ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Promptly at 5 a.m., the loudspeakers of an Orthodox church crackle to life.
Chanted prayers in Ethiopia’s language, Amharic, rattle across the metal roofs surrounding the massive cathedral, including the Church of Christ compound next door.
The service, commemorating Lent, goes on for 90 minutes. As priests admonish the faithful to honor Christ through prayer, repentance and fasting, workers in the Church of Christ compound sweep floors, light cooking fires and gather lesson plans for a day of service to the hearing-impaired.
As the sun rises, children in red sweaters and purple pants and skirts arrive by twos and threes at the compound, the home of Makanisa School for the Deaf.
Behailu Abebe signs “Good morning” as they enter the chapel for a devotional. About 200 of the school’s 274 students are hearing-impaired. Nonetheless, they sing hymns in clear, boisterous Amharic — rivaling the volume of the cathedral’s loudspeakers.
For nearly 50 years, Churches of Christ have served the hearing-impaired in this East African nation. Makanisa is one of five church-run schools in Ethiopia.
Helping this underserved group has helped grow congregations here. There are about 900 Churches of Christ in Ethiopia, Abebe says. Even small churches in the countryside offer sign language services.
At Makanisa, girls wearing Muslim head scarves smile as they walk past Abebe into the chapel. The school accepts students of all faiths, he explains.
“They are taught the Word of God every day,” he says. POUNDING COFFEE AND BREAKING BREAD
In the chapel, Abebe Halemichael reads from the Bible and gives the students a brief message. Musie Alemayehu translates his words into sign language.
When chapel dismisses, teachers dressed in white lab coats line up the students in the school’s courtyard. As a teacher raises Ethiopia’s flag, the students sing and sign the national anthem.
Both Halemichael and Alemayehu grew up at the church compound. When he was a young boy, Alemayhu came here to live after his father, a preacher, died. He was baptized here and now teaches English.
Halemichael started visiting the compound at age 9. At first, he only wanted to play soccer. But the Christians got him involved in youth ministry. He was baptized and now preaches for the 150-member congregation that meets in the compound.
“I think God raised up peaceful people to spread the Gospel,” Halemichael says.
Behailu Abebe describes his home nation as an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam. Unlike many of its predominantly Muslim neighbors — Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea — more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s 90.8 million inhabitants claim Christianity as their faith.
Three-fourths of the country’s Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox, a religious group that traces its origin to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. The country’s monarchy helped the Orthodox church maintain its traditions for hundreds of years by keeping the nation free from colonial rule — except for an occupation by Mussolini-controlled Italy from 1936 to 1941.
Missionaries from Churches of Christ, including Carl Thompson and Bob Gowen, arrived in Ethiopia in 1960 with the goal of introducing non-denominational Christianity to East Africa. The Ethiopian government let them work here on one condition — they had to provide a service for the Ethiopian people.
The missionaries looked for an underserved demographic and found large numbers of hearing-impaired children and orphans. They opened homes for children and taught them to sign. Ethiopian converts, including Behailu Abebe and Demere Chernet, joined the work.
The new Christians did more than teach. To help the deaf communicate with the hearing, Chernet and a team of Christians developed unique signs for Amharic — a language with 299 characters. He used American Sign Language as a guide.
The new language required some modifications to fit an African context, Abebe says. For example, the sign for “coffee” in American Sign Language is a grinding motion.
But Ethiopians don’t grind coffee — they pound it. To demonstrate the Amharic sign for “coffee,” the church leader pounds his fist into his hand. Similarly, the Amharic sign for “bread” involves two hands breaking a loaf rather than slicing it. SERVING CHILDREN, PARENTS
Across Ethiopia, Churches of Christ enroll more than 800 students in five schools for the deaf and three kindergartens for underprivileged children.
Since opening its doors in 1963, the Makanisa school has graduated 5,543 students, says Mulu Nega, the school’s secretary and a Church of Christ member.
Sixteen instructors teach children from kindergarten to eighth grade, using a combination of sign language and speech. Hearing students learn alongside their deaf siblings so they can communicate at home.
After graduation, most of the students enter government-run schools. Some receive assistance from translators, and many go on to universities, Nega says.
A few return to Makanisa to teach.
Nebeiyu Mussie, who is deaf, graduated from the school and received additional training in Kenya.
For the past 17 years, he has taught at the deaf school. He serves as the church’s minister for the hearing-impaired.
“I want to do God’s will,” he signs as Behailu Abebe translates. “I love my Lord. I love working here. I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Despite the school’s success, there remains “a high degree of stigma toward the deaf children” in Ethiopia, says Bethelihem Seyoum, a social worker employed by the Makanisa school. Many Ethiopians believe deafness is the result of a curse.
Seyoum works with the students’ parents to help them understand the nature of hearing loss and how to communicate effectively with their children.
Increasingly, Ethiopia’s leaders see the need to provide services for the hearing-impaired. Makanisa launched an adult education program to teach sign language to the parents of its students.
Now the Ethiopian government sends police, court officials and government workers to the program. A Denmark-based non-governmental organization provides funds for the work.
Mekedes Kebede teaches sign language to the adults. A friend first brought him to the church compound 39 years ago to study the Bible.
“I became a Christian to save my life — to be with God,” he says. A WAREHOUSE OF HOPE
Churches of Christ in Ethiopia have flourished because of their emphasis on saving lives — spiritual and physical, Behailu Abebe says. The church’s ministry to the deaf has allowed them to keep serving, even in hard times.
Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, visited the Makanisa campus in 1967 and donated a minivan to transport students to school. Selassie was overthrown in a military coup in 1974. A communist regime came to power, but Churches of Christ were allowed to meet, largely because of their work with the deaf, Abebe says. Seventeen years later, the regime fell.
In the mid-1980s, a drought plunged Ethiopia into despair. The country relies on agriculture, and without rainfall, more than 200,000 people died from starvation.
“I have seen 20 people buried in one hole,” Abebe says. “I don’t want even to think about it.”
U.S. congregations, including the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., responded. Ethiopian churches also contributed what they could. The congregations set a goal of $1 million for Ethiopia.
“We raised $8 million,” Abebe says. The money came from U.S. churches and 28 congregations around the globe.
Church members received an additional $11 million in trucks and supplies from non-governmental organizations.
The donations saved at least 128,000 lives, Abebe says. Small children, so hungry they couldn’t speak, were brought to church-run feeding centers. A week later, they were playing soccer.
The famine drew international attention when Band Aid, a group of British and Irish rock stars, recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984 to raise money for famine relief.
Workers with Band Aid visited the Church of Christ compound and donated a metal warehouse to store the life-sustaining food purchased with donations.
Now the building is the meeting place of the church — and Makanisa’s chapel.
“I don’t care if I die today,” Abebe says as he glances at the chapel full of children, singing songs of praise. “What God has been able to accomplish here is more than I imagined.” RELATED VIDEOS: Ethiopia: Chapel at school for the deaf, Church of Christ compound, Addis Ababa
Ethiopia: Devotional at Church of Christ preacher training school in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia: Behailu Abebe, Churches of Christ and famine relief
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