Ethiopian Orthodox congregation thrives in Commerce Twp.
CHURCH FINDS A HOME
Ethiopian Orthodox congregation thrives in Commerce Twp.
BY ALEX P. KELLOGG FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER August 6, 2008
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.
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.
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."