Story by Christine Jeske
In 1984, Communist leaders in Ethiopia told a Christian named Dereje Tilahun to leave his job as a land surveyor and begin work as a political cadre (communist activist) within the Communist government.
“I said, ‘No. You are atheist. I believe in God, so how can I join with you?’” he explained. “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. Through all of the seventeen years of Communist rule in Ethiopia, this group grew closer to God and each other.
Dereje sees that God used this time to strengthen and prepare these believers as well as cement into his heart the importance of Bible study. When Dereje refused to work for the government, he lost both his 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.”
His understanding of scripture sustained him through that time. “In prison, I secretly brought a Bible,” he laughed. 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,” he shared.
From Land Survey to Bible Survey
After his time in prison, Dereje was without a job and unsure where to go. He spent two months praying and believing God would provide whatever he needed. 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. Over the next ten years, Dereje worked with Scripture Union by spreading Bible Study and devotional materials across Ethiopia particularly among high school students.
“When I joined Scripture Union, I told them that I [went] from land survey to Bible survey,” he said.
The materials, though, were all printed in Amharic, the national language in Ethiopia. As a native Amharic speaker, Dereje did not question whether people speaking any of the other languages of Ethiopia would understand these materials. Now, however, he sees the importance of providing scripture and devotional materials for people in their heart language.
This realization deepened when a childhood friend, Alemayehu Hailu, a Wycliffe Africa member who now serves as the Director of SIL Ethiopia, invited him to he attend a workshop done by SIL. After the workshop, Alemayehu and others urged Dereje to join in translation work.
Recognizing the Need
Dereje went to his family and church members seeking prayer and discernment. “It took me two years to decide,” he recalled. He was motivated by the incredible need he saw.
“There are more than 80 languages in Ethiopia, and only 8 have the [whole] 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. When it is in their mother tongue, they can understand it. They can love it.”
Finally in May 2009, Dereje stepped down from his job of 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. He now works in the Scripture Use department where he oversees a team preparing and distributing printed materials, recordings, and videos that help people apply scripture to their everyday lives.
“I see that my life was built by the word of God by studying the Word in group Bible studies. I want to transfer this idea, this knowledge, to other people in their own language. Then their life will also be changed by it,” he shared.
“The Bible is my life,” he said while placing his hands on his well-worn copy of the Bible in his own language. “I cannot live without the Bible.”
Photos by Adam Jeske
Editors note: Christine Jeske and her husband Adam have served as development workers in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa. She recently published a book called, Into the Mud–Inspiration for Everyday Activists. This story was originally written for the Wycliffe News Network.