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”
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.”
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”.