By Peter Bodley
Ron Jacobson’s mission trip to the African country of Ethiopia in March left a lasting impression on him.
“They live in hardship, but they are always joyful,” said the longtime Coon Rapids resident. “Here we have everything, but we grumble all the time.”
This was Jacobson’s first mission trip overseas, although through his church, Fridley Covenant Church, he had done mission work before at a South Dakota American Indian Reservation and in flooded areas of northern Minnesota.
The Rev. James Tang, a pastor at Fridley Covenant Church and a native of Ethiopia, invited him to join a planned mission trip to refugee camps in South Sudan in Africa, according to Jacobson.
But those plans fell through because of civil unrest in South Sudan, which lies immediately west of Ethiopia, Jacobson said.
Instead, Tang switched plans to travel to Ethiopia, and together with Jacobson and two members of the Oak Heights Covenant Church in Hutchinson, Donna Peterson and Lloyd Heaber, the party left the Twin Cities March 10 and returned March 22.
It was a long journey.
“We flew from Minneapolis to Toronto in Canada, then took a 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia,” Jacobson said.
From Addis Ababa, the group flew to Gambela in western Ethiopia, then took a 59-minute taxi drive to Kuergeng, a small community close to the border with South Sudan, where they spent the bulk of their time in Ethiopia, he said.
According to Jacobson, the Covenant church has a strong presence in Ethiopia and South Sudan with 307 churches.
And the church was hosting a national conference in Kuergang for members in Ethiopia and South Sudan during their time in the village, Jacobson said.
Jacobson was impressed by the efforts of some people to attend the conference. One couple walked 15 days from South Sudan and another 20 days, while a young boy age 9 or 10 led a blind man to Kuergeng by walking a whole day to the conference, he said.
“The blind man wore two suits and two shirts in the heat because he did not have the means to carry his clothes,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson’s role during the mission trip was to speak three times through a translator to the men attending the conference; Peterson spoke to the women, he said.
His topics over three days were what causes fight and quarrels, which was very relevant to people in Africa, evangelism and leadership, Jacobson said.
Soon after the group left Ethiopia, Jacobson saw a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a raid on Gambela by masked gunmen from South Sudan that left 60 people dead, mostly women and children, he said.
In his talk on fights and quarrels, he referred to a passage in James 4:11, Jacobson said.
“I spoke of the need for good Christian leadership, a willingness to forgive and show love and compassion to each other,” he said.
Jacobson had time to prepare his talks before the mission trip. Tang asked him to make the speeches about two weeks before they left, Jacobson said.
Following his 20-minute talks, there was time for questions and answers, he said.
“What I particularly liked was the chance for me to ask them questions, not just them asking me questions,” Jacobson said.
“The people in Kuergeng were unbelievably joyful even though it was a tough place to live,” he said. “They are brothers and sisters in Christ who live in adverse situations, but still have radiance and show compassion to one another.”
The people live in mud and straw huts and there is a lot of poverty, according to Jacobson.
The Fridley and Oak Heights Covenant churches have helped Kuergeng in the past by donating money to help build a church, Jacobson said.
While there, the residents asked the churches to send money so they can purchase fencing, he said.
“If they fence in their property, no one else can live on it, but if it is not fenced, then anyone can live on the land,” Jacobson said.
Then if the “squatters” put up a fence, they have a right to live on that property, he said.
The group brought balloons with them so parents could give them to their children in the village as well as clothing, medical supplies, like aspirin, bandages and antiseptic, and a Bible that was translated into the villagers’ own language, Jacobson said.
Jacobson and the others even left some of their own clothes for the residents of Kuergeng when they left, he said.
Kuergeng is a very rural area, and while it is not a desert, it is generally arid with not a great deal vegetation, Jacobson said.
The visit of Jacobson, Tang, Peterson and Heaver took place during the hot season.
“The temperature did not drop below 87 degrees, day or night,” Jacobson said. “It was also very humid because it rained during the night, which was unusual, but made it steamy during the day.”
According to Jacobson, there was no air conditioning in Kuergeng, but as the oldest member of the group, he received special treatment – a seat by a window in a building and the front passenger seat in a vehicle to get air.
The Americans were also able to visit Addis Ababa, where the economy appeared to be good, Jacobson said.
“It is a very bustling city, but traffic is something else with no street signs and only two or three traffic signals at most. You either lose your hair or get gray hair. I would not want to drive there.”
The mission trip to Ethiopia has whetted his appetite for more, Jacobson said.
“I would like to go to Israel, possibly in November,” he said.
Jacobson, who grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, and his wife, Lois, are both retired. Jacobson worked 32 years at North Hennepin Community College, where he was senior groundskeeper and general repairman, while Lois had a career in education with Anoka-Hennepin School District 11 as an elementary teacher and then a special education paraprofessional.
They have lived in Coon Rapids since 1972.