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Ethiopian Orthodox congregation thrives in Commerce Twp.

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080806/NEWS03/808060348 CHURCH FINDS A HOME Ethiopian Orthodox congregation thrives in Commerce Twp. BY ALEX
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 6, 2008
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      Ethiopian Orthodox congregation thrives in Commerce Twp.


      If it seems like you're traveling to a world
      thousands of miles away -- and millennia old -- in a way, you are.

      But when you enter the Debre Guenet Abune
      Teklehaimanot Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church,
      you happen to be in Commerce Township.

      And not only are you in Commerce Township -- one
      of the most homogeneous communities in metro
      Detroit -- you're on a quaint little road within
      view of the township's offices at 2840 Fisher
      Ave. The church is at 2800 Fisher.

      If, as neighbors, they sound like strange
      bedfellows, they are. Even members of the church admit it.

      "When we opened, we had a few neighbors come,"
      said Begashaw Deneke, chairman of the church's governing board.

      The Bloomfield Hills resident, who brings his
      wife and two kids with him every Sunday, says
      members knocked on every door in the neighborhood when they opened.

      "We wanted to make sure they didn't freak out," he said.

      The modest Ethiopian Orthodox church and its
      adjoining rectory will celebrate two years in
      their current home in August. Their Commerce
      locale is their first permanent home.

      "The testament of its growth is the fact that we
      were able to purchase this church," Haimanot
      Tsegaye said. "That's what's inspiring, that we
      gathered around from all over and made this happen."

      The married mother of two young children lives in
      Southfield. She makes the 25-minute drive with
      her husband and children every weekend.

      She has been with the church since a handful of
      families brought it into being nearly seven years
      ago. The church that the congregation inhabits
      was vacated by a Baptist one looking for a bigger home.

      "When you have your own building, you can open it
      whenever you want, and hold your service whenever
      you want," said Deneke, who owns a foster care for older adults in Pontiac.

      One of only two Ethiopian churches in all of
      Michigan -- and there's one that's struggled to
      stay alive in Windsor, members say -- its
      services are hardly intelligible to anyone who is
      not Ethiopian, as they are delivered in an ancient Semitic tongue called Ge'ez.

      Its services began in a back hall of the
      Spiritual Israel Church and Its Army, an
      African-American church in Pontiac whose building was rented.

      Slowly, it raised money for this endeavor, even
      benefiting from the housing crisis. When the
      founders first looked at the property, the asking
      price was more than double the $300,000 they paid for it a year later in 2006.

      Founded by a handful of families, the church now
      serves about 110 Ethiopian adults and about 50
      children. All live in southeast Michigan and
      nearby parts of Ohio and Ontario, though some
      come from farther locales, including the lengthy
      drives from Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo.

      Abby Tesfaye and Wyne Sebsibie traveled from
      Toronto for a recent Sunday service. A friend,
      Aida Endrias of Canton, was having a birthday
      party for her 7-year-old daughter, Helina Wondwossen.

      "We like the services here," said Tesfaye, who
      comes here two or three times a year and attends
      a similar church in Toronto. "It's a very close
      community, and it's small; ours is big. We get lost over there."

      The entire service at Teklehaimanot, as at all
      Ethiopian Orthodox services, is in the Ge'ez
      language. Used only in religious services, it has
      a role similar to that of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.
      Ancient rituals

      Some of the church's rituals have not changed
      since several centuries after the birth of Christ.

      The church follows a 13-month lunar calendar. On
      Aug. 30, the memorial festival of St.
      Teklehaimanot is celebrated. In September, all
      Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches
      celebrate Meskel, Ge'ez for "cross." It includes
      a large bonfire to commemorate St. Helena's
      discovery of the cross on which Jesus Christ was killed.

      The orthodox churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea,
      Ethiopia's small neighbor to the north, were
      connected until the countries fought a bloody
      border war. Still, here in Commerce at
      Teklehaimanot, a handful of Eritreans attend.

      "We try to bring in the faithful and not so much
      the division," said member Tsegaye

      In its sanctuary, as in all Ethiopian churches, a
      consecrated replica of the Ark of the Covenant is
      housed. Members never get to see it. Ethiopians
      believe the original pre-Christian relic is
      housed in a legendary Ethiopian church in their homeland.
      Spiritual history

      On a recent Sunday, a visiting priest preached in
      Amharic, the predominant language among
      Ethiopia's elite, about how to love Jesus and how
      to love one another. Dressed in white and gold
      silk, Abba Gebrekidan Shiferaw spoke passionately
      about how that could eliminate crime, evil and pain from the world.

      He has been in the United States for about three
      years and still speaks limited English. His job doesn't really require it.

      "I know Ethiopian spirituality," said Shiferaw,
      "the culture and their heritage. ... I want to
      explain to them what they have, so they recognize their history."

      Guests like Shiferaw -- and an interim priest --
      have filled in for Abba Berhane Selassie Haile
      Meskel. The church priest has been stuck back
      home for months waiting for a work permit.

      Men sat on the left as Shiferaw spoke, as they
      always do, mostly in Western clothes. Women sat
      on the right, many covering their heads in the
      traditional handwoven white cotton and silk shawls common to their attire.

      The modesty in dress is not required as in Islam,
      but it is often expected. A PowerPoint
      presentation will often translate the Ge'ez
      portions of the program, and for those who don't speak Amharic as well.

      "There's no real difference" between services
      here and back home, Deacon Solomon Bogale Yifru said.

      He moved from Ethiopia to Michigan to join the
      church around the time it got going, at the
      request of the congregation. While living in the
      church rectory, even the surroundings don't strike him as odd.

      "The only real difference is color, and that's
      not much of a difference, because I live a spiritual life."
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