Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ethiopian church preserves its African culture, faith

Visiting the early Sunday morning service of Fresno's only Ethiopian Orthodox congregation is like stepping into a land far away.

Just like in Ethiopia, men and women wear gabri, white linen garments that symbolize the biblical account in John 20:12 of "two angels in white garments, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain."

Standing in the service for long periods, many lean on 6-foot-long prayer s
ticks for support. The sticks bear the colors of the Ethiopian flag: green, yellow and red.

A deacon, wearing a red robe and headpiece, chants and prays in front of the holy sanctorum in ge'ez, an ancient language used in divine liturgy of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church.

Many go to the aisles to receive Communion -- korban, a bread made by priests without leaven, and a liquid made of soaked raisins.
Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is part of the cradle of Christianity and holds a special place in the hearts of congregants at Debre Selam Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Fresno. Medhane Alem means "Savior of the World."

One of the local faith community's best-kept secrets, the small congregation of nearly 150 is preserving the ancient religious traditions of Ethiopia, a country scarred by upheavals, war and famine. The church's headquarters are in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The local congregation was founded in 1985 with about 40 people, mainly refugees. It is one of Fresno's seven Orthodox Christian congregations, along with St. Paul Armenian Church, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, St. George Greek Orthodox Church, St. Peter the Apostle Serbian Orthodox Church, Archangels Michael and Gabriel Christian Coptic Orthodox Church and St. Peter the Aleut Orthodox Mission Rectory.

St. Paul Armenian Church has reached out, allowing the Ethiopian congregation to hold services there from 5:30- 8 a.m. Sundays before St. Paul readies for its services.

"We consider St. Paul Armenian Church to be our big sister because they've been so helpful to us," says Walter Brooks, chairman of the Ethiopian congregation and retired instructor and counselor at Fresno City College.

But the congregation hopes to build a place of its own.

"We're looking for help and support in building a traditional church," Brooks said. "We're hoping our Christian brothers help us."

He says it is important for local Ethiopians and others to preserve traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

"The church is intertwined in their world culturally -- every aspect of life in Ethiopia," he says. "In Ethiopia, people come to the church for help. In every village, the church gives. It takes care of people's needs. It's truly a Christian community."

A recent service wrapped up with a small choir singing to the beat of a drum, children dancing in the aisles and the deacon, Yohannes Gebretsadik, who arrived from Ethiopia just a month ago, giving a short sermon in Amharic, Ethiopia's national language. The talk focused on Jonah 3, when Jonah preached repentance in Ninevah.

Buznh Addam, left, urges her granddaughter Nuhamin Lyu Hailemarian, 4, forward to receive communion at Debre Selam Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church on Sunday, February 5, 2012 in Fresno
Gebretsadik, a graduate of Theological College of Holy Trinity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says he is devoted to human rights.

"Human rights is a necessity," he says. "The Ten Commandments keep the right of the believer. The Gospel is a big necessity."

After the service ended, congregants gathered near the parking lot for fellowship over injera, broken pieces of bread with lamb, and teff, a food grain.

Rahel Babich says she has grown in her faith since attending services at the Ethiopian church. She arrived in Fresno in 1985, needing the financial support of Valley Christian Center. Now, she is a member of the family that owns the Ethiopian restaurant Fasika.

"In Ethiopia, we're shy, scared people," she says. "You grow up that way. I like everything about this church in Fresno. There is nowhere else to get this kind of traditional service."