Close-knit Coptic Christians thrive in church
- Close-knit Coptic Christians thrive in church
<mailto:pschneider@...> Pat Schneider
The Cap Times, Madison, Wisconsin - 10/01/2008
The spicy scent of incense fills the airy chapel as a bearded priest chants,
the hymns punctuated by the clank of cymbals and a triangle. The
congregation, men on one side, head-scarfed women on the other, sings in
The Mass is a ritual both familiar and exotic to the Madison Diocese's
Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center on the city's west side. A growing
local community of 50 or more Coptic Christians worships there each month,
though members are working to provide St. Mary and St. Rewais Coptic
Orthodox Church a home of its own.
Called the church of the Pharaohs, from whom Coptic Christians trace
themselves as descendents, the Coptic Orthodox Church separated from the
Roman Catholic Church in the year 451 in a schism over the dual divinity and
humanity of Christ. The rift has been healed, however, and the two churches
now emphasize their common roots.
Headquartered in Egypt, Pope Shenoudia III of Alexandria presides over what
has been a worldwide expansion of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the past
four decades to some 18 million members. From single churches in New Jersey
and California in the 1960s, the faith has grown to more than 100 churches
in the United States and Canada. Local Copts estimate their number in North
America at up to 1 million.
Often mistaken for Muslims when their Egyptian roots are discovered, local
Copts say they just correct the widespread misperception of their
background, ancient yet little-known in many parts of the United States.
Copts say their faith has not changed over the centuries, and their
adherence to ancient ways means that priests grow beards, as did men in the
time of Christ. They also marry and raise families, says Father, or
"Abouna," Jacob Nadian, recently named by Pope Shenoudia to serve the
Madison church. How else could a priest counsel married couples about the
trials and joys of family life, Nadian asked in an interview following the
three-hour Mass last month.
The liturgy of the Mass is projected via laptop computer to a screen where
worshipers may follow in English, Coptic or Arabic. Nadian's sermon on a
recent Sunday, in English, reflected universal Christian values, cautioning
against excessive pride and commanding listeners to "love thy neighbor as
Communion is presented in the form of both bread and wine, and like members
of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Copts believe the two are
transubstantiated into the body and blood of the crucified Christ. The
oldest to the youngest partake, as Nadian carries a bit of consecrated bread
to an old woman too frail to leave her pew, and later spoons a taste of wine
onto the lips of pre-schoolers.
Copts fast before they take communion, so after the service, everyone heads
to a shared meal where they socialize and linger for hours.
"Abouna, come bless the food. We are hungry and no one can eat until you
bless it,' Michael Farag cheerfully calls out as Nadian makes his way toward
a spread of American and Egyptian delicacies.
Farag traveled from suburban Chicago to attend Mass in Madison, something
not unusual because there are relatively few Coptic churches in the Midwest.
Khalaf Kisar, an engineering student at Waukesha County Technical College,
said he was happy to find an Egyptian Coptic Church within traveling
distance. He, like many of the students attracted to St. Mary and St.
Rewais, came from overseas and is looking for familiar signs of home.
"They are my family now," Kisar, 28, said of the Madison Coptic community.
To organizers of the local church, providing that kind of supportive
community is a primary goal -- and growth strategy -- right down to
providing transportation to services.
"I wanted students to feel surrounded by family and friends so they know
they are not alone here, said organizer Awad Hanna, a professor of
engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "If they need something
or are ill, they can turn to any of us."
Hanna praised Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who spent time in
Egypt as a student, for his generosity in lending the space to the local
Copts while they raise money to buy a church.
A warm feeling of community fills the after-Mass gathering. Men, women and
children -- one by one, together as families -- stop by to give Abouna
affectionate hugs and kisses of greeting.
Nadian grasps their hands with a wooden cross palmed in his right, which
many stoop to kiss. The cross reflects the fact that it is God they honor
with the kiss, not the priest, he explained later.
Children are everywhere: at Mass, at social gatherings. They call adults of
the community "uncle" and "aunt," despite the lack of blood bonds.
"We love family life," Nadian said. "We love each other. Everywhere you go,
Coptic people are so loving to the community they live in."
The care and concern extends to political leaders. The day's Mass included a
litany for the president, a prayer offered around the world for political
leaders. "We pray that God guides them and gives them the wisdom to do what
is good for the people," Nadian said.
Coptic women play a traditional role in the church, and do not serve on the
altar. In daily life, "we do everything," including pursuing higher
education and holding professional jobs, said Paulette Hanna, Awad's wife,
who is an engineer for the state of Wisconsin.
She and other women said religion plays an important role in the life of
Coptic families. "It's great. It keeps the kids close," said Fatina Latif.
Young people say they are encouraged to marry within the Coptic faith, but
unions with others are accepted.
"Everyone is welcome here," said Sandy Goodchild, cradling her infant
daughter. She married a man who was raised Catholic, but who then studied
and was baptized in the Coptic faith.
"They haven't changed the religion at all for Americans," she remarked.
"It's a very close, very friendly group," said Sandy's husband, Matthew
Goodchild, who studied Coptic orthodoxy with Nadian.
"He made me work," Goodchild remarked, and described their relationship now
as a friendship with some father-son feelings.
Few of his acquaintances are familiar with the Coptic Church, Goodchild
said, but he does his best to fill them in on it.
Before he made his ties with the Coptic faith, Goodchild said, he was not
much of a churchgoer. "Now I'm finding it's a big part of life."
For information on the local Coptic community, go to
<http://www.stmaryandstrewais.org/> www.stmaryandstrewais.org or call Awad
Hanna at 513-9690.
<mailto:pschneider@...> Pat Schneider - 10/01/2008 9:44 am
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