BY MARIA HASENSTAB
There were times when the Rev. Peter Gevera thought he might die as a missionary priest in Ethiopia: He had stones thrown at him while leading a Palm Sunday procession and he was held up at gunpoint just for being a Christian in a predominantly Muslim region.
But during five years in the Afar region, Gevera was able to grow the Catholic parish and show the Muslims that Christians were not a threat.
The 37-year-old Kenya-native is visiting the Belleville Diocese for several weeks. He presented “A Catholic Priest in a Moslem Town” to about 25 people Friday in the St. Peter’s Cathedral Undercroft.
Gevera served as the pastor of The Church of the Nativity in Semera, the capital of the Afar region in Ethiopia. He also worked with the Sisters of Calcutta to operate an orphanage.
He said his missionary work was not to convert people: “My intention was to be a testimony, to make people see we can co-exist with them. … We break barriers to live together as people.”
He worked to make the Catholic identity present and watched the churchgoers grow from just 10 to more than 80.
When Gevera first went to Ethiopia in 2009, he stayed at the bishop’s house while learning the language. He was surprised to be awoken that first morning about 5:30 hearing what he thought were shouts from multiple directions.
It turned out he was hearing chants for morning prayer from the mosque located next to the Cathedral. On the other side of the Cathedral was an Orthodox church where members also were gathering for morning prayers.
He would learn that those attending daily Mass, Catholics and other Christians, also started their day at 6 a.m. for prayer.
“I found similarities,” he said of the three religions, “the same pattern of prayer.”
The local people of Afar are nomads and 100 percent Muslim. People attending Mass were from multiple areas, students at the nearby university and travelers looking for work at the capital.
Although restaurants and butcher shops were segregated for Muslims and Christians, Gevera said he crossed those boundaries.
He introduced himself to Muslim families, who ended up inviting him into their homes for dinners and weddings.
“We can live together without problems,” he said.
Gevera said the anti-Christianity doctrine was instilled in the people when they were young.
When helping an elderly Muslim woman who was sick, he spoke with her 13-year-old granddaughter who had been taught in school to hate Christians because they are bad.
“If I was bad, do you think I could’ve left where I was to pick up your grandmother?” he asked her.
He pointed out similarities between Muslims and Christians: Allah and God are the same person, with different names, he said. The Muslims used strings of beads to pray, identical to rosaries but without a crucifix.
“Slowly by slowly, people are starting to learn what Christianity means,” he said.
By the time the sisters threw him a going away party, the majority of those attending were Muslims.
“We can coexist with one another,” he said. “It’s a possible experience.”
Gevera said he went to Afar to share the values of Christianity, to teach that Christians are not bad but in turn, he learned from the people of Afar.
“The Muslims taught me how to pray and how to embrace our own faith,” he said. “Whenever it is time to pray, they stop and pray.”
The Afar region, which is in the lowest part of Africa, is incredibly hot, easily 120 degrees daily between February and October. Gevera said he and others slept outside in an attempt to rest during the sweltering heat.
Despite the challenges of living in Afar, Gevera said he felt he was living there for a purpose and was sad when it was time to leave.
“At the beginning, I was very scared,” he said. “But somebody has to do something. Someone has to start.”
Gevera will leave the diocese Oct. 20 to go back Kenya for one year. Then, he will go to Columbia where his order, the Yarumal Missionary Society, was founded.