest than just a small patch around the church? Where was the church when 97 percent of Ethiopia’s primary forest was destroyed?…”

    The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been a target of the Marxist, tribal and fascistic successive governments along with their political & religious cronies since the infamous 1974 revolution. Its land and buildings were all confiscated by decree in 1975 except pockets of land surrounding the churches the the monasteries. Such government & political cadre sponsored encroachment to the Churches land reserves and property has continued to this date (Re: the recent past Sugar plantation, deforestation and road construction blunder in Waldba Monastery in the North and the various torching, looting and revocation of the Church’s property deeds in the various other parts of the country are few examples of the Churches struggle for its very existence).

    If you are indeed concerned about the forest, your effort to reserve and afforest would serve best if you first identify the root cause of why the forests of the Churches and Monasteries are ever shrinking.

    God be with you in all your endevour

  2. Fiseha little donkey
    is it your second nature to fart like a mare or a horse ? Why donot justify yourself and give reasons for your hate ? Insulting someone shows that he or she topped you and her or his sucess really bothers you. I mean you are in danger because of TPLF and Tigray peopl’s success.
    A forest is likely to produce bandits, robbers, killers and demons like Mahibrekidusan, amhara priests and debteras who are known to poison and kill thier victims brutally.
    Church is full of crime of all sort. ask yourself and donot blame others

  3. The EPRDF growth and transformation plan clearly explained that all forests around churches are fire hazards that needed to be replaced with concrete structures all around the churches to house the homeless needy population. This transformation plan didn’t come to see the light of day due to the unrest it caused for years before PM HaileMariam Desalegn left his post.

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