Snapshots from Our Church Partnerships in Ethiopia
By Jeremy Resmer | Senior Director of Partnerships
Late in the evening, Rick and Phyllis were busy at work, meticulously re-reading the legal requirements established by the government for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Ethiopia. When they arrived in Addis Ababa in 2012, they were told it would take a year or longer to register World Orphans as an NGO. Some people pay others to do this, but they laughed in disbelief. How hard could it be?
On Saturday morning at a nearby church, a young boy, no more than 13 or 14, preached a fiery message in Amharic (the Ethiopian language) to more than 500 children from the local community. Although I didn’t understand what he is saying, it is clear that he is passionate about his message. “It’s the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years,” says the pastor sitting next to me.
“Is he a preacher?” I asked surprisingly.
“No, he is a young man, 14 years of age, in our pastoral leadership program. We are training our young people to become leaders and share the gospel.”
“Wow! That’s incredible.” I exclaimed. I was shocked to witness such a young boy preaching, much less with the conviction and zeal of an experienced speaker.
“We got the idea for the program from the people in America.” He said while laughing.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Americans that visited in the past told us that when young people grow up without hearing the word of God, they fall away and leave the church. They said this happens in the US. We were determined that we didn’t want that to happen here and decided to create a program that would develop leaders and train them to evangelize their peers.”
In a small town, two hours outside of Addis Ababa, I had the opportunity to meet with the program coordinator at one of our local church partners doing Home Based Care (HBC). Sitting in his small, dark office, I asked him what he liked most about the ministry. His answer was profound. “The HBC program helps marginalized people find their identity.” I wondered what he meant. I would soon find out.
A few minutes later, a team of volunteers from the church and I went out to visit at-risk families in the community and visit them to offer encouragement and find out how the children were doing in school. At one particular home, a young girl named Sity (in photograph), 6 years of age, lived alone with her grandmother in a small, one-room house. She was abandoned when she was very young. Her mother left and never returned, and no one knew the whereabouts of her father. While there I learned that Sity was crippled after she fell off her mother’s back and broke her leg as a baby. After going years without receiving treatment, Sity finally received surgery and medication. That day I saw her stand and walk with crutches. She has a brace on her right leg to realign and fix it. Once that is corrected, the doctors will work on fixing her other leg. Meanwhile, the church has helped pay for her medical expenses, transportation, and every week brings fruit and other protein-rich foods like eggs and meat needed to aid in her recovery. The HBC team visits Sity regularly where they enjoy her contagious laughter.
Back in Addis, in an extremely poor area of town, another partner church is alive with energy and activity. Kids are running in and out of the buildings, playing soccer, studying and socializing with their friends. In a short period of time, the struggling property was transformed into a vibrant church and hub for the youth in the community. The pastor said, “When the church began reaching out to the families in the community and offering sports, tutoring, and other activities for the children, everything changed.”
Time and again, we hear how open evangelism is not acceptable in Ethiopia and will result in violence especially in this community consisting largely of Muslim families and businesses. However, for more than three years, this church has been walking in the light, inviting young people to participate in their own future, and visiting more than 17 families caring for orphaned and abandoned children. I was amazed by what I saw and heard. I asked the pastor why he likes the HBC program so much and his response was powerful and enlightening. He said, “Our small church has gone mostly unnoticed. We go and visit desperate and disadvantaged people in our community. Many are Muslim, Orthodox, or don’t believe in God at all. We don’t require anything from them, only that we want to encourage and help them. No one can dispute that they need assistance. However, many of the families that we visit have asked our team to pray with them, to tell them about Jesus, or to invite them to church. Even the kids in these families, who come to our church, tell their parents about Jesus. To our ministry, Home Based Care is the most effective form of evangelism.”
Eighteen months passed and in order to continue working with churches in Ethiopia, World Orphans was required to receive approval as an NGO. The World Orphans missionaries, Rick and Phyllis, worked tirelessly with attorneys, government officials, church partners and other organizations to draft, make modifications, submit, make more modifications, and re-submit the NGO application paperwork. The process took place repeatedly and older versions were scrapped entirely for new drafts.
Finally, after writing and rewriting the project proposal three times, numerous visits to various government offices, several conversations with other faith-based NGOs performing development work under the new government regulations, and two visits to Kenya for weeks at a time to renew their visa, Rick and Phyllis finally found favor and received the word they had waited for: APPROVED!
Was it really worth all the trouble? Absolutely. In order to continue working in Ethiopia under the law, registration isn’t an option it’s a requirement. In Phyllis’ words, “The process tested our faith and endurance. There were times when I really wondered if we would be successful. Discouragement and exhaustion hovered. But God continued to bring glimpses of hope as one-by-one His people would come alongside us and encourage us onward. Step by step we saw His hand open the way.” She continued, “The government restrictions, though at times challenging, have actually promoted a higher level of effectiveness and outreach as well as help churches to clearly love and serve in the name of Christ. The answer to the question: why do we do it? For love. Love of God and love of people, just as God so loved the world. No law can restrict us from this.”
Have you experienced Ethiopia? What stories and experiences would you add?