Elder Truneh Wolde Selassie

Pastor Truneh Woldeselassie

Written by Adugnaw Worku

As his former student and lifelong admirer, it is my distinct honor and privilege to write this personal and professional testimony about Elder Truneh Wolde Selassie. Elder Truneh is truly a remarkable man of God with an equally remarkable life story, as well as an impeccable professional record. The time and place of his birth and the prevailing conditions surrounding his birth were extraordinary and played key roles in shaping the trajectory of his personal and professional life. It also established a firm foundation for his unwavering spiritual life and his lifelong commitment to God.

Elder Truneh was born in a village called Feres Meda, a typical village in northwest Ethiopia. It was a village with grass-thatched mud huts built close together nestled on a mountainside. Feres Meda would have remained an anonymous and ordinary village just like any other village in Ethiopia and young Truneh would have spent his young years as a shepherd and the rest of his life as a peasant farmer. But God had something in store for Feres Meda and for young Truneh. God made Feres Meda a historic and extraordinary village. That village on the mountain became the birthplace of Adventism in Ethiopia and a launchpad to spread Adventism to other villages in the area and to the rest of Ethiopia. Born in Feres Meda not long after the introduction of Adventism in his village, Elder Truneh’s life has been intimately intertwined with his Adventist faith.

Under God’s clear and unambiguous guidance, Elder Truneh’s uncle, Aleka (Chief) Motbaynor Goshu, became a key player in bringing Adventism to Feres Meda. He undertook an arduous month-long journey on foot to Asmara, capital of Eritrea, in search of a Sabbath-keeping and Bible-reading church and found Adventism. He returned to Feres Meda with great excitement and enthusiasm and shared the news of his new found faith. In time, the entire village accepted Adventism and became the nerve center of the new faith. Aleka Motbaynor had become one of the undisputed scholars of the Koran and the Bible and he became Feres Meda’s admired evangelist and beloved small literacy school teacher. It was at this school that young Truneh got a rare opportunity to learn to read and write under the nurturing and watchful eye of his uncle.

Unfortunately, things suddenly came to a screeching halt. Young Truneh’s education was cut short and his life was disrupted in more ways than one. Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and turned everything in the country upside-down. That, in turn, put Truneh’s young life at grave risk. His mother had died when he was a small boy and his father was his only anchor and source of comfort. And now his father was required to go to the war front to defend the country from unprovoked foreign aggression. Anxious and uncertain, Truneh did not know what might happen next. The thought of losing his father terrified him. And there was more disruption to come.

Truneh had to leave his beloved village of Feres Meda to seek shelter from another uncle in another village. He kept hoping and praying for his father’s safe return from war. His prayer was answered. This time he got a much needed and providential break. One day, news reached him that his father had returned home safely. Young Truneh was so excited that he did not want to spend another day before seeing his father. He traveled back home to Feres Meda that same day and enjoyed the happiest day of his life in his father’s reassuring and warm embrace.

Sadly, life in Ethiopia in general, and Feres Meda and other Adventist villages in particular, had become unbearable. Daily bombardments by Italian air and ground forces made it impossible to sustain life, and everyone suffered. But the Adventists suffered more. The Ethiopian government had collapsed under Italian relentless assault, and Emperor Haile Selassie had gone into exile. The Italians had no control over the countryside, and law and order had completely broken down. The Adventists in Feres Meda and elsewhere were persecuted by the general public for their new faith. The predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christians viewed Adventists as anti-Mary and anti-Ethiopian traditional Christian belief. There was a coordinated effort to drive the Adventists out of the area by whatever means necessary.

Truneh witnessed the persecution against Adventists and experienced the collective fear and anxiety of his community. Adventist homes were looted and burned. Their cattle were raided and their farmlands were confiscated. In their search for survival the Adventists resorted to trade and hand crafts. The small school in Feres Meda was closed and the students had returned to the traditional chores of rural life under extreme conditions. The school girls were given in marriage and the boys became shepherds and young farmers. The idea of going to school became a remote possibility or not a possibility at all.

Relentless religious persecution and lack of access to farmland forced the villagers in Feres Meda to relocate to a relatively safer area, so they thought. By then, Ethiopian Adventist leaders and dedicated missionaries had established Adventist headquarters in a nearby town called Debre Tabor. The Adventist community from Feres Meda settled down in a new village called Gubda, and built their tukuls much like they did in Feres Meda. Truneh was 17 years old by then, and he had been promoted from shepherding to farming. He became a hardworking farmer alongside his father, and his fate seemed sealed in rural Ethiopia as a peasant farmer. But once again disaster struck.

Some Adventist villagers in Gubda and beyond conspired to nip the new religion in their midst in the bud, and did so by taking the law into their own hands. One night, hordes of armed men surrounded the Adventist Village in Gubda, and detained every man, woman, and child. A frenzy of looting began and every hut was set on fire the next day. Two of the most senior members of the new Adventist village in Gubda, Ato (Mr.) Gudaye and Ato Bogale, were murdered in cold blood, and every family became destitute and homeless overnight. Once again, Truneh’s life was rocked to its foundation. The only thing that sustained him was his rock-solid faith in God, even in the darkest of days. His Adventist home and his community at large had given him an unshakeable faith in God. He especially credits his family and his early teachers at the small village school in Feres Meda for his strong faith. His uncle Aleka Motbaynor and his other teacher Aleka Mengistu had grounded his curious and sharp mind with an abiding faith in God that lasted a lifetime.

The tragedy in Gubda could not have come at a worse time. It happened in June when Ethiopia’s monsoon-driven rainy season was in full swing, putting the Adventist community in imminent danger. Everything was burned to the ground and the rest was taken away by the perpetrators of the crime. Every man, woman, and child traveled on foot to the Adventist headquarters in Debre Tabor with only the clothes on their back, literally. It was a long and painful walk all the way. Fortunately, the mission headquarters at Debre Tabor was able to care for them during the cold rainy season.

In the middle of the chaos and confusion, there came an unexpected glimmer of hope. By now, the Italian invaders were driven out of Ethiopia, and Emperor Haile Selassie had returned to his throne. Law and order in the countryside was still problematic, but the government was determined to assert its authority everywhere. The looting, burning, and killing in Gubda became a test of the government’s resolve to bring law breakers to justice. To that end, a massive manhunt was undertaken to capture the ringleaders and bring them to justice. The ring leaders of the violence against the Adventists in Gubda were captured, and they received the death penalty. Everyone else involved in looting and burning Gubda had to pay full restitution. Meanwhile, the displaced Adventists decided to return to Gubda and rebuild their village and their lives from scratch. At this point, Truneh’s life took a sharp turn and never looked back. When the time came to return to Gubda, Truneh’s father surprised his son by informing him that he had his blessing to remain in Debre Tabor and go to school instead of returning to the family farm. Truneh knew that his father needed him to help rebuild their home and to work on the farm. By now, Truneh had become a well-trained and aspiring country farmer. There was no question that Truneh’s presence would be sorely missed. But his father insisted otherwise, and thus began a glorious future for 17-year-old Truneh. The work-study program at the mission school in Debre Tabor made it possible for Truneh to attend school at no additional charge.

Truneh proved himself to be an outstanding student. He took his new found opportunity seriously, and worked diligently with gratitude. He finished elementary and high school in Ethiopia, and headed to Avondale College in Australia to pursue his education to be a teacher. He majored in education with a history emphasis. He made his mark at Avondale College as a critical thinker and performed his assigned tasks at the highest level with integrity. He graduated from college in 1961, and returned home to serve his God, his church, and his country.

Having served for about five years, he again got a chance to pursue higher education, this time in the United States. He attended Andrews University specializing in education for the express purpose of honing his career as a teacher and educational leader. He completed his graduate degree in 1966, and once again returned to Ethiopia for a long stretch of service to the Adventist Church. All told, he worked for the Church for 42 years as teacher and high school principal, college lecturer and academic dean, Ethiopian Union education secretary, Union secretary, and president.

Elder Truneh’s resume is impressive. He is widely recognized as an outstanding teacher, a seasoned administrator, a distinguished public speaker, an inspiring preacher, an accomplished author, and a passionate musician. He has authored three books and numerous articles. His book The History of Adventism in Ethiopia is the only one of its kind on the subject. After so many requests from many of his students and friends, he is now writing a much anticipated autobiography, his fourth book. Elder Truneh is a pioneer in translating numerous hymns from English to Amharic with staff notations for the first time. He also co-translated the Church Manual from English to Amharic early in his career.

Elder Truneh’s post-retirement resume is just as impressive as his 42 years of employment with the Adventist Church. Having retired in 1996, Elder Truneh has been actively involved in church life as preacher and Sabbath School teacher. As a consummate evangelist, he has traveled far and wide to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a teacher, he has been effective in reaching young people for the gospel in and out of the classroom. He has a special heart for young people and young people have enormous love and respect for him. Many of his former students still stay in touch with him years after they graduated. Young people in the church would not get married without him officiating.

If his schedule is crowded, as it often is, they postpone their wedding date to accommodate his busy schedule. People claim that couples who take the wedding vow in front of Elder Truneh stay together for life. He has truly become an elder statesman of the church, often playing the role of a cheerleader in good times and comforter in chief in times of sorrow and tragedy. The Lord has blessed him with remarkable health and strength, and a long and rewarding life. He has four successful children and nine wonderful grandchildren. Though he is in his nineties, he is still going strong doing what he loves best, serving God.

Circling back to the beginning, young Truneh made a promise to God, that if He spared his life, he would be faithful to Him, and serve Him for life. When he was a shepherd boy, he took his animals to clear meadows and wooded areas, always mindful and watchful that a predator might be lurking nearby. One day, his worst fears came true. He came face to face with a big and scary leopard. He thought his life was about to end. To say that he was terrified would be an understatement. The only thing he knew to do was pray. So he bowed his head and asked God for a miraculous rescue. When he opened his eyes, the leopard was gone. Truneh knew for certain that God had a plan for his life, and never forgot his promise to serve Him for life.