From Bible Thief to Evangelist

By Jennifer Abegg
bible-thief-to-evangelist-gg-465x280.jpg Photo by Guy Gerrard

It took beating somebody up for Damtew Kifelew to become a Christian.

The Ethiopian native grew up in a religion based on works to earn God's favor and merit. Included in his family are the top religious figures in the country. But as a boy, Damtew never knew Jesus personally.

His parents thought he was a "good boy" because he studied hard in school and earned high grades. What they didn't know was that their smart, religious son was actually a member of a gang.

One day, Damtew, who is now Campus Crusade for Christ's national campus ministry coordinator in Ethiopia, was walking down the street with some of his tough gang friends, when a man toting a Gideon Bible approached him.

The man, a Christian, began telling the gangster about Jesus. Damtew acted like he was paying attention, nodding and responding appropriately.

"He thought I was listening," Damtew recounts, "but actually I was thinking of where to hit him so that he would fall in a funny way and make my friends laugh."

The Christian continued to tell the young man about Jesus and the Bible.

After a few minutes, Damtew hauled off and punched the stranger, who dropped his Bible as he fell to the ground. Damtew picked the book up and tossed it into his bag.

He forgot all about it. Then about a year later, the teenager found out that the Ethiopian government was looking for him.

"The government wanted to kill me because I was in a gang," he explains. "I remember thinking, one day I will die, and what will happen after that?"

As he was contemplating that question, he discovered the small Gideon Bible that he had stolen the year before. Damtew began reading it. He was so intrigued by Jesus that he committed his life to following Him.

At that point, Damtew felt compelled to leave his gang. He couldn't follow the Prince of Peace and perform violent, hateful acts.

"When I separated from the gang," says Damtew, "they started persecuting me because they thought that I was going to expose their secrets to the government."

His family persecuted him too, but not for leaving the gang. When his parents learned that he had become a Christian, they disowned him, and refused to give him money even for shoes.

So he wore a pair of shoes with worn-away soles. When it rained, which was often, his feet got soaking wet. Other Christians began helping him, and God provided for all his needs, even for him to go to college.

"I found Damtew as a fresh university graduate," says Bekele Shanko, Campus Crusade's director of Southern and Eastern Africa.

"I did not hesitate to challenge him to join Campus Crusade, for I saw in him a great potential to serve the world. That is exactly what he has been doing since he joined in 1999."

Since about 25 percent of the Ethiopians who accept Jesus as their Savior are completely ostracized by their families, Damtew and his wife, Tracie, now round up clothes and money to assist them.

"Damtew is very committed, creative and bold," says Bekele. "I have great respect and appreciation for him."

Damtew appreciates the stranger who told him about Christ in the first place. They have never seen each other since Damtew hit him, and even if they did see each other, they might not recognize one another. "But I will see him in heaven," Damtew says, "and when I do, I want to thank him."