EBENSBURG – The Rev. Owar Ojulu said Tuesday that he’s “fallen in love” with the Ebensburg area in the months since he became the pastor of Ebensburg Presbyterian Church and Colver Presbyterian Church.
“I like this place,” he told The Tribune-Democrat during an interview at the North Center Street church. “The landscape, the trees – mostly the trees. … Ebensburg and this area is so beautiful. When I came to visit here, I was really drawn to move here, and the people so far are kind and loving and generous, really. I appreciate the welcome from the church and the community I’ve received so far.”
Like many churches both locally and nationally, Ojulu’s congregations have been tested both spiritually and financially by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing societal shutdown, he said. Particularly difficult was the inability of church members to celebrate the just-passed Easter holiday together.
“You could say Easter is the new year from Christians,” he said. “It’s a new beginning. It’s a new renewal, a new sense of new life. For the church not to come together and worship the Lord in churches – it’s tough. It’s tough for many people.”
In attempts to mitigate the hardship, he’s been using the videoconferencing platform Zoom, broadcasting church services on Facebook Live and typing up his sermon notes for the benefit of people who don’t have access to those platforms.
“We are praying that this also shall pass,” he said, “and we will come back together and worship God. … We pray always that God will stoop from above and comfort us and make his dwelling among us.”
He cited a well-known verse from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
“This is temporary,” he said. “It will pass. Let us not forget that we do still care for each other. … Let’s be civil. Let’s be nice to one another. Let’s love one another, because with love, everything will be easy and there will be peace with one another.”
‘The Lord blessed me’
Ojulu grew up in a tiny farming village in the Gambela region of western Ethiopia, near that country’s border with Sudan. The youngest of seven children, he left his village and went to the town of Itang, six hours away, to go to school. It was there, he said, that he was converted to Christianity in 1996, when he was a teenager.
“Throughout time, the Lord blessed me,” he said, “but I faced some challenges as well. My old village was swamped by tribal wars, and I left that area. My mom passed away.”
His mother’s death resulted in the first real test of his Christian faith and its eventual affirmation, he said.
“I quit going to church,” he recalled. “I was converted from my old religion, African traditional religion. … By converting, I thought my praying, God, would heal my mom, because my mom was the one that supported me through school. I quit the church, but suddenly God showed himself to me in the middle of the night.
“I saw this tiny light. I thought it was a lightning bug in the roof of my hut, but it kept glowing, glowing, glowing, and suddenly it was so bright – and then it went back shut, and it was dark again, and I heard a voice saying, ‘I will take care of you.’ That was the summer of 1998, when I was tormented by the death of my mother.”
After Ojulu graduated from a seminary in Ethiopia in 2007, he applied to the United States’ Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery program, and eventually got the word from the State Department that he had been selected to receive one of the sought-after visas. He came to the United States in 2008, temporarily leaving his wife and children behind; they joined him here in 2013, he said.
While he wasn’t fluent in English when he came to the U.S., he knew he needed to learn it so he could study at an American seminary, so he used YouTube video lessons to add English to the list of languages he knows – three Ethiopian languages, Amharic, Anuak and Nuer, plus two Biblical languages, Hebrew and ancient Greek. He noted that American English is hard for a new learner to understand – Americans speak faster than British English speakers, he said, “and they sound like beats of drums.”
Pennsylvania was the first state in which Ojulu lived after he arrived in the U.S., he said – he spent a year studying at a Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, then transferred to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, one of the official seminaries of the Presbyterian Church, from which he graduated in 2012.
After he graduated from the seminary, he took a position at a church in Worthington, a small city on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and spent several years there. Last year, he began looking for a new position, and the national church matched him with the church in Ebensburg, which at the time was looking for a pastor.
“God opening a new door for me to come back to Pennsylvania was surprising and really amazing,” he said.
He and his wife traveled in September from Worthington to Ebensburg, where he met with the congregations of the Ebensburg and Colver churches and preached sermons at each church. He was then “overwhelmingly approved” as the pastor of both churches and as a member of the Redstone Presbytery, which consists of 78 Presbyterian churches in Cambria, Somerset, Westmoreland and Fayette counties.
His first day of work in Ebensburg was Nov. 1.
‘We have to go out’
Ojulu said he goes back to Ethiopia for a couple weeks every year to minister there. In fact, he had planned to leave Ebensburg this week to return to Ethiopia, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those plans. (Luckily, he hadn’t yet bought his plane ticket.)
“We have a big church there,” he said. “That’s what I envision here, if God’s willing. I thought I would turn myself into a Mormon, going door-to-door – that was my intention. We need church. … Church has been the backbone of this country, but for some reason, for the change of culture and tradition, the benefits that church brings seem to not be taken the right way.”
He hopes to bring the “sense of reaching out” that exists in the church in Ethiopia back to the United States, he said.
Ojulu said he’s spoken to the Ebensburg Rotary Club about his background, his faith journey and his experience in the U.S., and is willing to speak to other groups as well. He said he’s thankful for the freedom from fearing the government and the access to health care he’s found in this country.
“We live an individualistic life in America,” he said. “As people that are sent out, we have to face that. We have to go out, meet people where they are, talk to them, plant that seed. If it grows, let it grow. We plant it, but God makes it grow. … I’m here not just as a pastor of a congregation, but as a pastor of the community. Being a pastor is being a support – being here for whoever needs spiritual care.”