Ethiopians in St. Louis get their own church


By Tim Townsend, STLtoday.com

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI — Most of the members of Debre Nazreth St. Mary and St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are part of the area’s working class. They are cab drivers, hotel maids, gas station attendants, casino workers and construction laborers.

Two years ago, the congregation lost all its savings — $128,000 — after handing it over to a man who promised to construct a church building for them in Jennings.

The building was never completed, the congregation never got its money back and many of its immigrant-members became disillusioned about life in their new country.

After collecting $140,000 over the last two years for another down payment — this one for an existing building — members of Debre Nazreth will dedicate their new church in Vinita Park today.

“We went through some terrible times,” said the church’s priest, Melakegenet (this is a title, like saying “the Rev.”) Belete D. Yirefu, through a translator. “But we had faith and look what we have achieved. We lost one church and we lost some money, but now we are happy.”

For a decade, the group rented space at other churches for $150 to $800 per month. But some of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s rituals — the use of incense, for instance — make it difficult for the congregation to use other church’s space. In some churches, Debre Nazreth, which has 300 members, was asked to hold its service in the basement.

And yet, members are grateful to those churches for taking them in when they had nowhere else to go. “Without those people allowing us to use their churches, we would not be here today,” said Gedlu Metaferia, a member of Debre Nazreth and executive director of the African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its roots to the middle of the fourth century, when “a bishop from the Kingdom of Axum was consecrated in Alexandria and began the conversion of Ethiopia,” according to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. The church split from the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century over a theological disagreement about the true nature of Christ. The rituals and traditions of the church are ancient, and Sunday services can last five or six hours.

In 2004, the Debre Nazreth board began looking for a permanent home. It found a half-built church in Jennings and made a deal with the man who owned it, the Rev. Charles Roberson, pastor of Emmanuel Watertower Christian Ministries church in St. Louis.

Roberson had bought the property in 1996 for $45,000, records show, and began building a church a few years later. But in 2000, after a number of problems with the building, including a collapsed wall due to a faulty foundation, the city issued a stop work order. In 2004, the city told Roberson — who was acting as his own contractor — that he would have to begin the permit process from the beginning to resume building.

That’s when Roberson found the Debre Nazreth board.

The two sides negotiated a price of $305,000 and the board put down $3,000 in earnest money, then cut Roberson a check for another $125,000 in January 2005. The agreement, the board believed, was that Roberson would finish the construction of the church in two months, then he would be paid the remaining $177,000.

Months went by, and no work was done. The city’s stop work order had never been lifted.

Roberson did not respond to an interview request this week, but in 2006, he told the Post-Dispatch that he had done nothing wrong, and that the Debre Nazreth board had pressured him to complete the project without permits and out of sight of the city’s building inspectors.

“We did what they wanted, and when it went sour, they wanted their money back,” Roberson said then.

Debre Nazreth eventually filed a lawsuit, and in July 2006, the city of Jennings condemned the church building. It was demolished in December.

That same month, a St. Louis County judge ordered Roberson to pay Debre Nazreth $15,000, then $2,000 per month until he reaches $143,000 ($125,000 plus interest). The congregation’s attorney, Richard Abrams, said Roberson has paid only $500.

When church members realized they had lost everything, tension grew between the congregation and the board. Some members accused board members of being duped.

But, Yirefu eventually rallied the congregation, and over the last two years, they surpassed their previous down payment collection. “I have a very good congregation and a beautiful church,” he said. “I cannot measure our happiness, joy and blessings.”

At the end of April, the Debre Nazreth community worshipped for the first time in its new building. The members bought it for $540,000, and have, in the last three months, made it their own.

Twenty-six wooden, red-cushioned pews — thirteen on one side for the men, and thirteen on the other side for the women — fill the nave. In the chancel, Ethiopian Christian paintings rest against a lectern.

Church leaders expect 400 to 500 guests and church members for its celebration. A feast of Ethiopian cuisine — spicy vegetables, lamb, meatballs, chicken, lentils and rice — will be served.

In the church’s Fellowship Hall earlier this week, seven women — members of the choir — met to practice. They chanted songs and pounded the table where they sat to mimic the rhythm of the Ethiopian drums.

“You are the almighty,” they sang in Amharic, “for the people who believe in you.”


11 comments on “Ethiopians in St. Louis get their own church

  1. Aleka on

    This is an extraordinary achievement for the Diaspora faithful in general and the Ethiopian people in St Louis in particular. Congradulation May God gives you the wisdom and to steadfastly adhere to your true Orthodox faith in the days ahead.

    Your arduous journey is an indication of the trial awaiting you in the future. But fear nothing as the almighty God who oversaw your Journey like the Israelite exodus from Egypt o the Land of Canaan will undoubtedly be there for you as well.

    The next hurdle you will pass is the sanctification of your new church building by the church’s Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo archbishop. Otherwise it will forever remains as lifeless prayer space devoid of its sanctifications to serve the Holy Communion, instead of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross which has protected your ancestors to do the same for you.

    As you navigate through this issue you will come across the army (Mahebere Kidusan) of Aba Gebremedhin to sway you into their kingdom. Make sure your board members are free from allegiance to outside organization especially Mahebere Kidusan and its agents. In the Orthodox Church there is no such thing as (Geleletegna) independent church, unless it is to serve the interest of Woyane and Aba Gebremedhin. Anyone who may advocate otherwise is without a doubt a paid surrogate of Aba Gebremedhin promising future division, strife and isolation.

    This day however is yours to rejoice once more to praise the almighty God and his deliverance. May he gives all of you the sustenance in thriving all over Missouri –Kansas and beyond.
    God save Ethiopia and Bless the new Church ! Amen

  2. God bless the St. Louis church members for your accomplishment. Hopefully, you will be taken as a role model for other communities who started the same journey like you but not yet completed.

  3. agere on

    Aleke you said it all. Theser is no such kind of geleltenga. how come some one will be geleltenga from the truth. you either go with truth or lies. guys be one of them.

  4. Gegenaw on

    Congratulations my brothers and sisters in Christ. Good Job!
    my piece of advice is Keep away from Mahibre Kidusan. They will create divisions among the members. My Church collapse because of them.

  5. Dan on

    This is in response to the #2 Aleka who stated ….

    “The next hurdle you will pass is the sanctification of your new church building by the church’s Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo archbishop. Otherwise it will forever remains as lifeless prayer space devoid of its sanctifications to serve the Holy Communion, instead of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross which has protected your ancestors to do the same for you.”

    There is no such “sanctification” of a church by bishop or archbishop as you stated. There is always blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit when we meet to pray in Jesus Christ name.
    For centuries Ethiopian churches throughout the land did not have or needed a bishop to sanctify them, and they were a truly house of prayers, Churches, Monasteries -GEDAMAT, and Adbarat. There was only one bishop at a time who came from Egypt, spoke none of the language Ethiopians speak and just sits next to the king. The Orthodox Theology is that it is the Holy Spirit who protect and sanctify the church and Christians who pray in the church. The bishops we see here and back in Ethiopia use the church and the believers to their worldly and lavish life. They are after the trapping of power. I have not seen any bishop truly devoted to the Gospel of Christ and teach Christ’s teaching.

    To the the members of Debre Nazreth St. Mary and St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI I say Congratulation. Do not let anyone saw a discord among you. Our prayers to the Lord Jesus Christ to protect you until we are given a true Shepard bishop in the spirit of St Peter and St. Paul and all those who truly followed them in serving the church and its flocks.

  6. Bertu on

    It is truly sad when the history and the cannan of our faith is being trampled by revisionist on the broad day light.

    You said ‘There is always blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit when we meet to pray in Jesus Christ name. ………The Orthodox Theology is that it is the Holy Spirit who protect and sanctify the church and Christians who pray in the church.’

    Dan, This is exactly what Menafikan who claimed to have direct contact with Jesus claim to argue against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. And if you indeed are one of them you do not need to apply, as this only concerns the true disciples of the Tewahedo faithfuls.

    According to the Fetha Negist, the consecration and sanctification of a new church building shall be commenced by dully ordained archbishop of the church. Throughout the existence of our church The patriarchal authority of Alexandria is supported with multiple archbishops and the Etchege. Even Priesthood and deaconship authority cannot be given to just anyone without the archbishops power to ordain. Priests are not plumbers or electrician job seekers that you look up at your local newspaper or job fares. Therefore, if you cannot hire non-ordained priest without archbishops , you cannot call a church building that is not sanctified without archbishops. In short church is not a personal business where you buy a building, bring the Tabot and hire a priest and claim independence to do anything you desire with it.

    If you are member of the dreaded thugs aka ‘Mahebere Kidusan, now you start to make sense why you say the thing you said in order to create division within the Diaspora community. Your statement “I have not seen any bishop truly devoted to the Gospel of Christ and teach Christ’s teaching.’ Is evidence at hand. The best slogan Mahebere Kidusan have come up is ‘accept Aba Gebremidhin or renounce every other hierarchical church especially the legitimate Patriarch Abuna Merkorios’.

    The three head prong attempt to divide our church is truly tragic period of the state of the church’s existence at this time. The Diaspora is finally awakened of the evil mission Mahebere Kidusan and Woyane by gallantly fighting in every church, in every state wherever their ugly head shows up.

    Long Live Ethiopia and her church

  7. Anonymous on

    Very happy for their successes! I wish a lot more of it.

    On the other hand at least they were cheated by outsider. Here in Columbus, OH we are also having some problem. The Priest (Kesise Yared G/Medhin) is being a dictator. This church is going down and it really needs attention. The church has collected about $140,000 in the past couple years and now they have about $7000 left in the account. Kesise Yared refused to put out report and like to control everything. To top on that, there is about $42,000 that the board member and the priest fighting for. This money was fundraised by ‘ekube’, raffle and special gifts specially given toward the purchase of church, but kesise Yared would like to have control of that money. He fighting with the board members for putting the money in another account. I heard that couple Sunday ago that they were arguing in the church. The Kesise was smearing names to the board members just because they put out a report on the financial when he decided to take them out from the board membership.
    For God sake, in which country a priest appoint who should be in the board member. It sad in time of the century we have leaders like Kesise Yared. BTW, I am sorry for calling him Kesise. He is destroying the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

  8. ladora lee.member on

    We had an Ethopian who recently died his namr was y0hannes haille we would like to have a memorial services for him here at Independence Center4245 Forest Park Ave. 3145334245 please callHe was a member for quite a few years .He was 64 died of stage 4 cancer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.