Between classes, jobs and teaching Sunday school at their church, the four members of AFG Gospel Band squeeze in practice time, usually Saturday mornings.

It's not an unusual story for a fledgling band determined to keep up the music while trying to stay afloat.

But for Shewangizaw Beyene, Motuma Sima, Berissa Lamessa and Biniam Bezabih, it's another chapter in their musical group's history, which has spanned nearly a decade, two continents and adjustment to a new life in the United States.

It's been little more than a year since the four traveled from their native Ethiopia for a church conference in Atlanta on what was supposed to be a short stay.

Instability in Ethiopia convinced them that after they got here, they could not go back.

"We just decided that we have to leave and come here and find a place to start a new life," Beyene said.

Instead, through a network of church leaders and family members, they made their way from Atlanta to Washington, which has one of the nation's largest community of members of the Oromo ethnic group, which makes up about 35 percent of Ethiopia's population.

Since then, they have lived in a hostel at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northwest Washington, which holds services in Oromifa and Amharic, two languages spoken in Ethiopia, each Sunday. Though they all had completed high school back home, they enrolled in the Academy of Hope, an adult education program in the District, to earn U.S. general equivalency diplomas.

Beyene, 27, received his diploma and began taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia last week. Lamessa, 27, and Sima, 26, have also attended the Academy of Hope, and all four plan to attend colleges in the area. Bezabih, 27, who did not attend the Academy of Hope, hopes to attend Prince George's Community College.

The band -- the "AFG" in its name stands for "All for God, All From God" -- also released a CD, "The Gospel According to Reggae," which it recorded in Ethiopia. It features songs in a mix of English, Amharic and Oromifa. They focus on familiar topics such as war, hunger and AIDS, which plague their homeland and which they say the church must become more active in combating.

In Ethiopia, they said, people with AIDS are often isolated. They can lose their jobs or be kicked out of their homes.

"We have a responsibility, the church has a responsibility, and we as a group have a responsibility to address this issue," Beyene said.

The nation's high AIDS rate, particularly among young people, means nearly everyone in Ethiopia is affected by the disease, Beyene said.

"It's like almost losing the future of the country," he said.

So they sing warnings that AIDS does not discriminate, in hopes of saving lives. And other lyrics defend people who have AIDS and urge others to make their lives less painful.

Such songs are not explicitly religious. Instead, the band focuses on using positive messages, because its members believe everything positive comes from God.

Their music grew out of their shared childhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, where they learned Western musical styles and harmonies through church music. Ethiopian music uses different types of scales, they said, giving their songs, derived from reggae styles, a distinctive sound.

In part because of their distinctiveness, they became known in Ethiopia and performed around the country and in Europe.

The group's renown in Ethiopia helped its members fit into a network of Ethiopian immigrants when they arrived last spring. While in Atlanta, they visited the Rev. Gemechis Buba, who had heard the group sing at his seminary in Ethiopia before he left the country and offered to help its members find a place to stay in Washington.

A network of other Ethiopian immigrants helped them reach the District, said Challa Baro, coordinator of the Union of Oromo Evangelical Churches, who also heard the group perform in Ethiopia.

People at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church provided housing, clothing and a chance to sing in services.

They now sing at other area churches and for special events, such as a Black History Month celebration in February and at the Academy of Hope in the spring. They are looking for a coach to help them improve their music.

Despite the early difficulties, having only e-mail and phone contact with their families and adapting to a new country, Beyene said, the four have come to appreciate their unintended home.

"I think the United States is a very good place for everyone, that everyone can come here and just feel they belong," he said. "I just have that feeling, like I'm home."

The AFG Gospel Band -- Shewangizaw Beyene, left, Motuma Sima, Berissa Lamessa and Biniam Bezabih -- has performed in Ethiopia, Europe and the United States.