Our journey to Orthodoxy began in Ethiopia long before we were born. Orthodoxy was passed on in our families (immediate and extended) from one generation to another for several decades, if not centuries. In fact, most of our friends, neighbors and classmates were also Orthodox Christians.
History of Christianity in Ethiopia
The earliest and best known reference to the introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia is in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-38) when Philip the Evangelist converted an Ethiopian eunuch in the first century. But it was not until 330 AD that Christianity took a strong and lasting foothold in the country when King Ezana converted to Christianity and declared it the state religion. Christianity remained the state religion until 1974 (1,644 years) when the last Emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed by a military coup. Today, there are approximately 32,000 Orthodox Churches and close to 5,000 monasteries in Ethiopia.
Growing Up Orthodox
Both our parents were devout Orthodox Christians and instilled in us from early childhood that Orthodoxy was a way of life, not simply a religion practiced on Sundays. So, just like millions of other Ethiopian children, we were baptized in Orthodox churches, which we attended on a regular basis. We also took Bible study classes, observed all fasting days (starting at age 7), and made annual pilgrimages to many monasteries in the country.
Most Ethiopian families, including ours, celebrated their Saint’s days by feeding the poor. We also celebrated major religious holidays such as Christmas, Pascha and Epiphany on a national level. Icons adorned our homes as they do most other parishioners’, and it was common to see sacred images inside public office buildings and even taxi cabs. Orthodoxy is present everywhere in the country.
Coming to America
I came to the US in 1980, and Bella came in 1986. We didn’t know each other then, but we both went through the usual adjustment period such as adapting to the culture and tradition of the US and finding an Orthodox church. There were very few Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the US in the early 1980s, and since we didn’t have a large Ethiopian population then, very few of our communities were able to have their own churches. So, we managed to attended Greek Orthodox churches when we could.
Over the next several years, I moved around, from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. (1983-1987) and then to San Jose, California (1987-1996). The Washington D.C. area has the largest Ethiopian population in the US, and thus has numerous Ethiopian Orthodox churches. I attended St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Washington D.C. Once I moved to San Jose, I became a regular member of St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church there. Bella, on her part, attended an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Atlanta and a Greek Orthodox Church in North Carolina.
I met Bella in 1995, who at the time was living and working in North Carolina. I couldn’t ask the good Lord for a better life companion than her. She was the answer to all my prayers. So, we got married in 1995, and we became regular members of St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church in San Jose. A year later, Bella got a job offer here in Portland, and we moved to Beaverton in 1996.
As usual, we looked around for an Ethiopian Orthodox church, but there were none then. Meanwhile, Heran was born in 1997 and was baptized at St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Seattle.
It was during that time that we visited St. John while it was still at Catlin Gabel. But after a few weeks, we learned that a new St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church was opening in SE Portland. So, for the next 6 years, St. Mary became our church. We became very active, and I ended up serving on the Parish Council as secretary. However, an unfortunate incident in the church created a division among the parishioners, and as a result, we decided to leave. We visited a number of churches, including a Baptist church here in Beaverton, but we found it to be too different from our Orthodox background.
It was while praying for guidance from the Good Lord that we saw an article in the Sunday edition of the Oregonian that a new Greek Orthodox Church was opening in the Beaverton area. We drove to St. John that same afternoon. The church was still under construction when we met Father Theodore and Presvytera Stacey, who welcomed us and invited us to attend a Sunday service, which we did. We were amazed to learn that the great majority of the parishioners were Americans who converted to Orthodoxy, and we were eager to find out more about the church.
We knew an Ethiopian woman, Mrs. Alemash, who was already a member of St. John. We began to have long conversations with her about her experience. She told us that she was very happy and advised us to pray so the Good Lord would make this our new home. Our prayers were soon answered, and we became members of St. John.
We couldn’t ask for a better church than St. John as we have great spiritual teachers in Father Theodore and Father Timothy and parishioners, who are devoted and very welcoming. Some of the lessons that we’ve learned at St. John during the past six years include:
- Being a cradle Orthodox might be a plus but not necessarily a requirement
- Orthodoxy is not an entitlement but rather a lifelong journey; where one aspires to live a “Christ-centered” life.
- Orthodoxy is what binds us together and not our ethnicity.