the shape of leadership

What About Jesus?

A conversation with Hanfere Aligaz

In 1982, Hanfere Aligaz arrived in the U.S. with his wife, Yeti, and three children, $140 in cash, and a calling from God. Today, he leads a vibrant Assemblies of God congregation of 3,000 in Washington, D.C.

Aligaz also serves as president and general presbyter of the Ethiopian Ethnic Fellowship of the Assemblies of God, one of 24 ethnic fellowships representing nearly 2,000 churches in the AG.

The 7,236-mile journey from Aligaz’s native Ethiopia started with a simple question: What about Jesus?

Growing up with a Muslim mother and Orthodox Christian father, Aligaz didn’t know what to believe. Immediately after reciting the Islamic conversion prayer as a young man, he heard a voice ask, “What about Jesus?”

This question continued to echo in his heart. Though Aligaz had wealth and a successful career as an airline pilot, he wrestled with a growing sense of emptiness.

One night, Aligaz looked up at the African sky and proclaimed, “I know there is a power who created the moon and stars, but I don’t know who He is. If You will show yourself to me, I will follow and serve You. I will have no religion until You reveal yourself to me.”

Several years passed before Aligaz heard a simple gospel presentation from a friend. The message resonated deeply, and he accepted Christ as Savior.

“I knew I was changed,” Aligaz says. “All my questions were answered. I heard God say, ‘This is what you’ve been looking for.’”

Not long after becoming a Christian, Aligaz was in the cockpit during a flight when he heard the voice of the Lord again — this time, telling him to go to America’s capital city and start a church.

Washington, D.C., has the largest population of Ethiopian-born immigrants in the U.S., with more than 30,000 living in the metropolitan area. Many work as taxi and Uber drivers. Others own businesses, such as restaurants and grocery stores.

Aligaz and his family defected to the U.S. from their then-communist nation. They left behind their careers, a bakery business, their new home, their possessions, their bank accounts, and their friends.

I heard God say, ‘This is what you’ve been looking for.’”
— Hanfere Aligaz

Aligaz landed a job as part of the night crew at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C. During the day, he worked to launch his fledgling church for Ethiopian natives. Starting with five members meeting in a studio apartment, the congregation quickly grew to 50 and moved into the chapel of another local church.

When attendance swelled to 300, Aligaz knew International Ethiopian Evangelical Church needed a permanent location with room to grow. He had his eye on a former synagogue that seated 1,300, but the $2.5 million price tag was out of range.

During their regular all-night Friday prayer service, the congregation sought God for a miracle, asking Him to reduce the price by $1 million and provide the funds to purchase it.

A year later, the price dropped to $1.5 million, but the congregation had only managed to save $50,000. Aligaz sensed the Lord prompting him to sell the car he had paid off two months earlier and give the money to the building fund. Though it was the only vehicle his family had, he obeyed God’s prompting.

This act of faith inspired others to give sacrificially. Women offered their gold jewelry. Children brought in money they had been saving for college. In one night, the church collected $217,000 in offerings and pledges — enough to make a down payment and secure a bank loan.

The church now offers two services in Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) with English translations, drawing a weekly attendance of 3,000. About 99% of the congregants are Ethiopian and Eritrean, and most come from a Muslim or Orthodox Christian background.

Plans are in the works to build a new facility in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, with a sanctuary that will seat 7,000. The church has also planted eight other campuses in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and New York. Aligaz’s son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Christina Hanfere, lead one of those plants, Overflow City Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Everyone is involved in evangelism,” Aligaz says. “But we still have a lot to do.”

The church has a program that offers free legal advice on immigration issues. Another ministry helps people with health problems navigate the medical system.

“They come for those reasons, and then they hear the gospel,” Aligaz says.

Aligaz is always looking for ways to confront people with the question that changed his life: What about Jesus?

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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