COMMUNITY Fire at Ethiopian Orthodox church unites parish
The aid of nearby churches has offset some of the burden of losing their church.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- For Geb Shiferaw, walking 45 minutes to attend a three-hour church service every week, even in the summer heat, is never a problem. "I just have the thirst to come to church," said Shiferaw, 30. "If I don't get to church on Sunday, my whole week is disturbed."
Shiferaw and other members of Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church came to the United States fleeing government persecution in the 1980s.
They set up the Northeast Side church in July 1995. However, on Memorial Day, a little more than a month before its 10th anniversary, the church was gutted by fire, destroying much of what was inside: vestments, icons, Bibles and the altar.
To make matters worse, the church could not afford insurance, former church secretary Kahassai Tafese said.
"When they bought the church, initially, they had no credit. The congregation was very small," said Tafese. "They couldn't even make the payments on the mortgage. They didn't have any money."
The Rev. Moses Haregewoyn, a part-time priest, said the church has grown from 20 to 400 families, but many of the congregants work two or more jobs to get by.
"We are doing everything we can, but this is beyond our limits," the Rev. Mr. Haregewoyn said. "We are asking for outside help."
Help came from another Columbus church, St. Paul United Church of Christ, soon after the fire cooled.
"They came. They prayed with us at the site," Tafese said. "They comforted us, and that was a very moving experience."
The Rev. Herb Goetz, St. Paul interim pastor, gave them Bibles, robes and a cross from St. Paul to replace those destroyed in the fire. He also offered the use of his church for their services.
"The cross and the Bibles became a symbol of solidarity and brotherhood and sisterhood," said the Rev. Mr. Goetz. "Although they did also use them in their worship."
Heritage at Mass
Thousands of miles from their homeland in both body and mind, the Ethiopian Orthodox church is the only place where many Ethiopians can hear their native language spoken publicly, their customary dress worn and vestiges of their heritage displayed.
"Going to church is not just going to Mass to pray. It's like returning home," said Mr. Haregewoyn. "It is the only place that they feel welcome and even secure. It's a home away from home."
The Ethiopian Orthodox church is an ancient one; adherents date the church back to a year or two after the resurrection of Christ, when the apostle Philip met an Ethiopian on the road and told him the gospel, as recorded in the Book of Acts.
Since the fire, the services have moved next door into the fellowship hall. The church uses a makeshift altar. Candles play a heavy role, and incense fills the air.
Many of the women, who sit to the left of the priest, and a few of the men, who sit to his right, wear traditional Ethiopian clothing.
The liturgical service is conducted in Ge'ez, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew. The sermon and Bible readings are spoken in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
"Nobody actually speaks Ge'ez," said Tafese. "But it's not difficult for people who come to church regularly to understand."
Tafese said the church aligns itself closely to Judaism in its adherence to Old Testament laws and customs.
"We don't eat pork," Tafese said. "Just like the Jews have kosher, we have kidus. Every time an animal is killed, a prayer is given."
Through Mr. Goetz, Holy Trinity leaders have enlisted the help of the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, director of the Ohio Council of Churches, to coordinate fund-raising efforts.
Money has been slow coming in, but a fund-raising dinner with Ethiopian food, music and a fashion show of traditional Ethiopian dress will be Thursday.
Holy Trinity's youth group raised $5,600 putting on two similar fashion shows at the Selam Ethiopian restaurant on the east side last month.
Aden Assaw, a 24-year-old youth leader, helped with the fashion show. She has been a member of Holy Trinity since the very beginning, and her first child was baptized there in April.
"Now that I have a daughter, I would like to see her grow up in the church and want to get involved when she gets older," she said.
The church ruins were cleaned up June 18, with help from members of St. Paul and other area churches and faiths, including Muslims and Sikhs.
"I think the fire really brought together not only the devout attendees but other Ethiopians who never come to church," said Tafese.
"It's wonderful how that has been a gelling force or effort for their congregation to come together," said Steve Bryant, a St. Paul member who came with Goetz to the scene. "I see a stronger church arising."
Tafese said what the church does next will depend on how much money is raised and what the congregation is willing to commit itself to. The church, in a former warehouse, is all they had been able to afford.
However, Tafese and Haregewoyn see not just the pain of losing their church but also an opportunity the crisis provided.
"Out of bad can come good things too," said Tafese. "On the one hand, we had a loss; on the other hand, we had the chance to meet other Christian brothers and sisters in Columbus."