by Joy Casey 

This trip to Africa I have combined international missions work with my church with what I do for NewLife.  With others from my church, I spent a few days in Kenya and just returned to Addis Ababa from visiting a pastor my church supports in the Tigray area of Ethiopia.

While in Tigray, we had a great afternoon visiting the ancient site of Axum that is thought to be the birthplace of Christianity in Ethiopia.  Steven and Dan felt like they were part of an Indiana Jones movie wandering among tombs and structures dating from 300 BC to 100 AD.  We got to see a replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace — remember her visit to King Solomon in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles?  History credits the eunuch Phillip baptized (Acts 8) as the first to bring the Gospel to Ethiopia.

I love history and all of this is super interesting to me, but more energizing than ancient history is history in the making.  Seeing God’s Kingdom expand among groups of people who never before have been exposed to the Gospel, hearing of lives radically changed and then banding together to form a new church community – worshipping God in places where worship didn’t exist – this is experiencing the book of Acts in 2024.

We know the ultimate price most of Jesus’ original disciples paid for spreading the Good News to the known world.  Increased persecution continues today of those who follow Jesus’ command to make disciples of the nations.  Building God’s Kingdom always comes with suffering of one kind or another, and it is no different in Ethiopia.

We had the honor of sitting with three of our missionaries one morning listening and learning about the struggles they face.  Our time together took place in an inner room free from prying eyes or listening ears, a place where the men felt safe and were able to share freely.

I have grappled with how to share these few hours with you.  Their miraculous conversion from Islam that resulted, for one of them, being bound hand and foot to a chair without food or water for three days, all three fleeing from home and village in fear of their lives, and then their response to God’s call to wade deep into the harvest field of their own, hostile people group affected me in ways I find hard to put into words.  These are just ordinary men.  They are not highly educated nor are they sophisticated or polished.  Yet, sitting in their presence and listening to their quiet voices relating spiritual insight and devotion rarely seen, I knew instinctively I was in rarefied company.  My hesitation in writing this particular segment is fear of not having the ability to do it justice.

All of our missionaries have a compelling story to tell.  The details of becoming a Christ-follower, the immediate and ongoing hardship they experience from angry families and communities, and then their call into full-time ministry have similar components. What is often missed when engrossed in the details of stories so different from our own is what compels and propels them into dangerous places and enables perseverance.

In Missionary “M’s” case, he never forgets the hatred he harbored toward Christians when he was a Mus!im and how he physically and verbally attacked the few he knew at every opportunity.  Remembering the hate in his heart and how God worked in his life gives him the grace to love his fellow tribesmen when they put him in jail, throw rocks at his house and children and exclude him from village life.  For three years he tried to share the Gospel in a place that was completely closed.  His energies bore little fruit, so now he is in another, slightly easier village where a small group of committed Followers gather house-to-house.  His challenge is his family.  It is hard to find a place to live because nobody wants to rent to a Christian.  He has five children (one born just a week ago) and putting food on the table and paying school fees puts a terrible strain on him.  His three older children ages 11, 9 and 6 suffer in school because they are known to be Christian.  He also adds that their faith is strong and they have learned to keep a low profile and respond to unkindness with a soft answer.

“Remembering what Christ did for me, a sinner and persecutor of Christians, motivates me to bring light to others.  Even though where I am serving is hard, I am there with a glad heart.  I know my enemies are driven by Satan as I once was.”

“I live in a hard environment with many, many problems.  But God compels me to share His Gospel and I am willing to pay the price.  Years ago I gave God my word that I would single-mindedly serve Him and build His Kingdom and that has not changed.  It is hard on my family, especially with housing.  This is my ongoing concern.”

I’ll give a little synopsis of Missionary “AK’s” background.  He was a student of the Quran and was being groomed to serve in the mosque.  From an early age hatred of Christians was ingrained in him and if he met one, he beat him and would tear to pieces his Bible and stomp on it.  There was a small church built near his village and he went to the store to buy fuel to burn it down.  He didn’t have quite enough money, so started home to collect more.  On the way he became dizzy and fell to the ground.  A man with a bright candle came to him and said, “I AM the light.  Your soul wants me.  Follow me.”  When he was able to stand, he condemned the man as being Satan.  With extra money in hand heading back to the store, he tripped on a rock and again fell to the ground.  Everything went black until the man with the candle came saying, “I am Masih Isa (Messiah Jesus).  Do you want me or not?  This is your final chance.”  When the vision faded, the idea of burning the church down left him.  Instead, AK sought out a pastor in another place to ask about these visions, and over time “AK” acknowledged Jesus as Savior.  He is the one whose family tied him to a chair when they learned of his conversion.  After three days his mother took pity and untied his hands.  They gave him food laced with poison intending to kill him, but he did not die as they planned.  He eventually escaped and fled to safe place.

Recently, a church he was building in his village created a huge uproar.  400 men from 9 surrounding mosques came to kill him and they completely destroyed the church.  “AK” managed to escape, but he and his family have had to leave that village for their safety.  He still disciples 28 people in his former village, strengthening them to live their faith with integrity in the midst of intense intimidation and threats.

“There are problems, yes.  But I am driven by Light and am clearly following the Light and sharing the Light.  I received this message from Jesus Himself.  Even if I die, I know where I am going.  People must be saved from darkness to light.”

“You and I are filled with light and power and together we can finish the task.  John 1:5 tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  Philippians tells me that to die is gain, but to live is to bring more people to Jesus.  I can do this work because you (NewLife) stand with me and pray for me.”

The third missionary related some harrowing stories of Christian students in his community and how his kids have learned to thrive as a distrusted minority.  I know their safety weighs on his mind.  “A” is our missionary coordinator for this area and you can read his incredible story here.

Listening to these men’s stories and absorbing the motivation that drives them to pour out their lives in obedience to Jesus’ command to go, teach, make disciples and baptize, made us Americans ponder what they had that maybe we didn’t.  The questions we had for these saints didn’t translate well.  They were puzzled when asked to give advice about being bold to share our faith.  Their understanding is Jesus has given all of us everything necessary to live bold, godly lives.  Along with that empowerment comes God’s express directive to makes disciples of all the nations.  What more do we need?

My desire prior to this meeting was to bring encouragement to these missionaries that I know lead very hard lives.  By the end of our time together, I was the one needing encouragement!  We asked our brothers to pray for us which they fervently did.  God heard their prayers and He heard ours, too.  I know us four “ferengis”* gained a deeper understanding of the truth that the Lord’s great love is not powerless or false or rendered void in the midst of suffering.

Comparing my feeble efforts to influence others for Christ with these guys can, if I let it, get me off track.  God quickly brought to mind the biblical concepts of perseverance that fuel my assurance and my mission.  “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).”  We are all in process.  I am, however, grateful I can gain a broader perspective of obedience and perseverance by being in Ethiopia than I would ever have gained by staying home.

*Amharic for foreigners