Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants and their families from around the Bay Area gathered at the Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral on Mountain Boulevard Sunday for Meskel, or the finding of the True Cross, one of the most important holidays in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar and a national holiday in Ethiopia. Wearing snow-white linen, worshippers congregated outside the church for much of the day while others prepared food which filled the air with the aromas of East African spices, turning the church parking lot into a scene out of their home country.
“In Ethiopia, no one misses Meskel,” said Rebecca Bekele, an Ethiopian immigrant who came for the day from Fremont. “We’re used to gathering and celebrating in this manner, so it really reconnects us to our country and our church.”
Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox church are descendents of some of the earliest Christians in the world, having split its administrative functions from the Coptic Church, based in Alexandria, Egypt in 1959. Today, most of the Church’s followers live in Ethiopia, but many can be found in Ethiopian immigrant communities throughout the world.
Meskel is one of the Church’s most revered holy days. The origins of the occasion stretch back to the fourth century AD, when Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, is said to have lit a bundle of wood and used the smoke to guide her to the location of the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.
Today, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday with a feast, church service and a ceremonial burning of a Demera, or bundle of sticks and dried grass, like the one said to have been used by Saint Helena.
Sunday’s celebration began with a lively Amharic service, complete with a choir backed with an electric organ and cow skin drums, followed by a sermon from Bishop Melketsedek, who was dressed in the long black robes and a round black hat associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox hierarchy.
After communion, a lunch of various meat and vegetable dishes with injera—the spongy sour bread that is a staple in Ethiopia—was served in the church basement alongside Little Caesar’s pizza and hotdogs. The celebration continued outside where more food was served and successive choirs chanted around the Demera until just before dark.
As of 2010, more than 200,000 Ethiopians live in the US, according to the US Census. But Rebecca Lakew, office manager of Oakland’s Ethiopian Cultural Community Center and a member of the church board, says these figures vastly underestimate the total numbers of Ethiopians, since many choose to list themselves as “black” or “African American” on census forms.
Bay Area Ethiopian populations in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento and Sonoma Counties. While Santa Clara County has more total Ethiopians, Alameda County has a substantially larger population of immigrants.
In the East Bay, a growing population of more than 2,000 Ethiopians is bolstered by a network of Ethiopian and Eritrean-owned businesses in the Temescal District of Oakland.
The Mountain Boulevard facility is the third incarnation of this Ethiopian Orthodox church since it began as a small congregation using Oakland’s Ascension Greek Church almost two decades ago, said Benyam Mulugeta, the church’s board president. As the community has grown, so has the church, he said. Currently the congregation has about 450 members, he said, but in the future, church leaders intend to build a facility to accommodate at least 1,000 members farther up in the Oakland Hills, complete with schools to provide religious education and language instruction to children growing up in the area.
Getachew Yadeta, who’s lived in the US only four years, came Sunday with his son wearing patterned linen garments—the national dress of Ethiopia still worn during religious holidays. He said that he balances his dual identities.
“I am Ethiopian, I’m American,” he said. “I’m proud to be Ethiopian, and I’m blessed to be an American, here, too.”
Yadeta said his sixteen-year-old son, who was born and grew up in the US, has learned to balance an identity as an Ethiopian American.
“He knows his birthplace is America,” Yadeta said. “But at the same time, he has a really good connection with Ethiopia. He’s been there four times.”
Yadeta said the church has been essential for his family to foster a sense of place in the US while retaining a connection with Ethiopia.
Mulugetta said that despite the advances of Ethiopian immigrants in the US, the church remained at the center of the community.
Nonetheless, he said, the church has had to change in order to adapt to the American environment. In the future, services will no longer be three hours long as they are in Ethiopia because the time commitment is unrealistic for the younger, busier congregation members.
Mulugetta said the his church has learned from the mistakes of the Catholic church, which lost a number of its younger followers because it failed to adapt to their needs.
“We have to change to expectations and demands of the next generation,” he said. “We’re learning from the mistakes of others.”
The work schedules of the Ethiopian community also had to be taken into account by church leaders for their Meskel celebration. While the holiday is a day of national celebration in Ethiopia, church leaders had to move the celebration to Sunday to better accommodate parishioners.
Sunday’s celebration reflected some of the church’s other adaptations to the American environment.
Before the lighting of the Demera, choirs and drummers sang and danced as they circled it. Before taking up the drum, one man draped linen over his leather jacket to cover his American style with the traditional fabric.
A church raffle followed, with the first prize of a flat-screen TV for a churchgoer. As the chanting continued, the last act before dark was the ceremonious lighting and passing of a torch, called a Chibbo, to Bishop Melketsedek to light the Demera with. A crowd gathered around the Demera, but as the bundle was passed, one of the men closest to it raised his voice in English over the chanting:
“Does anyone have a lighter? Matches?”
A restless moment passed before a lighter was found in the crowd, the bundle was lit and the Demera was set alight. The faithful readied their cellphones to record the moment, and in less then a minute the mass of sticks and dried grasses turned into a bonfire. The drumming and chanting continued and soon the sunlight faded as the blaze turned into the only source of light in the area. The rest of the night finished without a hitch.
This story has been amended from its original. The original used the term “Coptic” and “Ethiopian Orthodox” interchangeably, however the administrative functions of the two Church’s were divided in 1959. Oakland North regrets the error.