FAITH in Ethiopia

Still 38,000 feet above Africa on our way home to Jo’burg from Kenya, I must tell you about faith in Ethiopia . . .

Last October the first missionary sent by the Kale Heywet Churches in Ethiopia to Southern Sudan died of cerebral malaria. The SIM leader who accompanied the missionary’s body and his widow back to Ethiopia described the scenes of mourning as the hearse and the growing motorcade made its way from Addis Ababa south to the missionary’s home area. At churches all along the way mourners waited and wailed with the widow and she emerged to greet them and receive their sympathy. All along the way services were held and prayers were offered as people mourned the death of their missionary—the first to die on foreign soil. Finally, after a funeral service attended by thousands, the body of the missionary was laid to rest in his home town. At the service the people were challenged to send others to take his place. The widow of the deceased missionary is currently taking further Bible training in preparation to return to Southern Sudan.

At the SLC (Spiritual Life Conference) in Kenya, Irene and I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Desta Langana, the Global Missions Director of the Kale Heywet Churches. He had come to the SLC to strengthen ties with SIM, to express thanks for their support, and to encourage several other Ethiopian missionary couples who are serving with SIM in Southern Sudan. I was not prepared for what Dr. Desta told me about the Kale Heywet Churches . . .

In the late 1920s a number of church were planted in the southern region of Ethiopia by SIM missionaries, some of them graduates of Prairie Bible College in Canada where Irene and I studied. Christians, especially evangelicals, were fiercely persecuted during the Italian occupation from 1936-41. Evangelicals were further persecuted by the Coptic Orthodox Church between 1942 and 1974. When the Communists took over Ethiopia (1974-91), fierce persecution of evangelicals continued resulting in 90% of evangelical churches being closed and many properties confiscated. But despite that (perhaps because of it!) the church continued to grow. Today the Kale Heywet denomination has nearly eight thousand churches with a total membership of seven million—about 8% of the population of the country.

One of the features of the church is prayer. In one region a particular mountain had been a place where spirit worship had been practiced for twelve generations. That mountain is now a ‘prayer mountain’ where up to 100,000 people gather at certain times of the year to pray. A hundred other mountains across the region have been set aside as ‘prayer mountains.’

A result of this movement of prayer has been mission sending. The Kale Heywet church has so far sent ninety cross-cultural missionaries within the borders of Ethiopia, and is planning to send many to unreached peoples beyond Ethiopia, including more to Southern Sudan. Faith is alive in Ethiopia!