Tsehay Tolessa – Through a Fiery Furnace
Tsehay Tolessa – Through a Fiery Furnace
When, on July 28, 1979, the Lutheran pastor Gudina Tumsa was abducted at the end of a church service, the troubles for his wife were far from over. Kidnapped at the same time, Tsehay Tolessa was left outside the city walls without any explanations. She was never told what happened to her husband, and his body was not found until 13 years later.
But Tsehay had little time to mourn. Six months after the abduction, she was arrested, hung upside down, and beaten until her bones broke. sent, with no medical attention, to a prison cell that was so crowded that prisoners had to take turns sleeping. Even Tsehay, with her broken bones, had to stand. There were no beds or mattresses - only cold, dirty floors – and no windows or other means of ventilation.
She had barely recovered when she was tortured again three months later. The pain was worse than before. “’Won’t he come and help you, your little Jesus?’ they taunted.” They only stopped when they believed she was dead. This time, her wounds never healed up completely.
Editing the writings of her mother, Lensa Gudina proposed that “Born to Suffer” could have been an appropriate title. Born in 1931 to a relatively comfortable family of merchants, the fourth of five children, Tsehay was barely four when Italy declared war on Ethiopia. In 1936, Italian troops invaded her hometown of Nekemte, northwest of Addis Ababa. After taking over her father’s business, the Italians killed him for refusing to transport grenades on his truck.
The invading troops left Ethiopia in 1941, burning everything in their path. Barely surviving, Tsehay’s family was then attacked by a group of slavehunters who kidnapped Tsehay and her brother along with other children, releasing the two only when they couldn’t keep up with the fast march.
Soon, Tsehay’s mother, worn out by constant moving, stress, and lack of food, died of typhus. Some of the children contracted the same disease. Tsehay’s case was so serious that she was taken to the hospital run by a Lutheran mission. After expressing her desire to learn to read and write, she was admitted to the mission’s school, where she stayed for six years and became a Christian.
After graduation, she worked in a home for children whose parents had contracted leprosy – a widespread illness at that time – under the supervision of Pastor Allen Stefansson and his wife Signe. It was there that Tsehay met Gudina Tumsa.
For Better and for Worse
Tsehay was a beautiful woman and had already received plenty of suitors. Yet, Gudina was the only one who captured her heart. Besides their bond of love, they shared a strong faith and the same roots (they were both from the Oromo tribe, a traditionally mistreated people of southwest Ethiopia). They married and were soon graced with the birth of a son, Emmanuel.
Their joy turned to mourning when Emmanuel choked on a piece of corn that couldn’t get dislodged. His parents reached the nearest hospital (which was hours away from their home) too late to save his life.
Gudina and Tsehay had four more children and lived in relative peace for some time. Gudina continued his chosen career as surgeon’s assistant until he received an outward call to gospel ministry – a call he could not ignore. This change of plans caused some hardships for Tsehay, since money was scarce and she was left alone during Gudina’s frequent educational journeys – including three years at Luther’s Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
But the real trials started in 1977, when Gudina, then General Secretary of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY – with the two last words meaning “Jesus’s dwelling place”), stood up against Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist regime and its tyrannical attempts to claim absolute power, eliminating any opposition and keeping all churches under state control.
Gudina was first arrested in 1978 and placed on a “black list” for his refusal to work with the regime, then agtain in 1979 and held for three weeks on the charge of preaching against the ideals of the revolution.
The persecution didn’t stop with him. Later, the government arrested Gudina and Tsehay’s 16-year-old daughter Kulani and threatened to kill her if Gudina didn’t comply with their wishes. They only relented under international pressure.
Around the same time, the government also imprisoned Gudina and Tsehay’s oldest son Amanti, then sent him to a camp in Nedjo, about 300 miles from Addis Ababa. When a riot broke out, Amanti escape and returned home. Knowing he would soon be found, his parents smuggled him out of the country, first to Kenya, and eventually to Germany where he was taken in by a family of missionaries.
Their second son, Latera, had a worse experience when he refused to join an anti-government party. Frustrated, this party’s enthusiasts beat him to the brink of death. Although he recovered, three months later he became suddenly ill, with excruciating pain in his head. He started to see things no one else could see, including a host of angels dressed in white. “Don’t worry,” he told his parents. “Nothing is confused in my head. But pray for me!” Those were his last words. He was seventeen years old.
While Tsehay and Gudina found peace in knowing their son was with the Lord, their second daughter, Aster, was so overtaken by grief that she suffered from debilitating depression for a year, bringing her parents’ pain to a new level.
“I am reminded of the book of Daniel,” Tsehay wrote. “In it, God allows three young men to be thrown into the fiery furnace. But the fire did not burn them. So many times, I myself have been ‘thrown into the fiery furnace,’ but God’s hand was always there protecting me. ... So many tears I cried! So many prayers I brought before God! So many nights I could not sleep because my heart threatened to shatter with grief! There were days when I was in agony. But I could always pray, and God was there.”
When Aster and Kulani won scholarships to continue their studies in Eastern Europe, Tsehay and Gudina saw it as a way out of their troubled country. Kulani then traveled to Czechoslovakia and Aster to East Germany. The girls’ troubles, however, were not completely over. As committed Christians in two Communist countries, they were often attacked for their faith, and Aster’s passport was withdrawn for two years. Kulani, on the other hand, was targeted by the Ethiopian embassy. Finally, they both found a way to flee to West Germany, where they were taken in by Christian families.
Only Lensa, Gudina and Tsehay’s youngest daughter, stayed home with them.
Prison and Torture
This long string of troubles in Tsehay’s life culminated with her ten-year imprisonment, which often seemed more than she could bear. “I wanted to die,” she wrote. “I begged God to let me die. To come home to Him was all that I wanted.”
“They accused me not only because of my Christian faith,” she explained. “I was also accused of having worked to undermine the government. They could call it what they wanted. Before I came to jail, I didn’t know what politics was. But I had tried to live as a Christian. And as a Christian I had to try to help everyone. As Christians, we believed that all people were equal, whether they were Amhara or Oromo.”
Besides the torture (which was routine under Mengistu’s regime), the prisoners suffered from poor sanitation, lack of food, a host of bugs and rats, and extreme temperatures in winter and summer. Many developed tuberculosis, typhoid, and other infectious diseases. Everyone suffered from toothache until their teeth fell out due to malnutrition.
Occasionally, Tsehay was able to receive some extra food. Someone brought her a Bible that she hid inside her clothes. Sometimes, she read it to other prisoners, who became Christian. Bibles were forbidden, but she managed to obtain more for new converts to read.
Like Gudina, she was convinced that suffering was part of the Christian life. “If the master suffered, his disciples could not expect anything better,” she wrote. “I have experienced, and I know, that this world means nothing to me anymore. I live for eternal life. Everything revolves around that. The Lord alone is our hope.”
Tsehay was finally freed ten years after her arrest. A while later, she began to write her memoirs with the help of a Norwegian missionary, And Saeveras. Initially entitled The Long Shadow of Power, it was translated in other Scandinavian languages, German, Swahili, and Mandarin. The text, however, included some inaccuracies, mostly because Tsehay and And had to communicate in Amharic, which was a second language for both. A new version, authorized by Tsehay and her daughters, was later published in English with the title In the Fiery Furnace.
In her preface to this work, Lensa Gudina confessed that it took her two decades before she could even read the previous version. “Each time I picked it up and tried to read a section of it, I cried uncontrollably and had to put it down. The brutal acts, inhumanity, and injustices described in the book may trigger anger, remorse, and outrage in the reader. At the same time, reading of how both my parents responded to the brutality inflicted upon them will demonstrate vividly the power of love, the cost of discipleship, determination, faithfulness, and victory in the name of Christ.”
Lensa recounts her mother’s answer when someone asked her what she wanted to see happen to her tormenters. “That they may come to know Christ and through forgiveness inherit the kingdom of God,” she said. “This kind of response is beyond human understanding,” Lensa commented. “Only through the grace of God it can be achieved.”
Lensa wrote her preface in 2014, concluding with a description of her mother, then 84, sitting in church “surrounded by her children and grandchildren. ... Tsehay, who was once forlorn, battered, and locked up in a dark dungeon, lifts up her arms to worship and praise, remembering God’s mercy and faithfulness along that treacherous and dark path of life.”
Tsehay died on October 12 of the same year, among her family. Her surviving children are preserving her and Gudina’s legacy, and many others continue to be encouraged by their story of God’s amazing grace.
 For more on Gudina, see Simonetta Carr “Gudina Tumsa, Martyr and Thinker,” Cloud of Witnesses, Place for Truth, March 2, 2021, https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/gudina-tumsa-martyr-and-thinker; and “Tumsa, Gudina,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography, https://dacb.org/stories/ethiopia/gudina-tumsa/
 Sanuel Yonas Deressa and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, eds., The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tolessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017, 179.
 Ibid, 201.
 Ibid., 198
 Ibid., 199, 200
 Ibid., 134
 Ibid., 137.