Ethiopians in D.C. Region Mourn Archbishop's Death
- Ethiopians in D.C. Region Mourn Archbishop's Death
Leader Nurtured Orthodox Church in Americas
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006; B01
[a great pic at the url at end of the story - JBP+]
Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants gathered at a District church
yesterday to mourn Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, who spent
decades launching congregations throughout the United States and the
Caribbean and is credited with leading thousands of Rastafarians --
including reggae great Bob Marley -- toward Orthodox Christianity.
The elaborate funeral Mass and memorial service unfolded over nearly
10 hours at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox
congregation that worships in a converted parking garage on Buchanan
Street NW in 16th Street Heights.
Men and women -- many wearing traditional, gauzy robes over Western-
style attire -- wept as clerics chanted the liturgy, sang hymns and
recited eulogies in praise of the man whom many consider the father
of Orthodox Christianity in the Ethiopian diaspora.
"He was the one who really started this church. He would come here
from New York and give us service," recalled Sergout Workue, the
church secretary, who immigrated to the United States 28 years ago.
Back then, she said, there were no Ethiopian churches in this area.
She went to Mass at a Roman Catholic church instead. "When we didn't
have anything in this community, he was the one who was there for
us," said Workue, of Mount Rainier. "We run to him, everybody. He
touched our lives."
The bishop commonly known as Abuna Yesehaq -- Father Isaac in
Ethiopia's Amharic language -- died Dec. 29 in Newark at age 72. His
body lay in state in New York before being brought to Washington.
From here, it will travel to Dallas for another memorial service,
then to Jamaica for burial.
As a young cleric, Yesehaq was a protege of Emperor Haile Selassie,
titular head of the Ethiopian church. Yesehaq was sent to the United
States in the 1960s and eventually became administrator of the church
in the hemisphere, launching about 70 congregations, his followers
Yesehaq's work in the Caribbean began after Selassie visited Jamaica
in 1966 and was thronged by local Rastafarians, who saw Selassie as a
modern-day messiah. According to church leaders, Selassie denied
being a deity and urged Yesehaq to try to draw the Rastafarians to
the Ethiopian church. Yesehaq served many Jamaicans and others of
Caribbean descent, in the islands and in immigrant enclaves in the
United States. Among them was Marley, at whose funeral Yesehaq
officiated in 1981.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of Christianity's oldest branches,
was linked to the Coptic Church in Egypt until the 1050s, when it
began conducting worship in the ancient Ethiopian language of Geez.
In the 1990s, Yesehaq declared the Western branch of Ethiopian
Orthodoxy independent of the hierarchy in Addis Ababa, rejecting the
authority of the new patriarch, Abuna Paulos. The rift endures today,
although there are no liturgical differences between the two branches.
Every Ethiopian church includes a mekdes , or holy of holies,
containing a replica of the biblical ark of the covenant -- which
according to some was taken to Ethiopia after the conquest of the
Israelite Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Only clergy can enter the mekdes.
At the Mariam Church, Yesehaq's casket was positioned in front of the
white-curtained mekdes, draped in a vivid burgundy tapestry
embroidered with turquoise and gold. Bishops and priests from
Ethiopian Orthodox congregations throughout the United States and the
Caribbean read scripture, burned incense and chanted traditional
The D.C. congregation was started in 1987, renting space from another
church for a decade until it bought the former Bell Atlantic parking
garage. At first, services there were held in a small chapel created
from office space on the structure's upper level. But when the number
of faithful grew, the garage space was remade for worship, with
chandeliers, carpet and colorful tapestries installed amid the
exposed ductwork and wiring.
Yesehaq visited the church often, hearing parishioners' confessions
and celebrating holidays and other special occasions. In 2001, he
granted the church cathedral status. More than 400 people attend most
Sundays, church leaders said, and on holidays, more than 1,000.
When church members offered Yesehaq a stipend for his visits or for
travel expenses, "He'd say, 'No, no, no, no, no,' " recalled deacon
Dagne Gizaw of Silver Spring. "He'd say, 'We need to strengthen your
church.' And he would give his own money to make his own donation."