Gudina Tumsa – Martyr and Thinker

Gudina Tumsa – Martyr and Thinker

On July 28, 1979, Gudina Tumsa led a Bible study at Urael Church in Addis Ababa, one of the congregations of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). He had barely left the church when he was kidnapped, together with his wife, Tsehay Tolessa, by some plainclothes government agents. Tsehay was left just outside the city. No one knew what happened to Gudina until 13 years later, when his body was found.

            The abduction was sudden but not entirely unexpected. Gudina had spoken out for years about the abuses of both the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and the Communist military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. He had been arrested twice before his final kidnapping. He had several chances to leave the country, but had determined to stay with his congregation.

Tumsa’s Life

Gudina Tumsa was born on May 5, 1929, at the Oromo village of Boojjii-Karkarroo, Wallaggaa, Ethiopia. His parents were farmers. In 1938, he attended a school founded about thirty years earlier by two missionaries who had studied under the Oromo translator Onesimos Nesib. Gudina’s parents and relatives were not Christian, but learned about the gospel through him.

            Gudina was so impressed by the gospel he heard preached at the school that he cut down the ritual Hommi Tree, considered sacred by the local population – an action that caused some outrage. After completing fourth grade, he continued his studies at the Najjoo Swedish School and in nearby Nekemte.

            Lacking the money to proceed to high school, he began working at Tafari Makonnen Hospital, first as a gardener and later as a translator for foreign personnel. In 1951, he married Tsehay Tolessa, a dedicated Oromo Christian who had lost her father and her village at the hand of the occupying Italians, lost her mother to typhus, and barely escaped from the hands of slave-traders – all before age ten. Rescued and educated by a Christian mission, she working in a home for children of people with leprosy when she met Gudina. They fell deeply in love.

            By the time he was twenty-six, Gudina’s clear theological understanding persuaded the people of Nekemte to send him back to Najoo where he could study to become their pastor. He graduated in 1958 and was ordained in the Nekemte church. After a few years of pastorate, he studied for three years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree. Tsehaye didn’t follow him to the States, but stayed at home, caring for their five children.

Gudina’s Beliefs and Practice

            After his return to Ethiopia, Gudina served both as a pastor and EECMY’s general secretary. EECMY played an important role in the history of the country, responding quickly to the famines that plagued North Ethiopia in 1973-1974. Under Gudina’s guidance, it stood up against Haile Selassie’s abuses of the poor and against the following Communist regime that tried to keep all churches under state control.

            The first phase of the revolution, from 1974 to 1977, was relatively peaceful and gave the impression of being positive for the country. While praising Mengistu’s social reforms, Gudina was wary about the underlying ideology. In 1975, he balanced a speech given by his own brother Baro in support of the new regime with a word of caution: “It must be understood that there can be no reconciliation and no compromise between what the church believes and materialism. Marxism-Leninism and the church can never be friends. Materialism thinks and lives from below, from matter, but the church lives from the Spirit of God, who comes from above.”[1]

            Gudina believed the gospel to be both “holistic” and unique. It was holistic in the sense that it should extend to the whole person, and it was unique because it was unlike any human system of thought. “Let not anyone deceive himself in taking Christianity as one of the social systems or ideologies,” he wrote. “To be a Christian is to be a follower of the risen Christ, confessing him as the Lord of history.”[2]

            Gudina encouraged EECMY to keep a balance between theological instruction and care for people’s dignity and physical wellbeing – a balance he believed the western church had lost, but had been kept alive at the mission where he had been educated. There, he had found medical care, a way out of illiteracy, and a loving community where each person was valued. In a Communist regime that claimed to work for the interests of the people while deciding (as many political regimes did in Africa) “who should die and who should live,”[3] the testimony of the church as a truly caring community was more important than ever.

Called to Die

            Mengistu’s government became particularly tyrannical in 1977, when he claimed absolute power and eliminated everyone that was even slightly suspected of opposing his regime. But Gudina saw it coming. In 1975, he told a group of pastors, “I see it as my duty to prepare the church for the persecution that will surely come. I’m afraid it will prove to be fatal to me one day.”[4] A follower of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he believed that Christians are ultimately called to die in response to the One who died for them.

            His predictions came true. Under Mengistu’s rule, which lasted until 1987, thousands of Ethiopians were imprisoned and executed without trial and several church buildings were confiscated. Gudina was first arrested in 1978 and placed on a “black list” for his refusal to work with the regime and raise foreign funds for the new government. He was arrested again in 1979 and held for three weeks on the charge of preaching against the ideals of the revolution. Later, the government arrested his 16-year-old daughter and threatened to kill her if Gudina didn’t comply with their wishes. They only relented under international pressure.

            Still grieving after Gudina’s abduction, Tsehya was arrested six months later, hung upside down, and beaten until her bones broke. She was then kept in a crowded prison without receiving medical attention. She was tortured again three months later. This new set of wounds never healed up completely. After her release, about ten years after her arrest, she continued her husband’s work of planting and equipping churches.

            Gudina and Tsehya’s daughters Lensa and Aster, who found safety abroad during the worse persecution, have founded the Gudina Tumsa Foundation with the goal of keeping alive Gudina’s vision of a holistic church. The foundation has since published a volume of the few writings that survived the government’s destruction of the church property. Forty-one years after Gudina’s death, these writings continue to challenge the church to examine some issues that have often been neglected.

[1] Quoted in Øyvind M. Eide, “Tumsa, Gudina,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography,

[2] Gudina Tumsa, “Some Issues Requiring Discussions and Decisions”, in Witness and Discipleship: Leadership of the Church in Multi-Ethnic Ethiopia in a Time of Revolution: The Essential Writings of Gudina Tumsa (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2003) 73, quoted in Tasgara Hirpo, “The Cost of Discipleship: The Story of Gudina Tumsa,” Word & World, Volume 25, Number 2 Spring 2005, 166,

[3] Quoted in Øyvind M. Eide, “Tumsa, Gudina.”

[4] Interview with Gudina Tumsa, September 9, 1975, quoted in Samuel Yonas Deressa and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tulessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017


Simonetta Carr