09/21/2011 05:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

The Development Bible: A Newer Testament

If you were to describe the church in the most general sense, you might paint a less than flattering picture (perhaps damning ironic extravagance or classical corruption or sexual misconduct). But one church in East Africa is shifting traditional expectations by addressing pressing public health problems, and in the process it is doing its part to change the negative perception of religion in the modern world.

St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Engute, a rural community about 35 kilometers north of Bahir Dar, the largest town in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, works in innovative ways. And it must. Amhara is one of the world's child marriage hotspots where nearly 50 percent of the girls are married before the age of 15. Although they may not immediately live with their husbands, who are often much older than they are, the young brides are always at risk of coercive sex and are also at greater risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

The majority of young girls and women also face heightened vulnerability to female genital mutilation which has an alarming prevalence in Ethiopia. Three-quarters of women have been subjected to such harmful traditional practices. Another troubling issue is the 25,000 Ethiopian women who die each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, which for almost all women takes place at home without practiced supervision or support.

To tackle these debilitating reproductive health issues, St. Mary's embraces the values of a social Gospel, and a sacred book unlike any the world has ever seen: the Development Bible.

The Development Bible was drafted by decree from His Holiness Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches, with a membership of over 32 million. The Patriarch, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and spent seven years in prison during the Derg military regime, is an influential figure in Ethiopia and on the world stage. He is a president of the World Council of Churches and is known in both Africa and among the international community for his efforts to improve the conditions of the continent's refugees.

The Patriarch is also long-time supporter of campaigns to end child marriage, eliminate female genital mutilation and prevent HIV. The Development Bible was brilliantly imaged through his leadership and with close collaboration between Church scholars and outside public health specialists in a project managed by the Population Council and funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Together, this creative partnership is rewriting the history of community action in East Africa.

Such a stand on public health issues from a prominent member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church might seem like sacrilege, perhaps even edging on taboo, but interestingly the Development Bible has no opponents. Not one. Why not? Well, Ethiopia is a country carried by religion. Its people have always been socialized with a spiritual perspective and nursed by a religious code of ethics, evidenced by the collection of ancient monasteries that dot the landscape around Bahir Dar. Not surprisingly, the Church still holds a vital place in defining community values, while creating a framework for understanding the world outside of the village limits.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has traditionally been the only provider of education and today still serves as the only institutional contact in many rural areas. Its values and norms are closely tied with cultural and historical life of the people; the clergy enjoy great credibility among congregation members.

So when you talk about family, community or even development issues, you are really talking about the Church. The Church maintains significant influence on the daily lives of the more than 30 million Ethiopians who identify with the institution. For one thing, the church has resources that even the government cannot match. The Ministry of Education estimates that Ethiopia has 23,000 primary schools but just 1,087 secondary schools; the country's inadequate educational infrastructure leaves its people hungry for quality learning experiences, especially its 33 million children under age 15. The Orthodox Church -- with its 45,000 churches -- successfully caters to a knowledge-starved population. With almost twice the public resources at its disposal, the Church serves more than 6.5 million youth and 10 million women each month, effectively aligning a nation with spiritual services.

This fervent profession of faith transforms the church from a questionable ally on the road to development into a near-perfect vehicle for promoting social change. It empowers the highest echelon of the church and clergy to be agents of change and development.

No one assumes change will come quickly, but many in the church community are working to expedite development by modernizing and improving health and education.

The Development Bible's delivery is straightforward. The liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is organized around a calendar known as Metsihafe Gitsawie, which has been in use since Ethiopia accepted Christianity in the fourth century. The calendar specifies daily spiritual messages, matching the Development Bible's key health and development messages with the spiritual ones.

The messages related to HIV and AIDS include such well-worn but important advice as abstinence; fidelity; testing for HIV, particularly if pregnant and to neither stigmatize nor discriminate against those who have HIV. The Development Bible discourages female genital mutilation, premarital sexual activity and childbirth at young and old ages when the risk of maternal morbidity and mortality is much greater. It also advocates adolescent and youth development, along with gender equity and women's empowerment.

"If you look at the region we're working in today, harmful traditional practices are on the decline, since churches have stopped blessing early marriages and female genital cutting," says Dr. Tekle-Ab Mekbib M.D., Program Associate at the Population Council in Addis Ababa. "The Development Bible is an eye-opener for community members. They are being introduced to new ways of thinking and new ideas. They will begin demanding their rights for better education and public health services."

The Development Bible has been reviewed and approved by theologians and development specialists. The church's five clergy training centers and three theology colleges have already incorporated the Development Bible into their curricula, where lesson plans are used to train half a million Ethiopian priests and deacons. The Bible has become a cost-effective, sustainable way to equip clergy with an understanding of key development issues while pursuing traditional spiritual practices. The Bible's advocates also assure that its socio-religious instruction will help shape the millions of young Ethiopians who attend Sunday school each week.

UNFPA, encouraged by the Church's rapid adoption of the Development Bible, has begun to translate the Bible's Sunday readings into English, which will substantially increase its influence in other countries.

Some specialists argue that religion is anti-modern and slows national economic development. They claim that the resources used to maintain religious institutions and practices could be better employed to meet pressing educational, health and economic needs, and that the religion's focus on the afterlife distracts people from solving problems by providing a rationale for ignoring them. But the Development Bible counters that perspective, proving that religion can provide both the motivation and the institutions needed to speed development

"The Development Bible is a breakthrough. It shows that the Church is now open to innovative scientific developments as they apply to development and improving the lives of the public," says Dr. Tekle-Ab. "The future is to tap the potential of faith-based organizations across Africa to improve community living conditions, prevent HIV, AIDS and other diseases. There is a great opportunity to bring about behavioral and institutional change in a very short period of time."

Written by John Converse Townsend, Ashoka Changemakers contributor and writer in the ESPN TrueHoop Network, with original reporting by Peter J. Donaldson, president of the Population Council.