Ethiopians in St. Louis get their own church

Elias Kifle | July 27th, 2008

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.”