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Ethiopians in D.C. Region Mourn Archbishop's Death

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  • Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock
    Ethiopians in D.C. Region Mourn Archbishop s Death Leader Nurtured Orthodox Church in Americas By Debbi Wilgoren Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, January
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 13, 2006
      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."

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