The Reformed Church in America's work in Ethiopia began in 1964 when RCA missionaries were ordered to evacuate Sudan because of political instability and fighting. Because some of the projects were with people groups that straddled the Ethiopian/Sudanese border, some of the evacuated missionaries were able to continue their ministries in Ethiopia.
Like Sudan, Ethiopia has ancient ties to Christianity through Coptic Orthodoxy. It is estimated that 60 percent of the people are Christian and that 80 percent of these are Orthodox. Ethiopia has a sizable Muslim population and a number of adherents to local religions. After the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, a military government with a Marxist orientation ruled the country and placed restrictions on the activities of churches. Though the country is resource-rich in many ways, poverty is endemic. Ethiopia is ranked the fifth poorest country in the world by the United Nations.
The RCA's traditional church partner in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, is one of the largest denominations in Ethiopia and has strong Lutheran and Presbyterian roots. In 1977, political upheaval in Ethiopia forced most RCA missionaries to leave their ministries with Mekane Yesus, but some were allowed to continue serving (in very difficult circumstances) in Western Synod, where all but two churches were closed and many pastors were imprisoned by the Marxist government. Nevertheless, when the communist regime fell, it was found that the church had grown tremendously during the years of oppression. The church is very evangelistically oriented and has recently seen a great number of Muslims coming to faith in Christ. RCA missionaries and volunteers have served Mekane Yesus in the areas of health and education in an underserved area of the country where the government has failed to provide social services. Recently, RCA missionaries have helped develop a program in Christian-Muslim relations at Mekane Yesus Theological Seminary.
In 1996, the RCA began a new relationship with Kale Hiwot National Church of Ethiopia among the Daasanech people in southwest Ethiopia. Kale Hiwot is the largest Protestant church in Ethiopia and was established by the SIM mission agency. The RCA had been working with the Daasanech people (then called the Geleb) before 1977, the year the communist government forced missionaries to evacuate the Omo River region. The church was in its infant stages at that time, so when the opportunity presented itself 20 years later to again become involved in the area, the RCA welcomed the chance to restart this work. The project is now focused on windmill irrigation and church planting. Kale Hiwot is supplying the evangelists and RCA the technical expertise. The Daasanech people have welcomed this project, which addresses their urgent need for food and security, and they have shown an interest in the gospel.