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Mission Observations

Stories: Ethiopia

Dereje Tilahun professes, “The Bible is My Life”. During 17 years of Communist rule in Ethiopia, the Word of God sustained Dereje.

I’ve done a lot of talking about mission theory and such like over the last few months. I thought that I’d take a break from that and switch to passing on some stories for a while. 

The Bible is My Life

In 1984, Com­mu­nist lead­ers in Ethiopia told a Chris­t­ian named Dereje Tilahun to leave his job as a land sur­veyor and come work as a po­lit­i­cal cadre (com­mu­nist ac­tivist) within the Com­mu­nist government.

Now, decades later he ex­plained his re­sponse to their re­quest.

“[Many times] I said, ‘No.  Be­cause you are athe­ist, and I be­lieve in God, so how can I join with you?’” he said, “We had to speak up and say ‘This is wrong.’ I was bold enough to tell them.”

“I didn’t give up my faith”

Dereje Tilahun
Dereje Tilahun, Scripture Use Coordinator, SIL Ethiopia (Photo by Adam Jeske)

He cred­ited this bold­ness to the sup­port he had from a group of Chris­tians gath­er­ing to­gether in their homes at night to pray and study the scrip­ture to­gether.  Through all of the sev­en­teen years of Com­mu­nist rule in Ethiopia, the group grew close to God and to each other, ex­chang­ing prayer re­quests, meet­ing to­gether to sup­port each other and to lean on God to­gether.  Young peo­ple at that time were re­quired to par­tic­i­pate in com­mu­nist meet­ings to hear the teach­ings of com­mu­nism.  Of­ten the lead­ers in­ten­tion­ally sched­uled these at the same time as church gatherings.

He looks back and sees that God used this time to strengthen and pre­pare these be­liev­ers through the hard­ship.  In par­tic­u­lar, God was ce­ment­ing into Dereje’s heart the im­por­tance of Bible study.  That Bible study group, he stressed, was “very, very strong,” and it was “very, very im­por­tant for our lives.”

When Dereje re­fused to work for the gov­ern­ment, he lost both his pre­vi­ous sur­vey­ing job and his free­dom.  Like many evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians in Ethiopia at that time, he spent time in prison.

“It was only six days,” he said with a smile, “But it was very tough!  I was obliged to lie on a ce­ment floor….  In the evenings there were beatings.”

Through this, again it was his un­der­stand­ing of scrip­ture that sus­tained him.  “In fact in prison, I se­cretly brought a Bible,” he laughed.  His fam­ily sent the book into the prison wrapped in cloth­ing.  When­ever he could, he read the words aloud for the other pris­on­ers who lis­tened ea­gerly.

“I didn’t give up my faith.  I told [the guards] that the only way to sal­va­tion is Jesus Christ.  They were laugh­ing at me, but some­times now these same peo­ple are com­ing to Jesus Christ.  Many are in prison now, but they are read­ing the scrip­ture there, too.”

Dereje was raised in a fam­ily that at­tended a church but never owned or read a Bible.  It was through a high school Chris­t­ian fel­low­ship that he first be­gan read­ing the Bible on his own.  At that time he ac­cepted Jesus Christ as his per­sonal savior.

From land survey to Bible survey

Af­ter his time in prison, Dereje still had no job.  He spent two months pray­ing, un­sure where to go, but still be­liev­ing that God would pro­vide what­ever he needed.  Then, through a friend, he heard about a job work­ing with Scrip­ture Union, an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that aims to make God’s Good News known to chil­dren, youth, and fam­i­lies through Bible read­ing and prayer.  He prayed, got the job, and ea­gerly went to work shar­ing his love of scrip­ture with young peo­ple.

“When I joined the Scrip­ture Union, I told the peo­ple that I [went]…from land sur­vey to Bible survey.”

For ten years Dereje worked with Scrip­ture Union, spread­ing Bible Study and de­vo­tional ma­te­ri­als across Ethiopia par­tic­u­larly among high school stu­dents.  The ma­te­ri­als, though, were all printed in Amharic, the na­tional lan­guage in Ethiopia.  As a na­tive Amharic speaker, Dereje did not think much about whether peo­ple speak­ing any of the other lan­guages of Ethiopia would un­der­stand these ma­te­ri­als.

Now he sees the im­por­tance of pro­vid­ing scrip­ture and de­vo­tional ma­te­ri­als for peo­ple in their heart lan­guage.  He pointed out from his own ex­pe­ri­ence that while he speaks some Eng­lish, “If I read the same verse in an Eng­lish Bible, I pre­fer to read it in my lan­guage, be­cause it gives me clear un­der­stand­ing.”  This re­al­iza­tion deep­ened when he at­tended a work­shop done by SIL just a few years ago.

A friend from child­hood, Ale­mayehu Hailu, a Wycliffe Africa mem­ber who now serves as the Di­rec­tor of SIL Ethiopia, in­vited him to the work­shop.  Af­ter the work­shop, Ale­mayehu and oth­ers urged Dereje to join in trans­la­tion work.  Dereje went to his fam­ily and church mem­bers seek­ing prayer and dis­cern­ment.  “It took me two years to de­cide,” he re­called.  “It was hard.  You have to think of many things.  Be­ing a mis­sion­ary is not a sim­ple task.  It is very demanding.”

What mo­ti­vated him was the in­cred­i­ble need he saw.  “When I saw the need of the peo­ple—there are more than 80 lan­guages in Ethiopia, and only 8 have the [whole] Bible!”  He shook his head.  “The rest, they don’t have the Bible.   It’s not good to give Amharic Bibles to those peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand.  We have to bring the Bible in their own lan­guage so they can eas­ily un­der­stand.  I saw that this was very timely and cru­cial work.  When it is in their mother tongue, they can un­der­stand it, they can love it.”

Fi­nally in May 2009, Dereje stepped down from a job he had held for four­teen years work­ing with the Ethiopian Evan­gel­i­cal Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) in ra­dio broad­cast­ing and mag­a­zine edit­ing.  He joined Wycliffe Africa and was sec­onded to SIL Ethiopia and now works in the Scrip­ture Use de­part­ment.  There he over­sees a team of staff prepar­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing printed ma­te­ri­als, record­ings, and videos that help peo­ple ap­ply scrip­ture to their every­day lives.  Again, his pas­sion for study­ing the Word of God dri­ves his work.

“In rural ar­eas,” he ex­plained, “Bible study is not com­mon, only Sun­day preach­ing.  But in one hour’s time in group Bible study, we can get more in­for­ma­tion and see many mes­sages in the word.  When a preacher preaches for one hour, we may get only one mes­sage from him.”

“I see that my life was built by the word of God, study­ing the Word in group Bible stud­ies.  So I want to trans­fer this idea, this knowl­edge, to other peo­ple in their own lan­guage.  Then their life will also be changed by it.”

Dereje has been mar­ried for four­teen years to Fik­erte Tsegaye. They have three chil­dren.  He met Fik­erte while they were both work­ing in Scrip­ture Union, then they both worked for EECMY, the largest Lutheran church fel­low­ship in Africa.  Now they are both Wycliffe Africa mem­bers serv­ing in SIL Ethiopia.  She works in administration.

“The work Dereje did be­fore has made him known to many church lead­ers which helps him now,” said Ale­mayehu.

Kelly Black­sten who works with Dereje in the Scrip­ture Use de­part­ment added, “He has a real pas­sion about shar­ing the mes­sage of the need for Bible trans­la­tion in Ethiopia.  He has lots of ideas on how that can be done.”

“I cannot live without the Bible”

One chal­lenge Dereje and Fik­erte faced was rais­ing a por­tion of their salary as a mem­ber of Wycliffe Africa.  “It was very chal­leng­ing,” he said, “but the Bible says, ‘my right­eous one will live by faith’” (He­brews 10:38, NIV).

For some time his fam­ily has been sav­ing to build their own home, but as yet they are still wait­ing in a rented place, watch­ing the cost of build­ing ma­te­ri­als rise with each pass­ing month.  It is a small thing, he said, al­most with em­bar­rass­ment, rub­bing his hand over his fore­head.  And yet, he has learned through the years with his close-knit com­mu­nity of pray­ing friends, “Every­thing in your heart and mind you have to bring to the Lord, and you will see God’s hand.”

He brings to God the seem­ingly small things, as well as the large.  He wishes that more peo­ple across the world would pray for the work of lan­guage and trans­la­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing SIL Ethiopia, that “we be bold enough to stand firm in our faith, to fin­ish our [work] in translation.”

Dereje with Amharic Bible
Dereje with his Amharic Bible (Photo by Adam Jeske)

Every year or so, Dereje chooses a verse as his fo­cus to sus­tain him and guide his life.  Dur­ing the time he was in prison, one sus­tain­ing verse for him was 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5:23-24.  In our in­ter­view he read the verse aloud in Eng­lish first: “May God him­self, the God of peace, sanc­tify you through and through… your whole spirit, soul and body… The one who calls you is faith­ful and he will do it.”

Then he found the verse in his mother tongue Amharic Bible, slid­ing his fin­gers over the words he had un­der­lined with pen over the years.  As he read the words in Amharic, a smile spread across his face that wasn’t there while he picked through the verse in English.

This year, he said, the verse he fo­cuses on is a short piece from Nahum 1:7:  “The Lord is good.”

“The Bible is my life,” he said, plac­ing his hands on his well-worn copy of the Bible in his own lan­guage.  “I can­not live with­out the Bible.”

This story was taken from the Wycliffe Global Alliance Site and the orginal can be found “The Bible is My Life”.

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