Ethiopia’s Sleeping Giant

Finding new ways to spread the Good News

text by James Jeffrey

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“Urggh!” exclaims 20-year-old Bethlehem, pulling her two fists apart from against her chest, struggling not to erupt into laughter.

“That’s it, good job; open your heart to the truth,” says Nancy Greenhaw, inviting some 200 other university students to join in playfully miming the act.

These young Ethiopian university students have come to the city of Bahir Dar — located about 250 miles northwest of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and famed for Lake Tana and its island monasteries — for a weekend catechetical program, albeit one with evangelical fervor.

The Catholic Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie organized the program as part of an effort to address the growing phenomenon of young Ethiopians leaving the traditional sacramental Christianity of the Ethiopian Catholic and Orthodox churches for the evangelical Christianity preached by itinerant preachers scattered throughout Ethiopia.

“The Catholic Church belongs to you — it’s your church, you make it what you want it to be,” announces Mrs. Greenhaw’s husband, Lloyd, in a rich baritone. He points to the gathered students. “You can do away with the division and scandal in the church.”

With his commanding voice, white hair and beard, Mr. Greenhaw could do a passable impression of a latter-day Moses. This team of husband and wife, currently in their 70’s, has been working among young Catholics for more than 20 years. This work has often taken them far from their home near San Antonio, Texas — including Papua New Guinea and many interior states in Africa — and now Ethiopia, at the invitation of Abune Lesanu-Christos Matheos, bishop of Bahir Dar-Dessie.

The bishop understands well the challenges facing the Catholic and Orthodox churches today; prior to his ordination as a bishop, he served as a chaplain in Addis Ababa, a sprawling urban center that draws young men and women from throughout the largely rural and poor country.

“When people, especially the young, discover religion, it’s an emotional reaction and they want more. And if they don’t get it, they will look elsewhere — to other churches,” Abune Lesanu-Christos says of the growing phenomenon of the young embracing evangelical Christianity in a land where traditional sacramental Christianity has deep roots. The nation’s preeminent church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, has largely shaped Ethiopian culture, since its establishment in the fourth century.

According to the most recent census, the number of Ethiopians identifying as Orthodox has declined to 44 percent of the population; 18 percent now identifies as evangelical Protestant. About a third of the population identifies as Sunni Muslim, with indigenous tribal religions and Catholicism — always a tiny but disproportionately influential faith community due to its schools and social service institutions — making up the balance. Some observers contest these figures — especially in heated arguments between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. None dispute, however, that the number of self-identified evangelical Protestants continues to increase largely at the expense of the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

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