RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--At first glance it doesn't look like a cross. Diamond-shaped with a handle, it is obscured beneath decoration and ornate carvings.
Religious leaders carry these crosses as they guide more than 42 million Ethiopians each week in praying, singing and memorizing Scripture. This may not sound that different from many churches in the United States.
But look closer.
Behind the rituals is a religion built on the worship of saints, angels and even demons. Most Ethiopians consider themselves Christians because their religion includes biblical teachings and an understanding of Jesus, except that He is but one of many gods in their mixture of religions. They believe more than a dozen paths lead to heaven.
Their religion is similar to the diamond-shaped cross, says Ed*, an International Mission Board worker who has shared the Gospel among these Ethiopian people for more than a decade.
"They've added so much decoration and embellishment to that the cross is no longer visible," he says.
Haffa*, a local believer, knows how buried the Gospel can become.
He formerly was a holy man who practiced white and black magic to heal and curse. He gave out amulets to ward off evil spirits. He also studied Scripture and prayed to Jesus.
One day a man told Haffa that Christ is the only way to heaven. Haffa learned that his efforts to appease a variety of gods were in vain. He spoke with the man several times before deciding to put his trust solely in Christ. Then he set fire to his books of magic.
With a population of more than 82 million, Ethiopia is less than 1 percent evangelical.
Most people do not understand the rituals and prayers they participate in, says Gabriel*, another local believer. They worship, sing and hear sermons delivered in an ancient language they do not understand. More than 90 percent are illiterate, enabling some religious leaders to manipulate the Gospel. For many Ethiopians, their religious beliefs are simply cultural.
"Having culture is good, but if it's without God, it is pointless," Gabriel says.
But today many Ethiopians are becoming more receptive to God's truth -- with limitations.
Ed and his wife Renee* have found that most of their people group are open to talking about spiritual matters. They are resistant, however, to outside influences that attempt to pull them away from their own beliefs.
Renee remembers a man years ago asking her why she and her husband had come to the country. She told him she was there to tell others about Jesus.
"If they think you are there to change their religion, they'll shut down on you in a heartbeat," Renee said. " 'Why in the world would some foreigner think they could come to Ethiopia to teach anybody about Jesus?'"
These days Renee and Ed apply a careful approach they call "alongside evangelism."
"We say, 'Oh, you're a Christian, too?'" she says. "'How do you express your faith?'"
In time, the couple share more and more about Jesus Christ and how He has impacted their lives.
"We just continually point to the cross," Ed says.
Eventually, lives are transformed.
"You'll have them come to you with a list of all the names of their family members, and they'll say ... 'I want you praying about these people,'" Renee says.
Turning from the ways of their old religion, however, often leads to persecution.
"Suppose you get hurt, and it's harvest time, and your family members -- the people in your community -- have isolated you and labeled you a heretic?
"What are you going to do?" Renee asks. "That means your kids starve. There are real life-and-death situations that people have to decide about."
Despite pressures not to believe, the truth through the story of Jesus is right in front of their eyes, Renee says.
"The story is from one of their own holy books -- the Bible."
*Names changed. Reported by International Mission Board staff.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net