by Tim Gilmore, 12/11/2017
Because the Angels in Heaven are without Color
From the Matthews Bridge downtown, you can see the red, yellow, and green—the colors of the Ethiopian flag—that stripe the old gothic belltower, a bright dab of color in the center of a drab post-urban emptiness.
The 1100-square-foot dark brick church housed the congregation for Fairfield Methodist for 73 years and has been home to Debre Berhan Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church since 2005. The cornerstone reads “Livingston Mission Methodist Episcopal Church 1912,” and the sign out front bears the current congregation’s name in Amharic.
It’s Sunday before a football game. While burly men wearing teal jerseys wander around the stadium holding “Need Tickets” signs two blocks away, I wander down the back stairs of this old building and find men and women wearing the thin white garments called shammas, children playing and laughing, and their parents seated at long tables eating beef tibs and lamb in red pepper sauce on traditional injera bread.
Solomon Siyoum greets me at the door, offers me a plate. “Please,” he says and gestures for me to take a seat. He’s gentle and patient with the little boy and girl who keep yanking on his arm and climbing up his leg.
He says the church has about 100 members, and those members have about 80 kids. Between 1,000 and 1200 Ethiopians live in Jacksonville.
Solomon introduces me to two of the church’s three priests, Birhau Woldegebreal and Hadush Wereth. Ethiopian Orthodox churches have from three to five priests, Wereth explains, because of the Transfiguration of Christ.
In three of the Four Gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain to pray. There, Jesus begins to shine with a bright light, the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Moses, long dead, appear beside him, and a voice emanates from a white cloud, saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The minimum of three priests at each church represents the disciples, and the maximum of five includes the old prophets. Worshippers wear the light cotton white shamma atop their clothing, as Jesus is said to have shone bright in his Transfiguration, and, says Solomon, “because the angels in Heaven are without color.” The shamma shines ethereal.
Though the external brick of the church is dark, the floral patterns on the windows fill the sanctuary with light, and carpets and sacred art fill the small tall-ceilinged space with red, blue, green and gold.
Too large a building and the experiences it houses over time dissipate in the inhuman scale of pretense. Structures that bear about them the earth from which they’re built at the scale of human social interactions often best echo the human experience accumulated in time.
And the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Solomon says, is ancient—as old and Biblical as his name.
Resuscitating the Ghosts of Fairfield
Fairfield, once a small satellite of Jacksonville, now fully swallowed up by downtown, emerged in the late 1860s and early 1870s and quickly became a strange post-Civil War-but-pre-Jim-Crow mix of a poor but free black neighborhood and an entertainment and sporting district for white Jacksonville. So humble black churches and groceries rose alongside horse and ostrich racing, the fairgrounds here date to 1876, and in 1908, the three-and-a-half story inn called Roseland House became the headquarters of Kalem Company, Jacksonville’s first motion picture studio in the city’s days as a major center for silent film production.
Fairfield’s early strengths ensured its demise. Its lovely Victorian houses were laid waste for the construction in 1960 of the Coliseum, a venue for indoor sports and music concerts, the Jacksonville (and then the Wolfson) Baseball park in 1955, and today’s football stadium for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, originally built as Fairfield Stadium in 1928, then the Gator Bowl in 1948. Today, Fairfield is more frequently called “the stadium district,” and on non-game days, this urban ex-neighborhood settles desolate as a bombsite.
Russ-Doe’s Sandwich Shop still operates, cash only. As does Wild Bill’s Saloon, a little further up Talleyrand Avenue. And Jacksonville’s Ethiopian community has resuscitated this old gothic church that yet indicates what Fairfield once was and could’ve been today.
Within these walls, former slaves shed tears, sweated, beat their whip scars with flagellant fists. In this holy space rose cris de coeur, roared and collapsed a thousand times the ghost of a chance, and soared skyward the hymns of a black Moses leading his people home. Try to imagine all the pain, cumulative, felt through every prayer. Who came here for succor? Who died? Who was hungry and given supper? Who came into the world? Who married, and who else, and whom? Who found all the truth they’d ever need and died believing?
Orthodoxy and Origin
The language of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam are close to the language of the historical Jesus, and the King James Version of the Bible more closely relates to Shakespeare. Amharic is the second-most spoken Semitic language after Arabic, and Jesus spoke the Semitic language Aramaic.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims a membership of 50 million worldwide. Ethiopian Jews consider themselves directly descended from Moses, the Biblical Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem from Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church purportedly holds the Ark of the Covenant, the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in the ancient city of Axum.
Doubtless, Ethiopian images of Jesus look more like the original Palestinian Jew than that most famous American Jesus profile, Warner Sallman’s 1940 blue-eyed and ultra-European Head of Christ, hung in hundreds of thousands of Protestant and Prosperity Gospel offices, classrooms, and hallways across the plywood-and-plaster North American Sunday-morning landscape.
An Invitation to Understand
Solomon, wise as his name indicates he should be, easily balances his religious and ethnic identity with the concept of diversity.
“We are all brothers and sisters,” he says, “regardless of faith. We value diversity here. We embrace everyone else’s faith as we maintain our own identity.”
He’s well aware that Christianity became the world’s dominant religion by way of European colonialism, also that most mainstream Americans see dark-skinned foreigners as other than, if not antithetical to, Christianity. But Solomon, too, is American.
“We want to invite America more and more to understand us,” Solomon says. “Progressive Orthodox in Philadelphia and New York are offering services in our ancient Amharic, but also in English, like the Catholic Church uses English and Latin.”
Recently, delegates from Bethel Baptist attended services here at Debre Berhan. Bethel is not only Jacksonville’s oldest and largest historically black church, but the city’s oldest Baptist congregration, since the gargantuan First Baptist Church seceded from Bethel as an all-white congregation after the Civil War. Hadush Wereth says the Ethiopian priests delivered the service in Amharic, while English translations projected on a screen.
Solomon says the church welcomes all of Jacksonville to the annual Timkat celebrations on Sunday, January 14th. As satellites of the central church in Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is held, every Ethiopian Orthodox Church keeps a replica of the Ark. On Timkat, the Ethiopian Day of the Epiphany, priests carry the Tabot, the model of the Ark, through the streets in a colorful and elaborate procession.
“We are proud to be part of Jacksonville,” Siyoum says, “as Ethiopians, and we would like Jacksonville to join us here, to celebrate together.”