Eritrean worship: the anti-megachurch

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 01, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Tired of your local megachurch’s efforts to make Sunday morning worship services more accessible to modern ears, with their rock music, their videos, their avoidance of ritual and their huge auditoriums?

Spend Sunday mornings worshipping at Holy Trinity Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church in Hartwell. It’s the anti-megachurch. Here, there is no band, the prayers are hundreds of years old, the ritual is everything and the service lasts for three hours.

The church serves immigrants from Eritrea, an East African country the size of Pennsylvania, which gained its independence in 1993 after a long civil war with neighboring Ethiopia. No one knows how many Eritreans live in Cincinnati, but Father Athanasius Ghebre-Ab, one of the church’s two priests, believes there are about 350.

Cincinnati has two Eritrean churches, the other being St. Michael Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church on Borden Street. The churches split in 2006 in a disagreement over the Eritrean government’s role in the Eritrean Orthodox church, Ghebre-Ab said.

The Eritrean church is one of six Oriental Orthodox churches worldwide, the others being the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Malankara (Indian) churches. They are Christian churches with rituals akin to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

As worshippers prostrate themselves during Sunday service, Yohana Alebel seems more interested in her book. She sits on the back of Almaz Gizaw, who has prostrated herself for prayer. Kevin Eigelbach

Holy Trinity meets inside a former ski equipment shop the church has remodeled as its temporary home. One day, Ghebre-Ab said, the congregation hopes to build a permanent sanctuary along Orthodox lines on land it owns next door.

The present building’s sanctuary seats about 60. In its basement fellowship hall, the congregation meets after worship for tea and wheat bread, or a full meal. Worshippers leave their shoes on a rack outside the sanctuary before they enter, and when they do, some drop to their knees and touch their foreheads to the carpet, or at least make the sign of the cross.

The padded chairs face a wooden partition with an opening in the center covered by a burgundy-colored curtain. On the partition hang seven icons, or religious paintings, created by a local artist. One, titled “Christ the Holy Savior,” shows a dark-skinned Jesus with brown eyes, a black beard and long black hair, wearing a red robe and blue cloak, and with a yellow, halo-like circle behind his head.

Many of the worshippers wear a long, white cloth called a netsela, the men with it wrapped about their shoulders, the women with it over their heads. The men sit on the left side, the women the right.

In many church services, the children would be ushered off to a nursery, but not here. Even the youngest stay for the entire service, though they aren’t quiet, and they sometimes climb onto the backs of the worshippers when they prostrate themselves, which happens throughout the service.

Most of the time, however, the worshippers stand – so much so that long wooden staffs are provided for them to lean on. One woman uses hers to nudge a sitting child who is supposed to be standing.

When the service begins, Ghebre-Ab, in a crème-colored robe and a red cap, both trimmed in gold, stands behind the partition’s central curtain, along with a similarly clad Father Tesfalidet Kidane. Much of the action will take place behind this curtain, hidden from the congregation, which sings the liturgy, sometimes in English, sometimes in Tigrinya, the everyday language of Eritrea, or Ge’ez, the church’s liturgical language, which is like Latin to Roman Catholics.

Now the central curtain is opened, and the priests can be seen with two boys robed in white, who hold staffs topped with ornate metallic crosses. They will lead many prayers you won’t hear in your neighborhood Protestant church, among them a prayer of reconciliation, a prayer of salutation by St. Basil and The Prayer of the Fraction from the Anaphora of St. Epiphanius, for breaking of the communion bread.

Berhe Abraha leans on his staff to pray during Sunday service at Holy Trinity Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church in Hartwell. Kevin Eigelbach

Ghebre-Ab carries a censer filled with burning incense to the back of the sanctuary, wafting the smoke toward the worshippers, stinging the eyes and tickling the throats of those not used to it. The words of the liturgy, projected onto two screens for the worshippers, recall how Aaron the priest burned incense and how the Virgin Mary was a “fragrant ointment.”

Later, he reads the Gospel lesson from a Bible that one of the servers holds open, while another holds over them a multi-colored umbrella, in honor of Christ. When Ghebre-Ab finishes, the Bible, now wrapped in white linen, is offered to the worshippers, who touch their foreheads to it and kiss it repeatedly.

The words of the liturgy offer more history, how Jesus lived as a normal man, how he hungered for food, how he rose from the dead and to whom he appeared. There are prayers to be purified in order to properly receive communion, and then the communion wafers and wine are brought out from behind the central curtain. As Ghebre-Ab serves the bread, the umbrella again is held over him.

A wicker basket is passed around for the offering, and holy water is splashed generously on the faces of each worshipper. Ghebre-Ab gives a brief homily about the Biblical King David, whom he calls Father David, and the service is nearly over.

The servers, priests and the young people sing several worship songs, this time accompanied by two large drums strapped over the shoulder and struck with the hand. After each verse, women ululate, a trilling wail that sounds just like the war cries of Native Americans as depicted in old Westerns.

After several songs, the service is over. They’ll do it again the next Sunday, for another three hours.