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“In my mind, it’s always two things,” explains Abba (“Father” in the Amharic language of the country) Groum about the mission of the chaplaincy he founded a decade ago. “First, we want our kids to know that to be a university student in the context of one of the poorest Third World countries is a privilege. We tell them, `Many have contributed to your coming here, so make the best use out of it and give service back to them.’ And second, it’s a point of reference and identity. Out of that, having the same faith, we can reflect on the same principles, reflect on everyday life at a personal, local community, national and international level. So we aim for that, and we remind them that the best way to be a good apostle is to be a good student.”

One Tuesday night, echoes from a booming loudspeaker at St. Mark’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church — located on the edge of the main campus of Addis Ababa University — could be heard for blocks. Visible through the gate, about a thousand students gather in the open-air courtyard around a preacher who is delivering a fever-pitched sermon using a microphone. To his right sit hundreds of young women dressed in traditional white sashes, listening with rapt attention. To his left, hundreds of young men hang on his every word.

“Spirituality has to be practiced! It’s not just knowledge-based!” exhorts the preacher. “Be wary of superficiality! Don’t just accept what society offers you!”

The students listening to the sermon belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox student association Mahibere Kidusan, or “Fellowship of Saints,” which holds weekly meetings such as this one. Organized under the Sunday School Department of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mahibere Kidusan has chapters in some 20 universities across Ethiopia as well as in other African countries, in Europe and in the United States. Some 80,000 Ethiopian Orthodox students are currently enrolled in its three-year church education program, which runs parallel to the university’s academic curriculum.

The size and global reach of its deeply committed membership are all the more impressive since Mahibere Kidusan obtained its official license only 18 years ago. Almost a testament to its prominence, a nearly finished seven-story building close to campus will house its headquarters.

Among the devoted members is 19-year-old Dadhita Gadissa. A third-year student of the Oromo language, she says she looks forward to her weekly Mahibere Kidusan meeting.

“As freshers [freshman] from the country, we didn’t feel at home here at the university,” says Ms. Dadhita, casting a glance at her good friend standing next to her, Aynafew Dadhi. “But Mahibere Kidusan helped us get acquainted, make friends, feel welcome. Everything was new for us. Mahibere Kidusan helped teach us how to behave and shape our moral behavior.”

Ms. Aynafew adds, “It’s given us a chance to know more about God and what his will is for us.”

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