Arkansas corporate executive Haileyesus Abate cries, he says, for the people of his native Ethiopia, a majority Christian nation where numerous primitive tribes still worship nature as deities and have never heard the Gospel.
Typical is the nomadic, animistic Mursi Tribe in southwestern Ethiopia, whose men don’t wear clothing. Instead, they use clay and natural pigments to paint intricate, colorful patterns on their bodies to attract a bride, who likely will have had a hole punched just below her lip before puberty; the hole is stretched by the insertion of progressively larger, round, flat, decorated wooden plates. The larger her plate, the larger dowry the groom’s family pays in negotiating a union, according to custom.
Mursi and other tribes are vulnerable to Muslims working to build mosques in their villages and who convert them to Islam, Haileyesus noted, sharing with Baptist Press a vision and urgency to see 50,000 evangelistic Christian churches planted among the tribes.
“I actually weep about that,” he told BP. “We are not from the same tribe, but just God put a burden on me to make a difference for them.”
That is why he arranged for his pastor, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Ronnie Floyd, to visit Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and meet with top political and Christian leaders.
“I was able to lift up the Word of God,” Floyd said. “The Lord gave us an open door. Our ultimate purpose was to get the Gospel there.”
Ethiopian leaders seemed interested in the tide against religious freedom in the U.S., new laws protecting gay marriage here, and religious persecution worldwide.
“I was able to talk to them about holding tight to the line of the biblical Christian worldview,” Floyd told BP. “Also, we talked about matters relating to the religious persecution that goes on in the world. I was able to talk to them about religious freedom throughout the world, the evil that’s existed in our day relating to all of that, and to really just encourage them to stand strong for the cause of religious liberty.”
While there, Floyd viewed the annual Epiphany celebration held by Orthodox Christians to mark Christ’s baptism, and met with International Mission Board workers already helping spread the Gospel in Ethiopia and throughout the Horn of Africa. He discussed with IMB workers Haileyesus’ plan to spread the Gospel even further by recruiting Southern Baptist congregations to plant churches within unengaged, unreached tribal groups.
“They were stunned that I was able to meet with the president of Ethiopia and the speaker of the House [Abadulla Gemeda],” Floyd said of the IMB workers, “because in Ethiopia the speaker of the House is the most powerful man in government.”
Upon his return to Arkansas, Floyd told his church how impressed he was to see Cooperative Program dollars –- that help support SBC ministry and missions — at work.
“And I wanted to thank them for the privilege of what they’ve given through the Cooperative Program, what we as a church do through giving to the Cooperative Program, that I saw it with my own eyes,” Floyd said. “We are taking the Gospel to an unreached country in this world … and we have people on the ground and they are seeing life change occur.”
But Floyd’s visit was only the first step in Haileyesus’ plan to spread the Gospel further within Ethiopia by planting churches within tribal groups. Doug Sarver, Cross Church’s minister of global missions, is working with Haileyesus to recruit Southern Baptist churches to partner with Cross Church to take the Gospel to unengaged, unreached tribes in Ethiopia, and train tribal members as Baptist pastors and teachers.
Sarver noted he is impressed by Haileyesus’ initiative in arranging for Floyd to visit the country, recalling the meeting Haileyesus requested with Floyd to discuss his inspiration for church planting there.
“And out of that vision flowed, ‘Pastor, will you come to Ethiopia. I will arrange for your meetings with these dignitaries,” Sarver said of Haileyesus, pointing out the unique opportunity Haileyesus provided.
“Because Haileyesus is Ethiopian, and because his childhood friends are the prime minister, the president, the ambassadors, the ministers, he has been able to be used by God as just, what we would call, the person of peace, to open up doors of opportunity for us to get in front of the people at the top and not the bottom.”
Ethiopian leaders welcomed Floyd and embraced Haileyesus’ evangelistic vision, Sarver said.
“So now we have favor in that nation from the top level leadership.”
Floyd’s five-member delegation also met with leaders of Ethiopian Airlines, a company that routinely brings humanitarian supplies back to Ethiopia when transporting newly purchased Boeing 777s to Ethiopia from Seattle, Wash. More than 820,000 refugees and asylum seekers are camped in Ethiopia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Think what kind of impact [Southern Baptist churches] could have if we rallied around and said there are 800,000 refugees, Muslims, inside of Ethiopia,” Sarver said. “The president, the speaker of the house, the minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense, have all said we want your help. The airline says we’ll pack out a Boeing 777 with humanitarian supplies from Seattle and ship it over here to Addis Ababa free. Now we just have to use it as a platform for ministry to help people, and to plant 50,000 churches.”
Haileyesus, from the same village and tribe as Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said now is the perfect time to take the Gospel to Ethiopia.
“For the first time in 3,000 years, it is the first time an evangelical, a Protestant person is the ruler of the country,” Haileyesus said. “This is the best opportunity to get [the Gospel] there. It is up to us to use this opportunity as quickly as possible.”
Haileyesus began attending the Pinnacle Hills campus of Cross Church in 2008 when he moved to Arkansas from Pennsylvania as a global program leader for a major corporation. He had grown up a Protestant Christian in Ethiopia, and as a top academic student, had been privileged to attend The Bible Academy of Ethiopia, a selective, private boarding school run by American missionaries. Many who attended the academy, now closed, are either top executives or leaders in Ethiopia. Haileyesus also attended Addis Ababa University before continuing his education in America 26 years ago.
He was in the same high school class as Ethiopian Ambassador to the U.S. Girma Birru, a longtime friend, and secured Floyd’s invitation to Ethiopia through the ambassador.
Haileyesus explained his burden to help unengaged, unreached people groups in Ethiopia, including more than 10 tribal groups.
He began thinking beyond his own capabilities, he told BP, and considered what God could do through him, especially as a connection point between the leaders of Ethiopia and the leaders of Cross Church.
“God blessed me a lot. I can say I’m blessed more than I can think of,” Haileyesus said. “I see that I can be a connection point, for the leaders in Ethiopia and the leaders in this church. God placed me in the middle, and this vision came because I know both sides.”
Ethiopia covered air travel to the country for Floyd’s delegation Jan. 17-20, but the delegation covered their other expenses themselves. Haileyesus, Sarver and two others stayed for a time after Floyd returned to Arkansas, and took a 16-hour drive to visit the Mursi tribe.
Seeing the Mursi left Haileyesus speechless with tears, he said.
“I have no words other than crying. Words cannot put any description of my feelings,” he told BP. “I am not in a good mood when thinking about them. I still feel it’s my failure not having a church there. So I just pray that we can do something as quickly as possible.”
Those interested in partnering with Cross Church to plant churches in Ethiopia may contact Sarver at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Haileyesus at email@example.com.
“I need churches from here, especially Southern Baptist churches, to partner with me, take one village at a time, train those individuals … and then build a small church — it’s not very expensive — and just grow and reach out to all,” Haileyesus said. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”