Iman's Ethiopian Sunrise

Jennifer Abegg

Iman Johnson and her American teammates left the United States on a Saturday in 2002. They arrived in Ethiopia on the following Monday in 1994.

They didn't travel back in time; no nation has ever colonized Ethiopia, so it follows a different calendar than most of the world.

The calendar is not the only difference the Americans encountered when they traveled to the overcast city of Addis Ababa.

Every morning, starting at 5 a.m., a religious leader eerily chanted into a loudspeaker across the street from the National Hotel, where Iman and her teammates stayed. To the sleepy Americans it sounded like wails.

She flew to Ethiopia to participate in one small part of Operation Sunrise Africa, an aggressive, faith-filled strategy to proclaim the gospel to 50 million people in 50 cities in 50 days.

The somewhat shy African American, who spent some of her childhood in Jamaica, is named after the Somalian model Iman. She didn't know much about Operation Sunrise Africa, but decided to invest several weeks of her summer to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to Ethiopians.

"It is my belief that Ethiopia is the gateway to Africa," explains Ramon Mayo, an American who co-leads the project, and is considering moving there permanently. "If Ethiopia experiences a revival, the rest of Africa will follow suit."

Bekele Shanko, director of Cru in southeast Africa, requested that African-American college students come to help proclaim Christ in several African countries: "Some Africans say, 'The white missionaries came. They gave us the Bible, but they took our land.'"

Bekele specifically invited African Americans because, as he explained to them, "When you come, even if you take our land, that land still belongs to you. That's why you are most needed. The Lord is waiting for you to come back and help rebuild the broken walls of Africa."

Iman is one of close to 150 African-American students who accepted Bekele's challenge, raised their own financial support, and flew to Africa to proclaim Christ.

"By sending about 150 African-American students on Operation Sunrise Africa, we're almost doubling in one summer the [current] global total of African-American missionaries," says Bobby Herron, a Cru staff member who coordinates international mission projects, "except ours are short term."

Project leaders divided the students into teams to go to the college campuses. Perhaps because she is a pre-med major, Iman was placed at Black Lion Hospital and Medical School.

On campus, Iman notices two Ethiopian men in white coats with stethoscopes peeking out of their pockets. She initiates a conversation with them. Like a lot of Ethiopians, they speak English, although their native language is Amharic.

She asked them about themselves, but they were curious about the American and her beliefs. She explained that people at Great Commission (the name for Cru in Ethiopia) invited her to spend her summer in their country.

"Ethiopians have good hospitality and are usually curious about guests from other countries," says Damtew Kifelew, national director of the campus ministry for Great Commission. "When it comes to foreigners, they open up and listen to them."

One of the medical students asks Iman, "What do you believe?"

"I believe in Jesus Christ," replies the 19-year-old, whose multiple long braids are tucked into a bun. "What do you believe about Jesus?"

He shrugs; the other, Ashenafi, answers, "He is the son of God," then emphasizes, "one of the sons of God."

During the next 30 minutes, Iman learns that Ashenafi is a Muslim. She sits on the stone ledge next to him. 

"There are 50,000 errors in the Bible," Ashenafi contends.

"Do you know that it's historically and scientifically proven that there are no errors?" Iman asks. She gently disputes his argument, citing the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts of Old Testament books found in Middle Eastern caves about 50 years ago.

"What I mean by errors," Ashenafi says, "is there are many different versions of the Bible."

"Even if there are different versions," Iman replies, "the fact is there's still an original version, and the Bible is truth."

Ashenafi, who, by the very fact that he is studying medicine, ranks in the top 2 percent in Ethiopia academically, declares, "If you can prove it, then I might have room for Christianity."

Iman plans to prove the validity of the Christian faith. But because it costs 1.5 birr -- about 19 U.S. cents per minute -- to use the Internet at her hotel, she started reading More Than a Carpenter, a book by Josh McDowell that supports the case for Christianity. In a subsequent meeting with Ashenafi, she gave him her copy of the book.

"Oh! Thanks," he replied. "I'll read it."

"I think he was shocked that I actually did bring him the book," says Iman. "I don't think he was expecting it or expecting to see me again."

Though Ashenafi didn't invite Christ into his life with Iman, her small team of 12 Americans introduced 31 Ethiopians to Christ during their stay, an average of one a day.

"It's like a new experience every day on campus," says Iman.

In one afternoon, her teammate Fred debated a man who believed he was God, then discussed his faith with a Rastafarian. Later, Fred rebuked a medical student who claimed to know Christ, yet offered Fred some chat, a drug similar to marijuana.

By the time the team piles into the blue-and-white Toyota taxi-van hailed by their Ethiopian host, they are ready to head home to the National Hotel. As usual, they inhale exhaust through the open windows.

The other teams of Americans and Ethiopians fill the hotel lobby, returning from their various campus assignments. Iman drops onto a sofa and socializes while American teammate Thomas Tisdale, Jr. nestles in the corner with a pen and four Bibles. Thomas spent last summer in Ethiopia introducing Ethiopians to Christ, and came back for more.

At a recent outreach at Bihere Tsige Park, Thomas noticed four teenage boys watching from a hill. He and Elias Sied, a slender, dedicated Ethiopian, invited the boys to join in the fun. There in the botanical respite from the crowded city, Thomas and Elias introduced the boys to Christ.

"Sunday I followed up on them," explains Thomas, who just graduated from the University of South Carolina with an engineering degree. "I wanted to make sure they understood their decision, because people say, 'Yes, Lord' and may not know what they are doing."

Thomas and Elias invited the four to the National Hotel. The American conducted a Bible study and clarified any questions they had. They spent three more hours together.

"They were serious about their new commitments to Christ," says Thomas.

Thomas knew he would be returning to the United States soon, and leaves his newly formed Bible study to Elias' leadership. But he's also leaving the new Christians equipped.

He bought each of them a Bible in Amharic, a language that looks more like hieroglyphics than English. Inside, Thomas wrote each boy a note, accompanied by an Amharic translation.

"Foreigners help give Ethiopian believers commitment," says Damtew. "The Ethiopians think, If this guy is coming from America -- if the gospel of Jesus Christ is so important that he came all the way from America to preach it -- why not me?"

Operation Sunrise Africa is not only about proclaiming Christ to the people, but also mobilizing Christians for a three-year follow-up period. But more than just the Ethiopians were motivated.

Iman plans to start an Impact movement at her school. Impact is a Cru ministry geared to African-American college students.

Starting such a ministry may be tough for a shy woman like the Arizona State University sophomore, but as she discovered on Operation Sunrise, God can use her. "It's hard for me to go up and talk to people," Iman says. But she learned the value of taking the initiative to talk with people by faith, even when it was uncomfortable.

"Iman is typical of the African-American students who get involved in Impact, because she comes from a Cru-staffed school, but there is no Impact movement there," says Erica Mickels, Impact staff member who co-leads the project in Ethiopia. "As a result of hearing about Impact, they want to start an Impact movement on their own campus."

That's not all she has ahead of her. Iman's trip to Ethiopia stirred up another calling.

"I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor since I was a young child, but I wasn't sure how I would live that out," says Iman. "I still want to practice medicine, but I want to use medicine as a missionary. I feel like this is what I am called to do."

When Iman left Ethiopia, the sun was rising.

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