I went to church yesterday. I had not been in a church for about eight years, but when I discovered that there was an Ethiopian Orthodox church here in our city, I had to go.
I had emailed with a man from the church whom I'll call Ato A and he had told me I was welcome to come anytime. So after putting it off for a few weeks, I decided yesterday was the day. Our tutor warned me that Ethiopian Orthodox services are very long, and Ato A had said the service was from 8:00AM to noon, so I was prepared.
I was late getting there because the church was hard to find, on a gravel road. When I arrived the doors were closed and the service had already started. I opened the door onto a foyer where people could leave their shoes. Then there was a little hallway, and I could see into the main room of the church. When I came in everyone was prostrate on the floor praying. I wasn't about to walk in stepping over people, so I waited in the hallway until people stood up, then I moved into a pew toward the back.
The men were all on the left side and the women on the right. All the women had their heads covered with a white scarf, called a ne'tala. Most of the women also had a matching white dress. The men also wore the scarf, but over their shoulders. When more and more people came in and all the women had the ne'tala on, I wished that I had known to cover my head.
The service had a lot of similarities with the Greek Orthodox service. Lots of chanting in an ancient language (in this case, Ge'ez), lots of repetition, incense, ritualistic gestures etc. People stood the entire time. After I had been there about 45 minutes, the man across the aisle from me, who I discovered afterward was Ato A leaned over and whispered, "You can sit down if you are tired." I did sit down a couple of times when a woman with a baby and an older woman sat down, and I used them for my cue for when I should stand back up.
Most of the service was just chanting. At three different times people got prostrate on the floor again. I did the sit-on-the-edge-of-the-seat-with-head-bowed pose, and other people were doing that too. At one point a young man came around with a big book followed by another young man carrying a fancy umbrella. Everyone did a quick forehead-lips-forehead-lips touch to the book. I skipped that part.
At 10:15 we sat down for about one minute. A group came to the front. Then everyone stood back up and the group started singing and dancing. This part of the service was definitely more African. A man played a drum and everyone started ululating. This was my favorite part so far because it reminded me of Namibia.
After the singing was a reading. This part may have been in Amharic. At this point I can't hear the difference between Ge'ez and Amharic. I recognized a few words throughout the service (igziyaber = god, nachu = you are, mefelleg = need, memar = have mercy and habhab = watermelon... OK, probably wrong on that last one). The reading was about Dawit (David), Samuel, and Petros (Peter). I've heard of David and Peter, but I thought one was old Testament and the other new Testament, so I really had no clue what part this reading was from.
Finally the priest came out and talked for about 15 minutes, again I think in Amharic. Then everyone lined up and went to the front where the priest would do something and then put his hands on people's heads. I asked the woman next to me if I should go and she said yes, so I got in line. When I got to the priest we did an awkward little shuffle - was I supposed to kiss something? His hand? A cross? - and then he put his hands on my head and sent me on. I got a paper cup with "holy" water in it, walked around to the back, and the service was over.
Overall it was as monotonous as a Greek Orthodox service. I have to say that standing listening to chanting for over two hours does induce a trance-like state. Maybe that's the point.
After the service I met Ato A and he told me to get some tea and bread from the building next door. I went over and got some bread, and then stood around outside trying to catch someone's eye. I was kind of surprised that no one asked who I was. After a few minutes a man did come over and tell me to go back in the building and get tea. Since the tea wasn't ready, he told me to sit at a table and wait.
I sat next to a kid and said hi to him, and then I said hi to the woman sitting next to him and introduced myself. She smiled and shook her head to show she didn't speak English. So I tried Amharic - sime Kyra new = my name is Kyra. She looked a little alarmed, and turned around and called out to a group of women behind her, I think asking what "Kee-rah" meant. Finally the kid tapped her on the shoulder and said simwa new = it's her name. The woman just smiled and shook her head again. First attempt at Amharic in public - FAIL! Our tutor says that she probably didn't speak Amharic either, but some other Ethiopian language. Either that or my accent is terrible.
After that Ato A came in and sat down and talked to me. He told me about his family and a little bit about the service. I asked him about getting a ne'tala and he said his wife could get me one. Then I went over and talked to the priest. He also seemed to not speak much English, and he quickly switched to talking to me through Ato A. He invited me to a big celebration on August 20. I had prepared a respectful but honest answer in case he asked me about my beliefs, but he did not.
Around 11:30 things were winding down, and I left. I felt like I'd taken my first little trip to Ethiopia. I had had no idea there were so many Ethiopians in our area, and I'm glad I went.