Ethiopia Vignette #3:
Evangelist Olka, Ode to Faithfulness
Recently people came from all over southern Ethiopia to honor a true warrior for the Gospel. At his funeral service, testimony was given of his faithfulness to the Lord he served. This little vignette is my attempt to do the same, to glorify the God who redeems our lives from destruction and who places within our hearts a love for the Gospel.
On March 24, 2012, a man named Olka Ogiyad passed from Burji into Heaven. I'm guessing he was in his mid-late 80s. Jesus called him to Heaven as he was reading his Bible. He had just returned from trekking in Guji-Land, telling the Gospel everywhere he went. Just a couple weeks before, God had given him a vision. "400 Gujis will come to Christ this year," he told Oshe Burje, a church leader in Burji. The story of Olka is the story of God's redemptive power and the response to that redemption of faithful service.
In about 1955, as a young man, Olka was sitting at the door of his hut when approached with the Gospel. His life was full of mischief. He was known throughout the area as a wild man, full of fighting, thievery, etc. He told me himself that he was full of sin. He said, "I used to catch rats, and tie a handful of straw to their tails. I would light the straw with fire, and set the rats loose on my neighbor's homes. The rats would go up to the thatch roofs, and the homes would burn down. But when God came to me, I suddenly changed all my behavior."
As he sat in that doorway, two strangers walked down the road towards him. One was a white man, Alex Fellows of the Sudan Interior Mission. (Alex passed into Heaven just one week before Olka.) The other was an Ethiopian from another district, sent by the Woyletta church as an evangelist. These two men approached Olka and told him the Gospel. Immediately the heart of Olka knew and accepted the Truth spoken to him. He embraced Jesus Christ as his Savior, and his life was never the same.
(picture: old church school)
He studied at the Bible School for 2 years; he was one of the first students at the Burji mission station called Gembo. He knew my father. My father was in charge of the academic school at Gembo. Students who completed the first 3 years were sent to start "church-schools" in their home villages; these 3rd-grade graduates were to become teachers of 1st and 2nd grade in their village churches. My father would take treks, gone for weeks, as he checked on the church-schools. Olka remembered my father on these treks. One day he drew me a map of the villages that my father would visit.
From the beginning, God planted in Olka a love for His Word and a desire to tell anyone and everyone of the Gospel. He was a happy, energetic man. The Gospel empowered him with supernatural strength. Everywhere he went, his Bible was with him, and it was a common sight to see him reading it. It was amazing to me how he could read the tiny print without glasses!
And he took every opportunity to preach the Word. In these past years, I've watched Olka. At times he got very short of breath. There was no doubt in my mind that he probably had congestive heart failure. But that didn't stop him from preaching. In Burji, there is high regard for the elderly. Olka didn't need an invitation to speak. He just stood up, and everyone fell silent to give him respect and to listen to his words of wisdom. It was a beautiful thing to watch! There were times when he was so weak that he was held on either side by men, so that he could stand. But his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus Christ gave him a strength that was beyond description. I think of Olka when I read 2 Corinthians 4:16 and Galatians 6:7-10...
Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.
In March, 2010, God gave me some special one-on-one time with Evangelist Olka. This was our first trip back after my cancer diagnosis. The future, humanly speaking, did not look promising for recovery. The people of Burji were burdened for me, and we needed to see each other. Olka walked from his village in Amaro to Soyama Town in Burji to meet me. He arrived in Soyama and waited 8 days for me to come. As I got out of the vehicle, there he was, in the midst of all the people who were singing their welcome. It was late afternoon/early evening when we arrived. The next morning, Olka came to my room with Oshe.
"Do you know what her name is?" he asked Oshe, referring to me.
"Yes, I know. " Oshe replied, wondering if Olka was getting forgetful.
"Her name is Deborah," Olka announced. At first I thought in English about the similarity between "Becky" and "Debbie," and I thought he was confused.
Oshe started to correct him, but Olka interrupted. Sitting on the only chair in my room, he had his Bible open to the book of Judges, chapters 4-5. "You are the Deborah of Burji," he announced authoritatively.
I was amazed at his words. I did not feel that I was a Deborah. I was a woman who was dealing with cancer surgery, radiation and chemo therapy....and in the midst of all of this was continuing, by the grace of God, to do His eternal work. But somehow God had used me to be an encouragement to this old warrior of the Faith. And because of my presence in Burji, his heart had been restored for the Work. How I praise God for that little role in the life of Olka.
Olka went with us from village to village that March. And I will never forget being in the church of Nedele. This village sits in what I call the Burji Valley. It is at the border of the Burji and Amaro tribes. It was very near to Olka's home in Amaro. The church had gathered in the front yard, and had set up a table for me to sit at. Olka sat beside me on the wooden bench. We were elevated above the people on an earthen platform. I spoke to the people.
God does not change. His character is the same throughout all eternity. Even when our life situation changes He remains the same. He is just as Loving now as He was before my cancer. He is just as Sovereign and Powerful now as He was before my cancer. He is just as Just and Righteous now as He was before my cancer. He is worthy of our trust. He is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our faithful service.
My request of you is this: pray that I will be His faithful servant until the end of my life. I am not praying for healing. The world is full of people who are alive. For a person to breath, to eat, to walk is nothing. But for a person to be a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus, that is rare. So pray with me that God will keep me working diligently for Him, as a faithful testimony of His power and goodness, for all the days of my life.
After my word of testimony, the church elders came to pray over me. Sitting beside me, Olka pushed my head down upon the table for the prayer time. The chemo had destroyed my hair; my wig shifted under his hand. The table was hard, the prayer was long, and my neck cried to be straightened. But every time I shifted my neck or attempted to sit up, Olka pushed me down again. It was a precious moment between us. I don't know the meaning of my head being down; for some reason, it was important to him. Finally I yielded to his hand, and asked the Lord to help my body cope with the position. Eventually the long prayers (which I could not understand in their language) ended, and my body straightened. Olka was happy and I was recovered. And life went on, blessed by this special time together.
Today Alex and Olka are enjoying unfettered fellowship. No sin divides them. No language barrier exists between them. Culture is completely understood. And above all, the Savior they served so faithfully is sitting with them. I can hear His voice to them: "Well done, my good and faithful servants." May the Lord say that to me when He removes me to Heaven!
As I consider the motivation of these servants, three things come to my mind.
1. The reality of their salvation. They had a keen sense of their unworthiness before God, and the glory of the Gospel upon them. How could they do anything other than serve the One who had saved them so gloriously!
2. The reality of eternity without the Savior. They knew that those dying without the Savior were doomed to an eternity of horror. Life was a race against Death, a serious pushing forward to promote the Gospel in the lives of those without Christ. I will never forget Alex telling me in 2004, "Don't forget the masses." He was referencing the masses of Ethiopians who were living far from civilization, stranded in their primitive settings, away from knowledge of the Gospel.
3. The reality of eternal reward. For themselves, they knew beyond doubt that whatever is to be gained for eternity must be gained this side of Heaven. They joyfully and willingly yielded all expectation of earthly comfort and gain for the reward to come. They knew that sacrifice for the Gospel was really no sacrifice at all...it was just a down-payment on a great investment.
What a privilege it has been to serve alongside these faithful servants. To have known and worked beside Evangelist Olka is truly one of God's greatest blessings to me! And his name goes beside those in Hebrews 11...he has become one of the crowd of witnesses who proclaims "Follow the Savior! Be faithful to Him! Serve Him, trust Him, rejoice in Him!"
May the Lord make me faithful like Olka!
March 29, 2012