Jefferson Avenue Church is New Home to Eritrean Congregation
By Nanette D. Massey
The church structure at 1551 Jefferson Avenue, last known as Unity Church of God In Christ, has had many lives. In its latest incarnation you will see African-skinned and Mediterranean-skinned people entering on Sunday morning starting as early as 7 a.m. You immediately notice that everyone's garb is all white, the women have long skirts and their necks and heads concealed under lovely wraps.
When you step into the first door, you are invited to a shelf where everyone deposits their footwear, as shoes are not allowed any further. You enter beyond the doors of the sanctuary and are at once engulfed in the unmistakable perfume and smokey white hue of incense. The women part to the pews on the right and men to the left. Now settled in, your attention moves to the front wall of the church and you find your gaze resting on---- --- pale medieval artists' renditions of each of the twelve familiar apostles of Christianity. In fact, all the walls and windows are covered with brightly painted renditions of angels wielding their swords in battle, or the ever patient and kind portrayal of Jesus exhibiting the flowing hair westerners are used to. The young priest is wearing an ornate, brocaded robe not unlike you would see on any Catholic priest. He is carrying a crucifix, a bible, and swaying a metal censer suspended from chains adorned with bells, which you find to be the source of the incense smoke.
Welcome to St. Michael's Eritrean Orthodox Tewahado Church of Buffalo.This denomination is one of six groups of churches, historically throughout eastern Africa and parts of the Middle East, that come together under the umbrella of Oriental Orthodox Christian. Nearly all of this church's members are resettled refugees from Eritrea, a country north of Ethiopia and across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, in what is known as the Horn of Africa. The service is performed in the Tigrinyan language. Still, it is impossible for any typical east Buffalo church goer not to feel at home in the familiar call and response style that our own African American versions of Christianity have retained from our earliest history in this country. The entire service is one continuous three and a half hour song between the attending priests and the congregants. (Spoiler alert, be prepared to stand for 95% of that song.) Two monitors scroll the words in both Tigrinyan and English for visitors, and you recognize "Lord, have compassion upon us. O Christ Lord, O Christ Lord, O Christ Lord... Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses..."
Tadewos Haileyesus, 32, is the head priest of the church. He is married with four children, explaining that one cannot ascend to the position of priest without being married first. He drives taxi for a living in his more mundane secular life. Dawit Gehrezgheir, 43 and married with eight children, is the president of the executive board.
For years they shared space at the Greek Orthodox church at Delaware and W. Utica while scouting for a home to call their own. They agree that this Jefferson location "was God's pick" for them. Tadewos is the only paid staffer, everyone else volunteers. Dawit zestfully explains "the bible says at the end of my life when I go to Heaven, God will pay me. He says 'what you do for me, I will give you back.'" They both agree that a happier life, the blessing upon your family, and service to God in and of itself are their own rewards.
The two explain practice of the religion is very rooted in diligent study of the bible. "We need to go through the words of the bible", says Tadewos. In Exodus 3:5, Moses is commanded to remove his shoes as he approaches the hallowed ground of the burning bush. John 20:12 describes two angels in white who appeared at the burial tomb of Jesus. Thus, the tradition of covering oneself in white for service. White is a symbol of purity, a clear heart, and respect for God. It also serves the purpose of not distinguishing church goers from one another. Undistracted by a neighbor's expensive watch, or particularly humble showings for that matter, one can focus wholly on God. They stress that orthodox implies a strict, sacrificial approach to the religion. The bible gives them very clear instructions for fasting, praying, and other directives. "A lot of people know Jesus, but they don't know the correct way of Christianity, the correct way of God," adds Tadewos.
Their religion commands respect for all people and all other religions. "There is no color," says Dawit. "We respect all religions, we love everybody. That's the way of God, we cannot hate. The bible says if a man hits you on the right cheek, give him your left." The church sincerely extends an invitation to any who wish to visit. "If they believe in Jesus, all are welcome."
After the blessing to the children with huge drums and a few more songs, all convene downstairs in the kitchen where tables are lined up for a shared meal and socializing. There is a taupe colored bread called injera and everyone grabs a huge piece. There is rice,salad, and a chicken stew called zigni spiced with chili peppers, garlic and rue in such a way that the back bite sneaks up on you just a few seconds after you gulp it down. The grown ups chase it with a thick beer called suwa, while the kids run around outside expelling the energy pent up from being indoors for so many hours.
Biniam Kidane is a landlord with properties on the west side and a founding member. Over rice and zigna, he shares that this church is his life, and he is very comfortable in its new home. At the shared location on the west side, "I was always worried that maybe the kids were making too much noise or something" and that at any given time their hosts might have had enough of it. "Now I don't have to think about any of that and my mind is free to pray, just pray." Gde Habte, who attends this church with his wife and 4 children, expresses the same sentiment. While sharing space, their hours were limited. "Here we are not dependent on anybody, we are fully independent. We can stay as long as we want. Here, the service is more like it is in our own country." Future plans include a parking lot, an additional facility for child care, and years of pleasant relations with their new east Buffalo neighbors on Jefferson.