Two Sunday’s ago my friend Ashraf and I worshiped at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Geneva. I had a pretty good idea of where the church was supposed to be once we got off the bus, but I wasn’t entirely sure. As we waited for the bus it became clearer by the minute we were in the right place and at the right time. In a short matter of time quite a group of Ethiopians had gathered. The men mostly in Western clothes while the women reflected a mix of east and west with beautiful head scarves accenting their puffy European winter jackets.
Our connection to the community, Daniel, another friend here at Bossey and a deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, informed me the liturgy (worship service) began at 9:30 am, and would probably go till 12:30 (three hours—pretty typical for Orthodox). The special festival going on this week would follow the service and people would likely stay till 2 or so. When we arrived at the house church it was chilly and damp and as Daniel had warned, it was completely full inside so people had gathered under a tent outside to worship by listening to the liturgy over speakers. Despite the sardine packed scene, I continued to see people inch their way through the crowd bombarding the narthex and thought, I want to try to do that, too! It was freezing and I wanted to really experience the worship service so I was going to attempt to squeeze in. Ashraf graciously insisted I go and so into the warmth I headed. I walked up the stairs, took off my shoes, and placed them among the heap of other pairs cluttering the covered porch.
The moment my toes touched the soft, warm carpet I found myself immediately comforted. I knew if I had stayed outside I would have been miserable and distracted. The two rooms in the church were quite small and jammed with people. I noticed the first room I entered, the Narthex, was mostly women and a few kids on the floor. All the women had their heads covered with white shawls, except two women –one with a black and gold covering and the other, myself, donning a brown scarf. It didn’t really matter what we had on, as long as we were covered. My eye caught a woman or two who were scarfless and no one seemed to mind, but they were certainly in the minority. I wanted to move forward, but I didn’t know why people were out in the Narthex—was it because of space or was it because of some religious custom? I did not want to offend anyone so I remained in this room for a while. I felt like I was just wading in a sea of white headscarves at eye-level with sea urchins squirming at my feet (a couple of little boys were playing on their handheld gaming systems or something and some girls wriggling about). I was practically in front of the doorway…chilly but warmer than Ashraf, I was sure. At least I had a direct view of the main room (Nave). I could not see much, but saw the deacons and priest doing something…dressed in satin robes with gold embroidering they sang into microphones in the space in front of all the seats, moving back and forth from there into a smaller room (Sanctuary) behind some curtains. I noticed a few other people who arrived after me walk right into the Nave so after 10 minutes or so I decided to do the same.
I walked to the doorway between the two rooms and decided it was best to stay there. It was nice and even though I obviously stood out people seemed to acknowledge me as one of their own. They smiled kindly and didn’t stare or anything. The kids were really curious about me though. They stared. They touched my legs or just gazed at me with great interest. So, of course I smiled and played along, not minding their behavior, rather it made me feel more accepted and included. Then, out of nowhere, a man walked up to me and ushered me to move forward, so I did. I was grateful; I was now in the second row. Being this close I could now really see what was going on.
The main wall, the iconostasis, was covered in brilliant colored images of Jesus, Mary, angels, an anthropomorphic image of God as the Father, a painting of Mary enthroned with homunculus Christ, scenes of the Last Supper, and also of Jesus’ birth with Mary and Joseph wistfully staring down at their little baby in the manger. I really understood the purpose of the images which was satisfying and also helpful because it enabled me to connect to this pretty foreign experience. The beauty of an iconostasis though is not only to admire its magnificent paint job, but through the images one can come to understand the primary elements of the Christian faith.
Being out of my context, I just observed, but confidently. I kept an eye on everything going on so not to disrupt anything, but also was bold and confident knowing I was there to worship God just like everyone else so I tried to fit in as best as possible, participating in cues to sing or bow my head. For me, just as much or more important than being involved in the actions of the worship, was simply being present with the worshipers—being a part of their community, being in solidarity with them. It didn’t matter so much to me that I couldn’t understand the language, know when to bow or what to sing, but just to be there. So, as much as I was trying to pay attention to and follow the actions of the liturgy I was paying attention to my surroundings and to my company.
What rituals reflect signs of worship besides the liturgical actions? Well, as I mentioned earlier, we all took our shoes off before we entered. I am pretty sure this is a symbolic acknowledgement that we are standing on holy ground. For practical reasons, I think it also helps so that when you bow on your knees during various times during the service (as I soon discovered) you don’t have to worry about having your face next to someone’s dirty, wet shoes. Also, all the women have their heads covered. This is a sign of reverence, like the shoes, but is also done in response to a Bible verse saying all women should have their heads covered (still practiced in a large number of churches, but no longer practiced in many others). It was very interesting to observe how the congregants were very reserved in many ways and quite the contrary in others. For example, the men were all on the left side while all the women sat at the right or stood in the front room. However, the children roamed all over the place. Some played amongst each other in the front or around the worship leaders, while others played on their electronic toys…Maybe the parents had learned that you can either be distracted yourself during the whole three hour service trying to keep your kids in line and well behaved or you can let them entertain each other and get on with your business. It’s not like some Reformation churches where the kids are more involved in the services where they can sing along, listen to the children’s sermon then go off to Sunday school. Instead, in the Ethiopian Orthodox church the worship leaders act as total intercessors with God. They perform all the actions in front of everyone on everyone’s behalf.
Another interesting aspect of worship unique to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians is their implementation of umbrellas in the service. They use bright, bold colored umbrellas gilded with gold fringe during the service in particularly reverent parts such as the Eucharist. As the priest blessed the wine and bread other leaders held the elements and an umbrella over the entire scene. The umbrella remained over the elements as people came to receive them. It was beautiful. I loved this tangible symbol of holy space and act.
A couple funny anecdotes of the service involved the little kids sitting around me. One little boy was playing with a miniature toy car on the carpet and decided he was going to use my feet as part of his road. Then another little girl noticed the strange bumps all over my legs. As I mentioned previously, it was very cold, even inside, and anyone who knows me I get cold very easily so, not surprisingly I was covered in goose bumps. Apparently, these were quite an anomaly in her life experience and she found mine most fascinating. I just drank in their amusement with joy.
Following much singing and bowing a few of the leaders (priest and deacons) began to parade around inner room singing and doing something with the Bible. They brought out the gold Bible and as someone held an umbrella over them our friend Daniel held the Bible while the Father (priest) read from it. A bell was then rung and we were invited to kiss the Bible. I could see it coming toward me and thought, I have no idea how to do this ritual… Moments later an elderly woman was brought in and was seated next to me. They brought the Bible to her and I watched her touch her forehead to it then kiss it, three times she did this. Then they leaned down (I was sitting on the floor) and placed it before me so I did just the same. Thank goodness. I managed to avoid a very awkward an uncomfortable situation. Thus far I had managed to fit in.
After the service we were met with drums, cameras, candles, a parade, singing and dancing outdoors. Women in green long-sleeved dresses with white stoles and white cloth crowns bearing green crosses danced in rows in the center of the blacktop at the base of the stairs leading out from the church. They faced each other and stepped back and forth then moved into a circle, some clapping, some beating drums. It was a beautiful and rich sight to behold.
At last it was time for food! We gathered in a long line snaking around the church. As Ashraf and I waited we had a chance to speak with Daniel and some of the other church leaders. When we reached the front of the line we were handed a plate with a few large pieces of injera (made of Teff flour) this very spongy, off-white, slightly sour bread. I rather like it, but it is surely an acquired taste. We made our way around a table with a variety of types of food to eat with the bread. We had savory beans and lentils, succulent meats, and well cooked veggies saturated in spicy, bold flavors. If you’ve never eaten Ethiopian food I highly recommend it. It is not only delicious, but lots of fun to eat. So, the way Ethiopian food works is you have little piles of many types of food on top of your injera and then you tear of the bread in order to use it to grab the food. Any meal you can eat with your hands automatically becomes doubly delicious and fun, in my opinion. Let’s just say I left very full in spirit and stomach.