Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ethiopian Christians: heirs of a long, legendary heritage - South Florida

The Rev. Melake Tsehay Abebe Kebede, left, and the Rev. Mahitama Selassie.

The Rev. Melake Tsehay Abebe Kebede, left, and the Rev. Mahitama Selassie. (James D. Davis)

One of the pleasures of being a religion writer in South Florida is that the world comes here. There’s always something new to learn, someone to meet, another culture to discover.

One example is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdalethat’s celebrating its first anniversary this month. The Ethiopians claim a long, deep heritage, going back untold centuries.

And you can see and hear it even smell it, at one of their services. Here’s what happened during a recent visit to Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the only such church in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Incense, dignified robes and bright colors combined in the parish hall of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Some men leaned on T-shaped staffs. Each woman wore a shema, a veil rather like a Muslim hijab.

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They sang hymns and chants inspired by the sixth century priest St. Yared, reading from books and a projection screen. The text showed the indigenous Ge'ez and Amharic languages, plus English transliterations.

"Bless our gathering today," the children’s choir sang in Amharic, an adult member accompanying on a large drum. "Give us peace and unity today." Women among the 30 congregants occasionally responded with singsong ululations.

This and more draws people each week from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to the church, whose name means Christ the Saviour in Ge'ez.

"The language, the songs, the service -- you understand it, feel it deeply," says Ermias Mesein Beyene, who attends from Miami with his wife and two daughters. "When you come to your original church, your spirit goes indepth."

The devotion doesn’t surprise Rev. Mahitama Selassie, recently visiting from the Ethiopian community in New York. "In Orthodoxy, tradition is faith and faith is order. There is an unbroken succession back to the apostles."

Father Selassie is from Holy Trinity Church in the Bronx, N.Y., the seat of Ethiopian Christianity in the Western Hemisphere. He says that 2-5 million Ethiopians live in the United States. They live in all the East Coast states of the U.S., with other concentrations in Texas, California, Ohio and Washington.

Many of them fled after the 1974 coup that overthrew King Haile Selassie. Others came as young students to learn professions. Then many became teachers, then acquired mortgages and had children -- and became American.

But they’re still proud of a spiritual lineage that may stretch 3,000 years. The Bible says the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. According to Ethiopian tradition, their son became Menelik I, ruler of Ethiopia. And many Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant -- a gold-covered chest that goes back to the time of Moses -- is in a church in their homeland.

"For us, we don’t have to see or touch it," Elizabeth Kassahun, one of the members, says with a smile. "We believe."

To this day, her husband Abbiy says, Ethiopian churches are distinctive for the Tabot, a replica of the Ark, where the sacraments are performed. "Without that, it's not a church. The whole service revolves around it."

In the New Testament as well, an Ethiopian official visited Jerusalem and met the apostle Philip. He became a Christian and helped carry the faith back to his homeland. Churchmen say that Philip and Matthew visited Ethiopia as well.

Plans call for building their own church in two or three years. Once in their own building, they’ll be freer to schedule classes in history and languages, they say.

"It's good to turn the key in your own house," Father Selassie said, in asking the congregation for donations toward the new building.

But ethnic identity is only part of the reason for a building, says its pastor, Melake Tsehay Abebe Kebede.

"We need the church because it's our heritage," says Kebede, who himself travels a long way -- from westernPalm Beach County -- to lead the services. "But our plan in the United States is not for a white or black church. It's for everybody to come and worship our God."

James D. Davis

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