I got to hear Izzy’s story three times during his week with us. Once personally, once with our whole team, and then again in our living room with my family. Each time I was struck by God’s goodness and sovereignty as well as the simplicity in which He often demonstrates it. It’s my honor to share it once again on his behalf.
Izzy grew up with his two parents and nine other siblings in a small village just outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His father was a fabric weaver and his mother, in Izzy’s words, a prayer warrior constantly holding the family together through her faith in God. They didn’t have much and food was scarce. When he was only five years old, Ethiopia was in the midst of one of the worst famines in our lifetime. Izzy took it upon himself to walk into the city to buy bread for his family each day. He would wake his father up at 3 a.m. to get money and then set out on the long hike. One day his father said to him, “You know Israel, you are ‘Megabi.’ You bring life to our family.” Megabi is an Amharic word meaning, “the one who brings life to others.” Izzy says from that moment on his father never called him anything else. Little did he know how true that statement would become.
Growing up with minimal means caused Izzy and his siblings fear that most of us have never had to deal with. Time after time, officials would come to their home and put notices on their door saying that they owed money to the bank; money they didn’t have and definitely couldn’t pay. Many nights, Izzy would go to sleep fearing that he would wake in the morning without a home. He admits it was difficult to see God and he often doubted their prayers were being heard at all. As soon as things were financially beyond repair with their home, the officials sent a “news crew” to their house–a public threat to the whole village of what would happen to anyone who didn’t pay their debts to the bank. They served Izzy’s family a final notice stating that they had to be out by the end of the day if they were unable to atone for their debt. That day their home was locked up and his family was forced out into the street without any shelter.
Later that evening, Izzy and his brother broke back into their home and gathered their family into the living room. Izzy says that no one–not even his mother–said a word for a long time. Finally, they knelt to pray, but Izzy stood up and grabbed his Bible. He opened to Genesis 1:1 and read the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Izzy paused. He read the sentence again and then again as if he was reading it for the first time. “God created…the heavens…and the earth,” he repeated to himself. Izzy knew at that moment what God wanted him to share with his family. He read the passage again and asked, “Is this the God whom we pray to and serve, the God who created the heavens and the earth? If He created everything and is our Father, why are we worried? He has given us the sky as our roof and the street as our floor to sleep on. God made it, so it’s our house and we are cared for with or without this house.” Awakening words to a family that had been forced out of one of the only things they had to call their own. He finished by sharing,
“It is better to know God and die on the street than to live in a home and die without knowing God.”
Izzy describes the following moments as if wildfire was spreading throughout the room. The joy that was rising in his heart was being ignited in his family as well, and as the flame grew, they erupted in praise! Remember, Izzy came from a large family, so imagine a family of 11 people–who were all musicians– praising God literally on the floor that housed their very trial. The neighbors came out of their homes and began to bang on the door to see what the noise was all about. Shocked to see Izzy’s family all celebrating, they began to ask, “Was your debt paid?” To which Izzy’s mother replied, “Yes! Jesus has paid our debt for our sins and all who put their trust in Him! He has paid the debt for me, and for you, and for you, and for you!” as she pointed to individuals that stood there so confused. That night–the first night without a physical home–his whole family slept in peace. And for the first time in a very long time, Izzy slept without any fear of what was going to happen in the morning.
Waking up with a gratefulness outside conventional understanding, they set about their day until out of the blue they met a stranger with unexpected news. By now, there was a confidence in each of them in something deeper and immovable. This man began to share with them that God had instructed him to find Izzy and his family and to give them a specific amount of money that he had been saving. The amount that he offered was the exact amount of money that they owed for their home. Not only did the man settle their debt with the bank, but he voluntarily fought with the local government to see that their home was removed from auction, ensuring that Izzy and his family would be able to keep their home forever.
It was this event that led Izzy and his brothers and sisters to start a band and through it, were given the opportunity to travel to Europe. There, he was introduced to skateboarding which quickly became a new found interest. When they returned home, he intentionally skated at night on the only paved road in his village so that he could learn without anyone watching. With a desire to serve his community and a passion to share the Gospel, Israel was praying about how God wanted to use him. One evening while talking with his mother, she reminded him of the story of Moses and God using Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery. When the Israelites were being chased out of Egypt by the Egyptians they came to the Red Sea. The sea was absolutely too large to cross or go around. They were trapped with nowhere to go. Moses, crying out to God unsure of what to do, was instructed to simply hold out his staff over the sea. If you know the story, then you know that at that very moment God parted the sea right before their eyes! Izzy's mother then asked him, “Israel, what is your staff?”
Izzy returned to his room with that question burning in his mind. The moment he opened his bedroom door, he saw it: his skateboard. It was at that moment that Izzy knew exactly how God wanted to use him.
From that day on, he quit skating at night and began bringing his skateboard out during the day. Izzy says that kids came from all over his community to see what he was doing. He began to put them on the board and push them down the street one by one. Day after day, Israel and dozens of kids took turns skating with his board, each time giving Izzy the opportunity to gather them together to speak truth into their lives.
It didn’t take long for the world to begin to notice the work he was leading. The pictures Izzy was taking and sharing through social media soon went viral. After receiving support from numerous leaders within the industry, one of which was Tony Hawk, Israel’s purpose was solidified as skate ramps were built, new boards delivered, and the ministry began; and with the help of his dad, was aptly named Megabi Skate.
Izzy and his family continue to show kids that they have value and purpose beyond their circumstances. They teach kids how to skateboard and demonstrate for all of us how to use skateboarding as a tool to bring Good News to others. The home that God gave them all those years ago has gone on to house kids who didn’t have a home or a place to stay, and the music that led Israel and his siblings to Europe now serves to help support the ministry.
Reflecting on Izzy’s story, I can’t help but to see how God works even through the things that might not seem good for us at the time. Izzy’s story is different from mine and most likely yours, but God’s faithfulness is the same in each. No matter how unsure we are about what we are doing or where we are going, God is never wavering. One thing remains absolutely clear in this moment: God’s mission of renewing the world through the Good News of Jesus has not faltered! The question Israel’s mom asked is the same question for me and you: “What is your staff?”
In 2014 we heard Israel’s story for the first time. Inspired by the work he was leading and with the firm belief that stories create movements, we booked flights to Ethiopia to document his story through film. Through a series of events the project was unfortunately put on pause and the hard drives filled with footage were tucked away. The classic saying “out of site, out of mind” couldn’t have been more true because for nearly four years the project was forgotten. But in the midst of the pandemic, we dusted off the files and are excited to share that we have finally brought this project to life. To view the short documentary Megabi visit megabifilm.com and to support Israel’s efforts visit megabi.org.