The Mission Years-Part Six

Ethiopia was closed to missionaries in 1977 when it expelled the American military missions. The government leader, Emperor Haile Selassie I, was killed in the basement of his palace. The Soviet Union established a Marxist military government killing thousands of those who opposed. Yet, miraculously the church organization had a national preacher who was able to see thousands saved in spite danger to his life. He established a brand new headquarter church building right next to a Marxist army camp, when the government had sent all the foreign missionaries out of the country. I have heard stories of missionaries disappearing when the Marxist took over, never to be seen again.


He invited the superintendent of Kenya and myself to preach the headquarters church dedication service. When our plane touched down on the tarmac of the Addis Ababa airport, I became concerned as we looked out the plane’s window and saw army jeeps driving back and forth around the terminal. Each jeep and pick-up trucks had two men, one driving and one sitting on the back with a machine gun held ready for in trouble. Painted on the window of airport terminal was the famous hammer and sickle leaving no doubt about who was in charge. I was going to get to experience Communism firsthand.

ethiopian soldier machine gun truck

Our persons and luggage were searched for weapons or contraband as we were asked many questions as to why we were there. Our answer of course was as tourist for two days to visit the great city of Addis Ababa. They let us through. The taxi drove us to the hotel and on the way we saw the hammer and sickle everywhere on buildings, on signs and on army camps. It was a very uneasy feeling knowing that we were in communist controlled country unfriendly to missionaries, going to preach for a national dedicating his newly built church. There seemed to be some peculiarities here.

We unpacked at the hotel room which was small with room for two single cots and dresser with a mirror fastened to the wall above it. There was a small closet and bathroom. There was small round speaker built into the wall above each cot, piping some Ethiopian music into the room. The superintendent decided to take a nap and I decided to take a walk down the street a little ways from the hotel to see if I could get any pictures playing the tourist white lie. I wasn’t bothered although it was a little nerve wracking.

I passed another army camp with the hammer and sickle above the gate. I saw soldiers everywhere standing with their machine guns ready for trouble. There were very few street vendors pedaling their wares like there was in Kenya. Lepers were on about every street corner begging for funds. I remember that I had to force myself not to stare at their deformities.

leper ethiopia

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The feeling of darkness and oppression was everywhere. Throw in a few machine guns in the hands of mean looking soldiers was enough to send me back to my room.

Back in my room, I removed the roll of film which I had used up taking pictures during my short walk, put in its storage tube and then into my suitcase under my clothes. We didn’t unpack as we were just staying the one night. Preaching the next day, eating with the Ethiopian superintendent and catching the plane back to Nairobi that afternoon. We ate that evening at the hotel restaurant feasting on beef tibs and a sponge-like bread called Ingera. Their coffee was strong but good. Beef tibs is from a beef sirloin. It was very tasty.

After dinner we returned the our room, freshened up, read in our Bibles awhile, prayed and went to sleep. The speakers above our heads had the music turned off now (there was no control in the room), but we could hear like a static sound from time to time. I didn’t think anything about it and went to sleep. We awoke early the next day and headed for the church, leaving our bags in the room to be retrieved after lunch and heading for the airport.

Church was packed full and overflowing and everyone welcomed us with open arms. The superintendent greeted us and then took us on a tour of the building and the grounds. To my surprise there was a Marxist army camp behind the fence of the church. The ground behind the church sloped downward and you could look right over the fence and see into the camp, watching the soldiers going about their duties. It was eerie knowing that this was not a free country and we were about to conduct a church meeting.

I remember asking the superintendent how this was possible. He simply said, “It is a miracle.” It was time for church so we headed in to take our place on the platform. The singing was lively in Amharic while we were given sheets with the words in English so we could follow along. There were many in the congregation that understood English also. The Superintendent of Ethiopia introduced the Kenyan superintendent to give his message. After he was through, then I was introduced to give my message. Because of the size of crowd there were two interpreters as we preached in English. One on either side of us. One interpreter translated the message into Amharic and the other one mixed it up into a couple other dialects. They did a very good job of keeping up with this quick tongued preacher. After the messages were delivered then there was a foot-washing and communion service to partake of. This was quite an event as the church was overflowing and there had to be a lot of deacons and ushers to coordinate the passing of the cup of wine (yes they used real wine) and the wafers and then the tubs of water and towels for the washing of one another’s feet.

ethiopian footwashing

After church we headed to the superintendent’s home for lunch. We took our shoes off at the door as was the custom and then partook of more Ethiopian Coffee while sharing stories about the mission works. We were told story after story of how God had protected this brother and his people while they secured favor from the government to build the church when it was illegal to do so. There was one story where the Marxist soldiers had held a propaganda rally at the local theater, they rounded up enough people off the streets to fill the auditorium. They then gave their spiel about how great Marxism is and evil America was. Then came the bashing of Jesus Christ. Among the people that had rounded up for the meeting was a car loaded full of this brother’s church members, and they brought them out onto the stage.

They made one them kneel down onto the stage floor and then the soldier took his army book and kicked him in the side and when he fell over, put his army boot down onto the back of his neck. He raised his machine gun and pointed it at the back of this man’s head, saying to the crowd, “Marxism is greater than America!” Then he would fire some rounds off into the ceiling of the auditorium. Then he would say, “Marxism is greater than Christianity!” He would then fire some more shots into the ceiling. Of course the crowd was petrified knowing that eventually this man on the floor was going to be killed and maybe them too. The soldier with his boot still on the man’s neck said, “Marxism is greater than Jesus Christ!” When he went to fire his gun into the ceiling, the gun kept rotating and pointed right into his chin and went off, killing him. The other soldiers stared in disbelief and when they gathered themselves they dismissed everyone and grabbed their comrade and hurried away.

Now skeptics will say this was an accident. We Christians believe that this was the hand of an angel showing the people that communism is not greater than God, you know why it happened in the Bible and this auditorium full of people saw how it happened. “On an appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread. When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned froma Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. Acts 12:21-23 NIV

I was given a Swiss Army knife by one of the brothers in the church as a gift of appreciation for preaching the service. They do not have much to give, but he had secured these from a friend at work who was from London. I of coursed thanked him, but I didn’t think about what kind of problems it would cause me getting back on the plane.

When lunch was served we all sat on cushions on the floor around a low table. Prayer was offered for the food and then the serving began. There was the before mentioned Ingera bread was served along with a curry called ‘Wat’ (pronounced ‘wot’) and of course the ever present universal chicken and plenty of spices were added to this ‘Wat’ stew. (I hate chicken) It was actually very tasty with all the flavoring hiding the chicken. LOl We had something like greens served with the main meal, then after this we were served a ‘Gurage’ which tastes like bread but flavored with almost a banana taste. Sombrosa Selit or tropical seedless dates baked in a pastry crust were served for desert. The coffee is again served after the meal and becomes a ceremony in itself with a special pot for brewing and the beans being ground right in front of you to fill the room with aroma. Ethiopian Expresso, strong giving you a caffeine high for days.

On the way back tot he airport, I couldn’t get over all the poverty around us. Kenya has it slums outside the city of Nairobi, but it is nothing compared to the filth of Addis Ababa. Of course this was over thirty years ago, so I am sure things have changed sine then. I hope.

slums addis ababa 1 slums of addis ababa 2

ethiopian food dish

At the airport, they asked us what we had done, and we told them we toured the city and visited some friends. They again searched us and our luggage, only this time they found my knife. He holds it up and the machine gun soldier steps up behind me looking for direction as to what he should do next. I was praying intensely under my breath for protection and getting onto the plane and out of this city. The inspector holds the knife up and says, “What’s this?” I told him that my friend had given to my as a gift. He looks at me and looks at the soldier behind me and smiles as he continues waiving the knife around opening the blades and closing them. He finally said, “You could cut someone’s throat with this!” He made the motion as he was going to cut another soldier standing next to him. I told him that it was a gift and I wasn’t going to harm anyone. He kept playing with the knife and I kept praying under my breath and after another 10 minutes of this same scenario, he finally says, “I will keep this and give it to the captain. When you land he will give it back to you.” I thanked him saying, “Amesginalew.” He smiled at the only Amharic word I knew and said, “Minem Aydelem.” (this means you’re welcome, but literally means no problem)

I hurried to the plane breathing a sigh of relief saying to myself, “I’ll never see that knife again.” Of course soldiers were everywhere inside and outside the terminal with the Big Brother emblem on everything including a big one on the windows looking out onto the runway. We made it to our seats and both said “Thank God” the moment the wheels left the runway! We laughed and said we happy that was over, leaned back and closed our eyes for a nap, not knowing that there would be one more Ethiopian surprise awaiting us. (The Captain handed me the knife as I walked off the plane-how about honest Ethiopian Marxist!)

After arriving back in Nairobi and being greeted by our families, eating supper, sharing about our trip, we were ready for an early sleep. The next day I run the film into Nairobi to have it developed, went shopping for a few things at the market, checked a couple of tourist shops out, and went back for the pictures. The shop owner greeted me and said he had a problem. I said ok, what’s the problem. He then took my one roll of film, the one that I had used up taking pictures in Addis Ababa and held it up to the light for me to see. My mouth dropped open. The whole roll of film was blank! He said he went to develop the roll but there was nothing on it, so he saved it to show me. The other roll was fine and all the pictures turned out good. I had loaded this roll in the camera after I had removed the other roll and put it in my suitcase in the hotel. I took some pictures on the new roll in Ethiopia, then finished the roll when I was back in Nairobi. Again, the second roll was fine. The first roll was the puzzle. Then it hit me.

roll of film

Those speakers above our cots were two way speakers. They were listening to us as we talked about the service in our rooms. While were at church they came into the room, removed the film, exposing it under a light bulb. They did this just to show us that they knew what we were doing and could have done something about it if they had chosen to do so. When I told the shop owner my theory, he looked at the film again and smiled, saying I think you are right as he pointed out how the film showed evidence of this action.

My call was to Malawi, so I needed to fly into Blantyre a number of times to ‘grease’ the palms to encourage the officials to speed up the process of securing my working permit for the mission work. I couldn’t legally move into the country until I had the permit in my hand. I can’t remember too much more about Kenya, I’m sure I am missing some things, but this is enough for now. This should be enough adventure for this post.

Click here to go to The Mission Years-Part Seven

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