An Addis Ababa City soccer player heads the ball during a practice match.

Coops and Cleats: How One Chicken Farmer Blends Faith and Soccer


The crowd is captivated by what’s unfolding on the field in front of them at a soccer tournament in Adama, Ethiopia. A player in the middle of the field flights a ball upfield to a player who nimbly adjusts his body to knock the ball down with his chest. Then, the forward chips the ball past the opponents’ goalie, adding a point for his team.

A young Ethiopian watching this moment could be surprised to discover that local churches are behind the teams playing in this tournament. In the city of Adama, 20 churches support soccer teams.

The chicken farmer

Amaha Demssia, a chicken farmer, organizes the soccer tournaments in Adama. He owns more than 1,000 chickens and, alongside two employees, delivers about 800 eggs a day to local stores. Although his is a full-time job, his family of five still struggles to make ends meet. While this remains a challenge, Amaha feels purpose beyond his job.

Even though he grew up Eastern Orthodox, Amaha hadn’t made a connection between Jesus and a personal relationship with God. But 20 years ago, through an Ethiopian Christian song, Amaha trusted Christ.

Today he knows first hand what can happen when the gospel and culture come together, specifically through athletics. As an avid gymnast and soccer player, Amaha develops relationships with church leaders across the city of Adama, a transportation hub located near Central Ethiopia. Today, thanks in part to Amaha’s leadership, 20 churches in Adama sponsor a team with coaches and chaplains. Five of the teams meet regularly for Bible study.

Along with the regular games, each year Amaha organizes the church teams into a 38-game tournament, welcoming an average of 300 fans per game. There, church volunteers seek to share the gospel among the fans and players. A pastor opens each match with a prayer in front of the crowd, and church members socialize with the fans, beginning spiritual conversations and handing out evangelistic materials.

Amaha Demssia, a chicken farmer and soccer chaplain, proudly holds one of his many chickens. He delivers about 800 eggs a day while finding time to recruit, disciple and train Athletes in Action® chaplains in the city of Adama.

Amaha, feeding young chickens, also employs and mentors other chicken farmers in Adama.

Amaha and employees Bizuye (left) and Sada (right) sort and prepare eggs for delivery.

Laptop in hand, Amaha (right) speaks with two church leaders on their way to a meeting about how churches can sponsor teams and reach youth with the gospel through sport. Fellow AIA volunteer Tewodros Adugna (far left) not only volunteers with AIA, but also leads a ministry to widows and the elderly.

Bizuye, who works for Amaha, makes injera, Ethiopia’s famous flatbread.

Bizuye and Sada, two of Amaha’s employees, live near his farm with their children.

Discipleship that leads to action

An hour away from Adama, Amaha meets twice a week with Tsegaye Mamo, the Ethiopian director for Athletes in Action®. Tsegaye mentors Amaha through the ups and downs of sports ministry and talks with him about Amaha’s walk with Christ. Tsegaye trains Amaha how to approach churches, cast a vision of sports outreach, and begin and maintain Bible studies.

AIA, Cru®’s sports ministry, serves in more than 60 countries, on over 200 college campuses and in 40 professional sports teams. Ultimately, AIA desires to see Christ-followers on every team, in every sport, in every nation. That vision is catching on in Ethiopia.

And while Amaha concentrates on chicken farming and church partnership, Tsegaye — Ethiopia’s only AIA staff member — teaches chaplains to lead life skills classes for their teams of professional, amateur and youth athletes. These classes lead naturally into Bible studies and wed chaplains’ passion for sport with their passion for Christ.

AIA plans for sports chaplaincy to spread across Ethiopia and grow into a ministry model for other African nations. But this goal is not without its challenges. For Amaha, finances are tight and time is limited. And for Tsegaye, gaining credibility with professional teams proves no easy task.

So Amaha focuses his precious time on developing church leaders, and for the past two years, Tsegaye has offered a two-week soccer camp for chaplains and coaches.

Amaha (left) helps a goalkeeper train.

Eyrusalem Negash, known as Coach Jerri, played professionally and with the Ethiopian Women’s National Team. Today she is a coach and AIA chaplain to Addis Ababa’s professional team, Club Electric.

AIA staff member Tim Pitcher (standing, in dark blue shirt) and volunteer Solomon Alemu host training for the next generation of AIA chaplains. During the weeklong chaplaincy camp, Tim teaches attendees how to provide character-based courses that lead naturally into Bible studies.

Ethiopian AIA staff member Tsegaye Mamo (right) chats with Meseret Weldemariam, one of Addis Ababa City’s coaches and chaplains. Meseret came to Christ through AIA’s coaches clinic. Tsegaye has raised up approximately 60 AIA volunteers and chaplains.

Coach Meseret Weldemariam (center) and two of his teammates at Addis Ababa City Football Club prepare for a practice session. In 2017, he attended a chaplaincy program, which sparked his curiosity on spiritual matters. Two months later, an AIA volunteer led him to Christ. Today he serves as both chaplain and coach to his team.

A growing influence

Tsegaye dedicates a weekend to volunteer chaplaincy training with AIA volunteers. Current chaplains that Tsegaye has mentored teach local Christian leaders from around Ethiopia. These leaders learn how to begin and run chaplaincies among their professional and local clubs. In his first year of hosting the training, Tsegaye met Amaha.

Today, after a morning talk, given by a chaplain, coaches laugh and chatter as they gather in a circle, juggling a ball and getting the blood flowing into their skillful feet.

Throughout the remainder of the week, coaches come from all over Ethiopia for skills clinics. In conjunction with the soccer federation, the clinics are hosted by AIA coaches from abroad, whose expertise and training appeal to many Ethiopian coaches.

This professional coaching helps open the door with Ethiopian sports federations, causing the federations to look favorably on AIA chaplaincy and character-based training. While the coaches grow in knowledge, chaplains offer talks that run the coaches through samples of life-coaching courses they can provide to their teams.

Roughly 270 million people around the world actively play football (or soccer, as it’s known in the United States). Because of soccer’s popularity in Ethiopia, the country has a professional women’s league along with the men’s league.

One of Coach Jerri’s players goes airborne during strength and agility training.

United States pro soccer player Tyler Gibson (center) leads professional coaches through warm up before his clinic with Ethiopia’s Adey Abeba National Stadium in the background. The stadium is expected to seat 60,000 people and will host the country’s national soccer team.

Sisay Ermias, a volunteer chaplain, takes advantage of a break in the action to provide an AIA character-based lesson to his youth team. He’s one of 60 chaplains trained by AIA’s director in Ethiopia, Tsegaye Mamo.

Coach Efrem, a chaplain, runs players through drills. Although soccer is easy to play, it’s difficult to master what Amaha Demssia calls “the beautiful game.”

Two young Ethiopians demonstrate juggling a soccer ball, the act of keeping the ball from touching the ground without using their hands. Because only goalkeepers can touch the ball with their hands, coaches encourage the activity.

Tyler chats with Ethiopian coaches during the weeklong AIA soccer clinic.

Tyler (left) demonstrates “the plank” for Ethiopian coaches during AIA’s soccer clinic.

AIA pro soccer chaplain Danillo Felix (left) and Tyler Gibson (right) run through drills with the Ethiopian coaches.

Tim Pitcher, an AIA staff member with professional soccer, sees this strategy — training local volunteers in sports chaplaincy, while also exposing coaches to the role of a chaplain and their importance for teams — as the way forward worldwide. “[The camps] are working really well in opening doors in these countries with the federations and teams,” Tim says. “If I just went there, I could do some stuff. But now that I bring in these [professional] athletes, I have 50 coaches and the federation officials coming to us.”

The children flock to the soccer clinic as well, not only excited to play soccer, but also to play with the pros that Tim has gathered. The week of chaplaincy training equips Christian volunteers to replicate what Amaha is doing, reaching Ethiopia’s youth through vibrant sport and church partnerships.

“I got training from Tsegaye and Athletes in Action on how to teach sportsmanship,” says Amaha, “how to support athletes psychologically and spiritually, how to organize clubs and show how Christianity meets competition. I then went back to Adama and taught that to volunteers from the churches.”

Seeing Christ through soccer, Amaha says, enriches and restores what he calls “the beautiful game.”

Youth from the area participate in the soccer clinics.

A youth team, coached by a local AIA chaplain, showcases their new uniforms, joining AIA volunteer coaches, a referee and chaplains (both from Ethiopia and abroad).

Youth players warm up as the sun sets over Addis Ababa.

Reach out

How have you seen athletics bring people into a relationship with Jesus?

Share your story
Philip Long
Words by

Philip Long

Philip is a soccer coach, freelance writer, and illustrator. He earned a master’s degree in Christian studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Philip balances family life along with bike riding, drawing and whittling toy cars.

Contact Me
Ted Wilcox
Photos by

Ted Wilcox

Ted loves zigzagging the globe, capturing photos and stories of what God is doing. Originally from California, he serves as a missionary photojournalist with Cru® in Orlando, Florida. Ted also ministers to international scholars who come to Orlando to study.

Contact Me


Read more from the May 2019 issue


What Happens When the Honeymoon Is Over?

A couple discovered their failing marriage would require something greater than themselves to help them stay together.

May 2019

Get email updates

Subscribe now to receive Cru Storylines™ in your inbox.

Subscribe now