Many people think of Ethiopia and only think of famine, war or pictures of starving children. I have to admit this was my first image of Ethiopia. I have now come to realize that it so much more than that; what we see in the media is not the whole story. For me, Ethiopia is like a second home. After visiting eight times, I have grown to know and love a lot about this beautiful country. Every time I mention to someone that I have been there eight times, they almost look bewildered. The other day, I told one of my professors and he did a double take and, in his own classic way, made it not just eight times but eighteen times. In some ways, I feel that, if given the opportunity, I would want to visit even more than that.
The question is: what draws me to go back year after year? What motivates me to learn the national language, Amharic, or read Ethiopian history books cover to cover? Is it the tasty injera bread and spicy wot stew? Is it the longstanding tradition and history of the only uncolonized African country? I believe these aspects of Ethiopian culture play a part in my affinity for Ethiopia, but one thing I know for certain is that I am drawn to the intense spirituality of its people. In the many times I have visited, I have sensed a love for God and openness to the spiritual world that I just don’t find in America. In Ethiopia, speaking of God and participating in the supernatural is as normal as breathing.
Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations—and one of the oldest Christian nations—in the world. There was Christianity in Ethiopia even before there was Christianity in Europe. There is a story in the Bible about an Ethiopian eunuch who served Queen Candace. He was baptized after he heard the good news about Christ and rejoiced all the way back to his homeland in Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40). Officially, Ethiopia became a Christian nation in the 4th Century through two men from ancient Tyre named Frumentius and Aedesius. The rich Judeo-Christian history is immediately noticable as soon as you set foot in the country and get to know people’s names—like Markos (Mark), Solomon, and Samuel—or look at their necks and hands and see cross necklaces and tattoos.
This is only the surface of Ethiopia’s vibrant Christian heritage and future. The largest and oldest church in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church. As a visitor to Ethiopia you cannot help but notice the beautifully designed churches, the colorfully dressed priests, and the sound of chanting and singing blasting from speakers. There is something magical and mysterious about this tradition that has been in Ethiopia for 1,600 years.
Christianity is not the only spiritual tradition in Ethiopia. Many years before, the prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to Ethiopia as he fled from Saudi Arabia, and there have been Muslims there for at least 600 years. This has not been an easy tension to resolve, as there have been many wars and private battles between Christians and Muslims. There is also the recent growth of the Protestant church in Ethiopia. Most non-Protestants have given them the name “Pente,” short for Pentecostal. Although they are from many different denominations—Lutheran, Mennonite, and Baptist, for example—they are labeled “Pente” because of their lively worship and strong faith in God, which is similar to those of the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts. I had the opportunity to interview an Ethiopian friend of mine named Abex about his take on spirituality. He had some very significant things to say concerning Ethiopian and American Christianity.
What is it like spiritually in Ethiopia?
If you are a non-believer, spirituality looks like fighting between Protestants, Orthodox and Muslims. You can see the competition. Muslims are running to convert people and have a lot of new members, and the Protestant church too. They are running and they say, “Thank you Jesus for these new members,” and the Orthodox are running to save their historical church. They are not worried about salvation, but want to be the owner of the history which is the first Christian church in Ethiopia. They want to keep the Old Testament and Jewish culture, and they want to keep it with the New Testament.
Christians want to empty themselves, make themselves humble, keep themselves far from the world. Some don’t want to participate in non-believers’ birthday parties. We say we are free from cultural rules and expectations, but this can keep us from connecting with non-believers and traditional Christians. In Ethiopia, it is very normal and common to be praying and fasting and worshipping three or more times per week. We love this and we all have small home groups as well. When friends get together, we always have prayer, worship and preaching time for each other. I miss this very much. Prayer is very normal. As new Christians, this was very difficult at first, and we didn’t have the strength to pray for a long time, as others could. But everyone grows and gets this strength.
When you pray, do you receive miraculous answers to prayer?
We have seen many miracles in our own lives and other people’s lives. If you have a church, you have miracles. We have seen so many miracles. I was working in UNHCR [The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] refugee camps on the Ethiopian side of the Somali/Ethiopian border. Part of my job was water sanitation for 45,000 people.
There was a drought and there had been no rain for a year and half. All the water supplies had dried up and it was a big problem. I was a fairly new Christian then; I had started a small church because there was no church in the area. I talked to my church and we decided to fast and pray for three days. We needed permission for the time off to pray. I went to my boss on a Friday to ask for time off to pray. He laughed but gave me the time off. I told him that I was sure Sunday we would have rain. I walked away and felt very bad—why did I say this? If there was no rain on Sunday, what would we do? This was a Muslim refugee camp and of the twenty-eight Ethiopian staff, only five were born-again Christians. I was scared. Why did I tell him all that?
We prayed and fasted. Friday, clear skies. Saturday, clear skies. Around 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, I went outside for a break, and I saw my boss. He asked where the rain was and laughed at me. I scratched my head and said I didn’t know. After that we cried and looked in the Bible; Elijah had prayed and the rain came. Yechallal—it is possible. Afterwards, I gave up praying for rain.
At 3:00 p.m., the wind started blowing on our tent church. I went outside and the sky was black. The rain came, and I ran to take care of the dam. From that day on my boss gave us the responsibility to take care of money, or any other important responsibility. He would call me for prayer needs and still calls my sister to pray for him. I was very happy in that area. Even though we were in a desert, for me it was green because God was training me in faith and prayer.
How long have you been a Christian? If it was later, what were your original perceptions of Christianity as a whole? What about American Christians?
I have been a Christian for eleven years. Before I became a Christian, I thought it was a boring group of good people. I felt that was the only way to show your community you were a good person. I believed that I was bad because I was not a member of that group. I thought they were in a prison, and they didn’t have the right to have fun. We believed them and trusted them, because they were good people, living under some good rules, but we didn’t want to live under those rules.
“I feel like I don’t see any warrior spirit [in America]. It is like people believe their problems are okay for them.”
As for American Christians, I didn’t know any personally, but we heard that the born-again Christian movement was from America or the West. There was a rumor that if you joined the born-again Christians, you would get fifty Ethiopian birr [Ethiopian currency] every month from America. After I became a Christian, some of my friends who were not believers asked me about that money.
How has the Church been doing in Ethiopia? Has it been growing? What has that been like to be a part of the Church recently?
The church continues to grow. There are churches in every small town and every neighborhood of every big city. The youth especially have been converted. As a member of an Ethiopian church, you have a lot of Christian friends. There are also many opportunities to minister. We have one-on-one outreach in the community. We also have many programs: Bible study programs, healing programs, fasting programs, and prayer for baptism in Holy Spirit. Every church, rich or poor, is busy with these programs. Churches have multiple pastors and evangelists. They are all very committed and ready to care for people. My pastor traveled by bus to visit me when I was a new Christian and still addicted to a local drug. He stayed with me and prayed with me for two weeks. In those two weeks, I was freed from my addiction and at the same time, I learned something about how to serve people.
What is life like for you during an average week in Ethiopia?
When I worked in the refugee camp, we had an hour-long prayer program every morning in our church. Three days a week, we had night worship, preaching and praying programs. Sunday we had regular worship. We saw God do amazing things there.
When I moved to Addis Ababa [the capital city of Ethiopia], I would go to work in the morning. After work, I would go with my friends to visit some people who were sick. We would pray for them and share what we had. One woman was so sick for two years; she couldn’t walk or talk, and her bed was soaked with urine. Everyone thought she had AIDS. She had been strangled by her fiancé and was left for dead. But God gave us direction and we found her. We prayed for her, cleaned her up, brought her food, and fixed up her home for 6 months. She started to stand, then walk, then talk, then she started serving us. Now we can’t find her because she is out serving others. This was my life in Ethiopia. We have so many testimonies.
What is an Ethiopian church service like?
Sunday morning services start around 9:00 a.m. with prayer and then worship, followed by listening to the word of God, and then more worship until about 1:00 p.m.. That’s very nice.
Now that you live in the United States what is your impression of American Christianity?
I feel like I don’t see any warrior spirit. It is like people believe their problems are okay for them. Like the Bible says, reject Satan and he will be far from you, and call on God and he will be close to you. I have learned a lot about psychological and emotional problems living in America, and I see there is demonic activity working in Christians, but I don’t see any Christians standing up and breaking these evil spirits like a soldier.
The prayer style is odd for me. It is very short. They spend a lot of time talking about something and then the prayer is short. Instead of the Bible, they like ideas from different books. I feel that American Christians go to other books before the Bible. I read Christian books myself, but in the church we should be studying the Bible. Since we moved to the U.S.A., I have seen a fasting program only once. In Ethiopia, we might fast every week. I told my pastor in Ethiopia by phone about this. He said, “They don’t have any problems. Why would they need to fast? We have a lot of problems, so we even have to pray instead of sleeping.” Maybe Americans don’t think they have problems. They are going to church to feel like a saved Christian. But Christian is a name of a group of people with a lot of jobs to do, like praying for the nation, freedom for our neighbors, or a solution to the problems with the economy. We need to seek God to see His glory. We should see a miracle when we are together. The Bible says, “when two or more gather, [Jesus] will be there.” American churches and Christians seem to be cool and calm. I haven’t seen all of America, but this is what I have seen.