In Ethiopia, you don’t wear shoes in church. Period.
You take them off just outside the building. Why? I haven’t had that actual discussion yet, but I assume it is part of the package of Old Testament regulations Ethiopians still practice, which includes eating no shellfish and pork.
The Israelites took off their shoes for the same reason they didn’t eat animals “with the pads on their feet.” They would eat cows and goats and other hoofed creatures, because the “dust of the ground” which had been cursed by God in Genesis 3 didn’t come in to direct contact with those animals. They were separated from the cursed ground by their hooves.
Similarly, when entering a church or temple, none of that cursed dirt from shoes should touch “holy ground.” (Remember, Moses also took off his shoes when God told him in the burning bush he was walking on holy ground.) So Ethiopians take off their shoes.
Now this is counter-intuitive for Americans, who are way more concerned about stinky feet than getting their sacred rituals correct. Well, I’ve never smelled anything, but in fact, I do have one good friend who visited Ethiopia and his experience with the church was blocked by “foot odor.”
Ethiopians also circumcise and have replicas of the Ark of the Covenant in every church. These ancient Africans—and with plausible evidence—hold that they have been observing the Covenant with Abraham and Moses for centuries before Christ was born, going initially back to the union of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8 brought back the gospel, and the church continued to grow until the entire country converted by A.D. 300. For Ethiopia, Christ’s words “fulfilled” the law, just as we see Jewish converts in the bible continue with circumcision and certain practices in the law. This phased out with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but in Ethiopia, a land far away, that event didn’t cause us much fuss. And perhaps we see in Ethiopia what Israel may have looked like had they not as a majority rejected Christ’s fulfillment of the law.
Make no mistake: Ethiopian Christians fully embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way. Old Testament cultural observances are a minor part of the script. The Ark is not worshipped there. They fully emphasize the true Ark as Mary, the mother of our Lord. Jesus Christ is worshipped.
So, yes, I always took off my shoes during my last trip before entering a church. I did this primarily in the historic North, the ancient Christian area of Ethiopia, kind of like the bible belt spiritually friendly area of the U.S.. When I returned to the major city, Addis Ababa, I left my shoes outside as usual, and came back an hour later to find they were stolen.
I was irritated, but the Ethiopians all around me were downright furious and humiliated. I guess they can’t control what one bad apple does in the big city. They do provide plastic bags outside the church to put your shoes in and carry with you inside. I should have done that in the big city, and probably will next week.
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