“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time. The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life.”
Whenever I hear that song — full of 1980s British rock stars, from Sting to Simon Le Bon to Bono — I’m transported back to a metal, triangle-shaped chapel in the heart of East Africa.
The song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” also reminds me that our churches can thrive and grow as we serve the underserved, the overlooked.
That’s a message we sorely need as we enter 2023.
I was in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, in 2011. I was waiting for permission to enter what would soon be the Earth’s newest nation, South Sudan, to report on churches there. As I waited, Ethiopian evangelist Behailu Abebe showed me around the campus of the Makanisa School for the Deaf, which includes the meeting place of a Church of Christ.
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The compound had served as a relief center during Ethiopia’s terrible famine three decades earlier. The British musicians, under the name Band Aid, and countless other groups raised millions of dollars to send to the East African nation.
To learn why the Church of Christ was chosen as a relief site, you have to go back to 1960. Several Church of Christ missionaries, including Carl Thompson and Bob Gowen, wanted to work in Ethiopia. The country’s religious landscape was dominated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which traces its roots back to the eunuch baptized by Philip in Acts 8. There also was a growing Muslim population.
The government told the missionaries that they couldn’t just come in and preach nondenominational Christianity. They had to perform a public service of some kind.
How about that? If you want to preach Jesus to our people, you have to be Jesus to them first.
So the missionaries looked around for an underserved people to whom they could minister. They found the deaf — a neglected and often-shunned minority. The missionaries set up a school for deaf children and their hearing siblings so they could learn sign language together.
But there was no real sign language in Ethiopia, so the early Ethiopian converts developed one, using American Sign Language as a model and modifying various words to fit an East African context. The sign for “coffee” (an important word in Ethiopia) is a grinding motion, but Ethiopians don’t grind coffee — they pound it. So they changed it to a pounding motion.
The school — and the sign language — took off. Now you’ll find large sections of deaf worshipers with Churches of Christ across Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government sends its workers to the Makanisa school to train in sign language. Christians and Muslims enroll their children in the school.
The church’s reputation for service made it an ideal site for famine relief. Aid workers delivered a massive metal container of food to the Makanisa campus. Church members distributed it. Thousands, possibly millions, of lives were saved.
When the food was gone, the container remained.
“What did you do with it?” I asked Behailu.
“You’re standing in it,” he said. It’s the chapel. What was once a source of life-saving food now is a source of the life-giving Gospel.
In 2023, let’s go and do likewise. Who are the underserved in our communities? What services can we provide that will demonstrate God’s love to a jaded and hurting world?
I pray that our service will open doors of opportunity like it did in Ethiopia — and that countless souls will receive the greatest gift.
This editorial, which first appeared in The Christian Chronicle, does not necessarily reflect the views of The Roys Report.
Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.