Vignette #2: The Evangelists of Gondar
For a period of about 5 years, we joined hands with 6 churches in the city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia. Gondar is a famous city; it was the city of the kings of ancient Ethiopia. Today it is largely a town of education and tourism. It is located in the heart of Orthodox Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) is somewhat of a paradox to me. I have a hard time getting my mind around it. It was started in the 300s, shortly after Emperor Constantine came to power in the Roman Empire. This Roman Emperor made Christianity an "official" religion of the empire, changing its name to "Holy" Roman Empire. He organized the churches scattered around the Empire into large sections, and assigned a "patriarch" pastor over each section. There were 5 major sites of administration, including Alexandria, Egypt.
Although the book of Acts tells the story of the Gospel being given by apostle Phillip to the Ethiopian eunuch, there is no evidence of a church being planted in what is now known as Ethiopia. Some scholars have suggested that the term "Ethiopian" was used in a broader sense, to include what is today Saudi Arabia or Sudan. The EOC, however, claims this origin, and its Bible translation even expands the verses in Acts to describe the Queen of Ethiopia at the time of the eunuch's conversion.
At any rate, historic Christianity was introduced to the Ethiopian people by two Syrian men who were ship-wrecked while going through the Red Sea. They were brought up the mountains to King Ezana living in Axum (which is not too far from Gondar in the north of Ethiopia). These two men shared the Gospel with the Ethiopian court, it was well received, many were converted, and they sent back to the patriarch in Egypt requesting church authorities to come and teach them from the Scriptures.
Thus began the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Over the years, the eastern districts of Constantine's Christendom separated from the Roman district, thus creating the "Orthodox" churches (Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, etc.) and the "Roman Catholic" church. They actually excommunicated each other in 1057. Only in recent years have they even begun to talk to each other.
The Orthodox churches are very much reflective of their countries, so much so that to be a citizen is to be Orthodox. Hence, those departing from the Orthodox church are often labeled as unpatriotic, and their choice is viewed as treason.
In the case of Ethiopia, the Orthodox church remained under the Egyptian patriarch (the "Coptic Church") until 1959. At that time the Ethiopian churches separated and established their own patriarch. Today the Patriarch's office is in the capital Addis Ababa, but the majority of Orthodox live in the northeast section of Ethiopia. Trinity Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa was the church of King Haile Selasse, and remains a prominent church in Addis.
Although originally founded upon the Gospel, with a belief system closely tied to the Scriptures, they have since largely departed from that purity of doctrine. Today, the teachings of the Ethiopia Orthodox church are a mixture of the Gospel, Old Testament Law, local superstition, and tradition. The church claims to have the original ark of the Covenant (from the time of the fall of Israel in the Old Testament) in a monastery near Axum, but no human eye has ever seen it. Each church has its own miniature of the ark, which is housed in the "inner sanctum"; at certain church events, this replica is removed and carried in procession. The church has many historic documents, but sometimes the history gets confusing. For example, when we visited a church in Lalibela, the guide explained to us that Jesus was born in Ethiopia, because at the time of his birth (for about 3 years) the boundary of Ethiopia extended to Bethlehem.
One of the great wonders of the world is the stone-carved churches of Lalibela. Whole churches are carved out of a solid stone in the mountain. The churches are perfectly symmetrical, and include such details as rain gutters. EOC history says that all the churches were built in just a few days, angels helping men, using only hand-held tools.
Tradition within the EOC is very pronounced. And much of it goes to the legalism of the Old Testament. Dietary restrictions, fasting days, ritualistic prayers, slaughtering rules, restrictions on women and removing shoes before entering a church are all integral parts of the lives of those following the EOC. Islam came to Ethiopia shortly after Mohammed's lifetime, and Protestant Christianity came in more recent times. These threats to the EOC generated a sort of militant attitude towards "outsiders."
The majority of people within the EOC seem to be genuine, sincere followers of God. However, the EOC is a faith system that is so integrated into Ethiopia life that they cannot separate Ethiopian culture and identity from religious conviction. The two are the same to them. To ask them to leave EOC is to ask them to stop breathing and stop being Ethiopian!
But the grace of the Lord Jesus is shining upon these sincere followers, and there is now a revival happening in the EOC. Many are returning to the pure Gospel of salvation by Jesus alone, without works, rituals, processions, holy water, etc. And their prayers are going to Jesus alone, not to dead saints, or Mary, or priests. Unfortunately, when individuals within the EOC come to a more purified faith, founded solely upon Scripture, they have great difficulty continuing to worship in an environment so crowded with idolatry. That difficulty and persecution combine to force them out of the EOC into the protestant churches.
Our invitation to join the evangelical churches in Gondar came in 2006. We already felt stretched working with the churches in Burji and in Alaba. "Come and help us, too!" they pleaded with us.
As we considered their plea, the Lord brought clarity to His role for us. Surrounding Gondar were large sections of Ethiopia without a single believer. 99.9% of the population belonged to the EOC, and a few were Muslim. How could a mere handful of churches reach these people with the pure Gospel? These churches had men ready and willing to go to distant villages and towns, to live among the people, to place their lives in danger....but the churches needed funds to supply their needs.
We agreed on a 3-yr plan that involved a triangle of responsibility. We would supply a portion of the salary and would communicate with the American believers for the sake of gathering funds and prayer support. The sending churches would oversee the evangelists, coming to their aid in times of persecution, bringing them into Gondar for periods of rest and training, etc. The evangelists would be on the front lines, living among the Orthodox people, sharing the Gospel and sending reports for prayer/praise communication. The goal was to establish local, indigenous churches, based upon the true Gospel, in a variety of villages and towns in the countryside.
Within the 3-year time period, 4-5 local churches were established, each with about 30 believers, and one of those churches was beginning a daughter church! The cost for these churches was low in dollars (about $600/yr/evangelist), but high in prayer energy and in evangelist suffering. In this vignette I will tell only 3 of the many stories that grew out of this work in northern Ethiopia. The evangelists in these stories are still residing in the Gondar area, and are still working for the Gospel. For their safety, I have changed their names to randomly-chosen initials.
1. Evangelists TS and FA.
(In a Village not far from the Sudan border. According to our interview with them, Dec, 2008.)
Below is a report I wrote up in January, 2009, for prayer partners for evangelists TS and FA.
Let me tell you about TS and FA. They are both single; a few of TS's family have become Christians, but otherwise they are the only believers in their extended family. They work in a village of far northwest Ethiopia; it is very, very near to the Sudan border. They have been there since June 08. It is extremely hot, and the people have a different complexion and language than further inland to Ethiopia. The primary language is not Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia). TS is from this area and has been working by himself for many years, trying to do evangelism. The Gondar church leaders thought it good to send him FA as an assistant to work with him as a team in establishing the church. So they live in TS's "house," which is like a mud hut without the mud...so it's a bunch of sticks/poles tied together to allow the wind to go through to cool things; the roof is thatch/grass. Their food is also different from the Ethiopian national food; their staple is a sort of porridge/popcorn. I've never eaten it, so can't describe it any more. The sending church of this team is "Mulu Wongel" (Full Gospel); in Ethiopia, unlike in the USA, all the protestant churches work together...they share teachers, schools, benches, buildings. They have a better understanding than most Americans that God is not establishing denominations; He's establishing His Kingdom, which is made up of people who have embraced Jesus as Savior and who are obeying Him as Lord.
TS and FA live together in TA's house of sticks. They cook for themselves, and they have built another stick building near their house as the "church." Currently they have 13 regular attendees in their little church. There is no other church in this area. FA is not from this area, so he is really like a "missionary"...he's learning their language, their food, their living conditions, etc....and really has a wonderful, happy spirit about it all!
They have reported that their sending church is very supportive, helping them with necessities, encouraging them, etc.
Since the area is so very hot, they leave their home very early in the morning and go to "tea rooms," where all the day laborers gather before they start their work. They sit down with these laborers and begin discussions about spiritual things. The area is largely agricultural, so day laborers are plentiful. They report that the Amhara people in the region (these are people from the interior of Ethiopia) are very resistant to the Gospel; they come from the Orthodox background and hate anything protestant, but the people who are native to this area are very open. They will readily accept the Gospel truth, but the challenge is in remaining constant, faithful, and growing in their walk with the Lord. They come from a pagan background, following the traditional African religion of witchdoctors. Some are Orthodox or Muslim, but they are nominal in those religions. In addition to talking with these people in the mornings, they wait in the afternoon, and many of the laborers come to them in the road and ask more questions about their morning discussions.
From June-Dec, 2008, SIX people have come to Christ....so basically the congregation has doubled since June. Some of these new believers are from TS's family. So they are forming a solid core of believers.
In terms of discipleship, they each are teaching the new believers: TS teaches in the people's language, and FA teaches in Amharic. They meet every Sunday, plus they visit each believer during the week in their homes. They are using a textbook for new believers, as well as the Scriptures for new believer discipleship. (We confirmed that this textbook did not require or expect all believers to speak in tongues or do healing.)
Let me tell you the story of how TS came to Christ. As I said, he has lived in this region of Ethiopia; it is his home. He came to Christ 12 years ago. Before that he was a drunkard. He was in the militia, and FA worked as a guard for the government station there. One day, TS was walking home as drunk as he could be. FA saw him on the road and told him to come back at 7 am the next morning to talk with him. The next morning, TS came to FA (the guard), and FA said "What happened to you yesterday?"
"I was drunk," TS responded.
"Don't you fear God?" FA asked him.
"Who is God!?!" TS responded in disgust and disrespect.
"Who created the heavens?" FA replied.
Then they had a discussion about the wind blowing, without seeing the Hand that moves it, etc....and in the end TS was convicted of the reality of God, His power, and His judgment upon his life...and FA led TS to the Lord!! Immediately after his conversion, TS gave up liquor, and his body was healed of all the sickness that comes with liquor...and also 3 of his brothers came to Christ when they saw the change in TS! And now here they are, 12 years later, working together as brothers in evangelism!! What a neat story!
In our interview, we asked them for specific praise and prayer items. As a praise mention, FA told me this story. Last June, when they were constructing their home, they were collecting tall grass for the roof. FA was barefoot and a poisonous snake bit him.
He became VERY sick; there was no medical facility...only a witchdoctor was used for issues of sickness. When this option was offered to him, he replied, "I will not go to a witchdoctor, even if I die!" (To have gone to a witchdoctor is the equivalent of denying Christ and His power.) He lay unconscious for many days, but God healed him completely! We did not know anything about this story until we interviewed him; this is always the challenge of communication with Ethiopia...they are way out in the boonies...I doubt that even their sending church knew in a timely fashion of the situation. But God clearly had people praying for him, and God chose to heal him in response to those prayers! So we don't need to know the situations....we just need to follow the Spirit in faithful praying!
TS's praise item was this: He is from a pagan family with many anti-Jesus traditions. He has surrendered to God's call to him as evangelist, but at the beginning he was very unsure of himself and had many questions....how could God use a person like him, without any education, from such a pagan background, with such a history of alcoholism, etc. But as he obeyed and started the work, these questions and uncertainties disappeared, and now he is being given spiritual fruit for his ministry. He's very encouraged and happy that God is using such a plain, uneducated, backward man as himself for His work.
On the prayer front, FA has asked us to pray for fortitude in prayer; whenever he starts to pray, distracting thoughts come, etc. We all struggle with this, and he wants us to ask God to make him strong in prayer. TS asks us to pray that God will loosen the spiritual soil of the area, so that the response to the Gospel is stronger, and people become strong in the Lord. He also is asking us to pray that all of his family will come to Christ.
These two men are really wonderful....simple and honest, with a clear, sincere faith. You would love them...and I hope one day you will get to meet them! There is no "danger" in us going to their village; in fact there was a possibility that we could go this last trip. But it's a long drive away on very hot, dusty roads. Until then, let us be faithful in prayer. [We never were able to get out to visit them.]
2. The story of MU, the bees, and the witchdoctor.
MU and WO were assigned by their sending church to a small town on a main north-south road. A large NGO (non-governmental organization) had recently established operations outside the town. They were not supportive of the EOC, so the local population had become inflamed against outsiders. MU and WO walked into this situation, and were immediately imprisoned by a mob. Only when they were able to convince the authorities that they were not associated with the NGO were they freed from prison. (In the meantime, they shared the Gospel with their fellow prisoners, and a wonderful Muslim leader came to Christ. Several months later when he had completed his sentence, he joined their small family of faith!)
MU has a heart of steel....he is full of courage. He has no fear, and he takes the bull by the horns! He clearly sees himself as an Ambassador for the King of Kings, and as such is keenly aware of the Power behind him.
Soon after his release from prison, he was walking down the street, and he came to visit the witchdoctor. Immediately the evil spirit in the witchdoctor recognized a son of the Most Holy One. So the witchdoctor called down a swarm of bees to attack MU. In the street this show-down of power played out before all the townsfolk. Men, women, and children stopped their errands and watched as hundreds of bees came out of nowhere and began to descend upon MU. Without batting an eye, MU raised his hand toward the bees and commanded, "In the Name of Jesus, stop!"
To the amazement of all the townspeople, the bees stopped in mid-air and dispersed! There was no doubt as to the winner of this showdown of power. The Lord Jesus Himself trumped the spirit of evil in the witchdoctor. And as His representative, MU now commanded a respect in the community. Immediately he preached the Gospel. "You are spiritually dead in your sins. You cannot help yourself. No one can help you except the Lord Jesus Christ! He came from Heaven. He willingly laid Himself down as a sacrifice for you; He paid the price before God for your sins. He was buried in the earth for 3 days, but God raised Him up. He was seen by hundreds of witnesses in His resurrected body. And today He lives by the Throne of God. Unless you forsake this witchdoctor and your wicked ways, unless you come and yield yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, you cannot have spiritual life. You cannot have power."
Within a few months many came to MU and WO to declare their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Word of the show-down spread through us to the American believers. We all began to pray for the salvation of the witchdoctor. God heard our prayer, and 4 months from the show-down this witchdoctor destroyed his witchcraft paraphernalia and change allegiances. We had the joy of visiting their congregation....about 40-50 people of all ages, and on the right side against the wall was the ex-witchdoctor sitting beside the ex-Muslim leader.
What a picture of God's grace! Unlike the pagan gods most of the world is worshipping, our God uses His power to save! No one is beyond His ability to save, if they are willing. I am eager to spend eternity with these brothers.
3. EU and the ambushers.
EU and DA had been appointed as evangelists to a small town in the vicinity of Gondar. They were both priests in the EOC, but they had come to pure faith and had a burden to remain within the EOC and preach only the Scriptures. Because they were priests, they had an open door to expand the revival taking place....until they are found out by the militants within the EOC.
Such was the situation that developed in this town. They began Bible studies. People wanted the pure Word of God, and people were declaring their faith in Christ alone. Through discipleship Bible studies, these new believers were becoming more firmly established in the Gospel. But the militant "defenders" of the EOC got suspicious. "Who were these new priests coming to our town? And why are people so open to them?"
So they planted one of their own as a deceiver in the Bible studies held by EU and DA. This deceiver faked interest in the Scriptures and the in-depth discipleship studies. Then he reported to the militant bosses.
The home of EU and DA was raided by the police, they were imprisoned (but not charged), and they were roughed up. This was the first time that EU had experienced persecution; he was frightened, and really thought he would be killed. But, as is so common with imprisonments, he continued preaching the Gospel even in prison....and about 5 people came to Christ! He told me later, "They give the bad jobs of cleaning toilets to the worst prisoners. Do you know who the worst prisoners were? Some priests of the EOC! These priests were cleaning our toilets!" Sometimes I think God has such a sense of humor....He loves to turn the tables on our social structures!
The sending church went to the police station and paid a large fine to secure the release of EU and DA. No charges were ever filed against them, but they remained about three weeks in prison and suffered much ill-treatment. However, their tribulation was not to end with release from prison. The perpetrators of the persecution told the general population that EU and DA were bad men, and no one was to have anything to do with them. Hatred was stirred up against them. No one would sell them food. In fact, if they even opened their front door to go outside, a rain of stones came upon them. Eventually, their landlord evicted them, for fear of reprisal.
So, reluctantly, the sending church withdrew EU and DA from this town. They left behind a small church of about 10 people, who were meeting weekly, under cover, in a motel room. Even today, the sending church is 'mothering' this small group of believers.
EU and DA were then sent to another town. Here they began in much the same type of ministry.
A neighboring town was a base for Ethiopian military personnel. It was a 4-hour walk away, but it was rich soil, spiritually. Here were men that had time on their hands to talk. Many of these men were re-thinking some issues in life, keenly aware that in the military they placed their lives in harm's way. To go to this town required a total of 8 hours of walking....that made for a very full day. So we got them a bicycle. One week EU rode the bike to the military base; the next week DA rode the bike.
As is almost always the case, where the Gospel goes, the opposition from the Evil One also goes. We have an enemy. Our enemy is not the people who resist, imprison, beat, and rob. Our enemy is always the Evil One who is motivating and empowering men to do wickedness.
One day before we gave them the bike, DA walked to the camp. He sat with the soldiers talking about Christ. Suddenly the soldiers got up, grabbed him, and hauled him to the backside of the base. DA is a small man. He could not fight them physically, but he fought them in prayer. They took him into an empty storage room and began to beat him. "I thought I was going to be beaten to death," he later reported. His only defense was prayer. And the Spirit of God moved others to pray for him at that exact moment. Suddenly the Throne was bombarded with petitions for DA, even though most of those prayer warriors knew nothing of the circumstances at that moment.
"Suddenly they stopped beating me, and left the room! It was amazing! Suddenly the storm was over." Imagine those moments immediately following the beating. Quiet, peace, perplexed thinking. It was as if the Hand of God Himself had entered that room and expelled those soldiers. That evening DA walked the long road back.
Several months later, after we had given the bike, EU was riding his bike back from the military base. He had spent the day talking with the soldiers. The sun was going down. Darkness was coming. He needed to be home before darkness came. Suddenly out of some bushes by the side of the road sprang 6-8 men. They grabbed the bike, pulled EU off, and began beating him. "What do you want?" he cried to them. "We want you to stop talking about Jesus!" they responded.
The bike disappeared into the bush, the beating continued, and then out came the knife. There were no witnesses except the eyes of God. But as that knife drew near to the throat of EU, God sent some soldiers down the road. Suddenly they appeared and began to intervene. Immediately the ambushers fled. Who were these soldiers? Why did they show up so suddenly at that precise moment? Were they in reality angels? We likely will not know until we get to Heaven.
Word came to the sending church of the incident, and the next morning elders from the sending church went to comfort EU. They imagined a young man distraught with anxiety over the incident, but instead they found someone sitting quietly and confidently in his home.
"This is nothing compared to the joy of serving Jesus," he said.
Ambush...beating...knife at neck...facing them all alone. "This is nothing compared to the joy of serving Jesus."
Oh, that we believers in American churches knew the joy of EU! There is NO SACRIFICE, no difficulty, no tribulation that casts a shadow over the joy of serving Jesus!
March 7, 2012