An Invitation to UNDERSTAND

From the Mathews Bridge downtown, see the red, yellow and green—the colors of the Ethiopian flag—that stripe the old gothic belltower, bright shades of spirit in the center of a drab post-urban emptiness.

The dark-brick church housed the congregation of Fairfield Methodist for 73 years and has been home to Debre Berhan Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church since 2005. The cornerstone reads “Livingston Mission Methodist Episcopal Church 1912”; the sign out front bears the current congregation’s name in Amharic.

It’s Sunday, before a football game. As men wearing teal jerseys wander around outside the stadium holding “Need Tickets” signs two blocks away, I wander down the back stairs of this old building and find men and women wearing thin white garments, called shammas, children playing and laughing, as their parents sit at long tables, eating beef tibs and lamb in red pepper sauce on traditional injera bread.

Solomon Siyoum (above, at left) greets me at the door, offers me a plate. “Please,” he says and gestures for me to take a seat. He’s gentle and patient with the little boy and girl who keep yanking his arm and climbing his leg.

He says the church has about 100 members, and those members have about 80 kids. Between 1,000 and 1,200 Ethiopians live in Northeast Florida.

Siyoum introduces me to two of the church’s three priests, Birhau Woldegebreal and Hadush Wereth (above, at right). Ethiopian Orthodox churches have from three to five priests, Wereth explains, because of the Transfiguration of Christ.

In three of the Four Gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with Him up a mountain to pray. There, Jesus begins to shine with a bright light, as Old Testament prophets Elijah and Moses, long dead, appear beside him. A voice emanates from a white cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The minimum of three priests at each church represents the disciples, and the maximum of five includes the old prophets. Worshippers wear the light cotton, white shamma over their street clothes, as Jesus is said to have shone brightly in his Transfiguration and, says Siyoum, “because the angels in Heaven are without color.” The shamma shines ethereal.

Though the external brick of the church is dark, the floral patterns on the windows fill the sanctuary with light, and carpets and sacred art fill the small yet high-ceilinged space with hues red, blue, green and gold.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims a membership of 50 million worldwide. Ethiopian Jews consider themselves directly descended from Moses, the Biblical Queen of Sheba who came to Jerusalem from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church purportedly holds the Ark of the Covenant, the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in the ancient city of Axum in Tigray Province.

Amharic is the second-most spoken Semitic language after Arabic; Jesus spoke the Semitic language Aramaic.

Doubtless, Ethiopian images of Jesus look more like the original Palestinian Jew he was than that most famous American Jesus profile, Warner Sallman’s 1940 blue-eyed and ultra-European Head of Christ.

Solomon Siyoum balances his religious and ethnic identity with the concept of diversity.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” he says, “regardless of faith. We embrace everyone else’s faith as we maintain our own identity.”

He’s well aware that Christianity became the world’s dominant religion by way of European colonialism and trade, and that many mainstream Americans see dark-skinned foreigners as other than, if not antithetical to, Christianity. But Siyoum is American as well as Ethiopian.

“We want to invite America more and more to understand us,” he says. “Progressive Orthodox in Philadelphia and New York are offering services in our ancient Amharic, but also in English, like the Catholic Church uses English and Latin.”

Recently, delegates from Bethel Baptist attended services here at Debre Berhan. Bethel is not only Jacksonville’s oldest and largest historically black church, but the city’s oldest Baptist congregation, since the gargantuan First Baptist Church seceded from Bethel as an all-white church after the Civil War. Hadush Wereth says the Ethiopian priests delivered the service in Amharic, while English translations projected on a screen.

Siyoum says the church welcomes all of Jacksonville to the annual Timkat celebrations on Sunday, Jan. 14. As satellites of the central church in Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is held, every Ethiopian Orthodox Church keeps a replica of the Ark. On Timkat, the Ethiopian Day of the Epiphany, priests carry the Tabot, the model of the Ark, through the streets in an elaborate, colorful procession.

“We are proud to be part of Jacksonville,” Siyoum says, “as Ethiopians, and we would like Jacksonville to join us here, to celebrate together.”

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