Exorcism and holy water, for which many of the pilgrims in Wenkeshet were queueing, are also familiar to other Orthodox Christians—though not usually in this way. Exorcism is rarely carried out in such a spectacular, almost theatrical form. And holy water is traditionally understood by Ethiopian Christians to flow only at certain locations. For example, today many HIV victims live at Mount Entoto near Addis Ababa, in the hope of being cured by the spring water found there. Those in Wenkeshet, by contrast, are drawn by the reputation of Yohannes himself.
For preachers like Yohannes or his much more well-known counterpart in Addis Ababa, Father Girma Wondimu, “holy water is more of an accessory,” said Diego Malara, an anthropologist at Glasgow University who has studied exorcisms and healing in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. “What matters is the spiritual gift of the exorcist himself.”
Orthodox figures like Yohannes and Girma often warn against rival charismatic preachers rising to prominence in Ethiopian Pentecostalism today. Some of these preachers have amassed enormous followings by appearing to model themselves on Nigerian televangelist superstars such as T.B. Joshua. But they all share an entrepreneurial—or, according to their critics, overly commercializing—attitude toward religion.
Wenkeshet, which Yohannes founded nearly 20 years ago after four decades as a traveling holy man, has administrative offices in towns across the Ethiopian region of Amhara. A workshop at the monastery makes textiles to sell to pilgrims, and Yohannes also produces his own CDs and books for sale there. He envisions turning the site of the monastery into a recreation center that will welcome tourists. And that’s just the first of the five monasteries he’s built so far.
“I want to build them all over the world,” Yohannes told me, adding that he is currently in negotiations to purchase a plot of land in Australia. He hopes to build a hospital, schools, and a university, too, at Wenkeshet and in the surrounding area. “My vision is not just religious,” he explained. “I’m an engineer, doctor, activist, writer, and farmer as well as a monk.”
Even more controversial than this business-minded approach, at least in the eyes of Orthodox traditionalists, is the emphasis on the power of the individual preacher. “Individuals should not shine: that has been the identity of the Church for centuries,” said Tekalign Nega, also of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. Figures like Yohannes emphatically do shine. Michael, the young pilgrim, told me that “everybody here believes [Yohannes] is the Messiah.”
Many of Yohannes and Girma’s disciples are young, educated, and urbanized—similar in profile to those Ethiopians who have converted from Orthodoxy to Pentecostalism in the past few decades. Since the 1960s, Pentecostalism has grown from about 1 percent of the Ethiopian population to nearly a quarter of it today, with many converts drawn to the worldly modernity of new Pentecostal churches, their uplifting message of individual prosperity, and the promise of bodily and emotional healing through mass exorcism (or “deliverance,” as it tends to be known among believers).