Last week I was in Ethiopia and had the privilege of visiting a local Orthodox Church in Debre Birhan whilst visiting the country with the NGO I work for (www.mrdf.org.uk). These are my thoughts and reflections as scribbled in my notebook whilst in Ethiopia on what was then the first day of our Lent in the UK:
(Notes from my journal): ‘I walked into the compound of St Selassie Church and as I faced the main building men and women began to partÂ likeÂ surfÂ torn between coast and ocean. The men wrapped in dusty cloaks guarding against the frost nibbling at their faces in the early morning light shuffled to the rightÂ and the women almost glidingÂ as a shock of white shawls; bodiless ghosts with dark faces peeping out of the thin pale veils wrapped around their heads, moved to the left.
The women spilled towards the large doors at the edge of church. Silent figures shrouded in stark, and amazingly clean, white cotton. There is not enough room in the women’s portion of the church to fit everyone at once so for many minutes we stood outside. I joined the women doing my best to follow social cues whilst at the same time using this alien environment to try to figure out God in a new way for myself. This was a challenge as everything spoken was in Amharic and this was relayed over a crackling speaker positioned at the top of the church facing the male half of the compound. Still, as the women fell forward when the microphone spluttered out a particularly loud instruction, I decided to do the same and found myself face down with my nose pressed against a surprisingly cold stone floor. Initially I peeked nervously out the corner of my eyes. Already being the polar opposite to everyone else in the space (white face peering out of a dark shawl) I did not want to stand out further by doing the wrong thing. As the absolute silence washed over me though, only the constant buzz from the sound system remaining and the gentle noise of one-hundred or so women pressed prayingÂ up against my side, I found myself able to think about my faith. How often do we kneel in church in the UK and how often as a ChurchÂ do we lay down before God in awe? I became aware how foreign this was to me, not just because I was in a foreign land but because this was a pattern of worship foreign to my body. I felt slightly ashamed when thinking about the number of times I sing worship songs talking about this kind of humility but realising I had never experienced those words in the way I was on that cold stone floor.
When we eventually rose back up again to a seated position I was also struck by how faithful these women are. They wait out in the cold at 6am in order to eventually be able to pass through the church doors. Would I wait outside church to be let in? Would I get up really early in order to go through that wait? Would I then still praise God? Some women were of courseÂ doing the things those that only turn up out ofÂ habit do; muttering prayers whilst looking elsewhere, one woman was on Facebook on her phone (Facebook REALLY is everywhere!) and one woman had clearly fallen asleep. Most of the women that I saw outside of St Selassie were there celebrating their Lord thoughÂ with pure joy, absorbed in prayer, reading the Bible or simply sitting in the silence.
As I finally went into the church itself shoes were slung off in one breath and the sign of the cross made in the next. A petite and wizened old woman beckoned me in giving me a toothless grin. TheÂ cacophony of noise inside the church was arresting, from the silence outside I entered into a sprawling mess of humanity , all with their eyes fixed on a cross woven into a large curtain. Babies were crying at their mother’s breasts, women were praying loudly and in earnest and a priest stood with his head leaning out from the curtain preaching to the crowd. The room was pungent with incense but also with a mixture of otherÂ smells including candle wax, body odour and the smoke from lights extinguished as women floated back and forth in their white shawls. There was no room to sit down as theÂ space wasÂ only around four metres wide, I had to slide past numerous feet , bags and babes-in-arms in order to reach a second similar room. I sat at the back of this room next to my new friend and guide. A nun then walked over followed by a priest who carried small metal cups on a silver tray. The priest asked me in perfect English if I knew Christ and would accept Communion with them. I decided I was happy to do this and drank cold water and ate bread whilst praying along with my new brothers and sisters inÂ a different language to their own. An incredibly special experience and one I will not forget easily. People might argue I did not know their theology and perhaps shouldnt have taken Communion but I know that in that room I was experiencing a shared faith and taking that water and bread with followers of Jesus like myself. The rest of my time sat behind a curtain in a small enclave of a massive church was done so in silence.
Upon leaving the church the sun had finally come out and had warmed the earth in only the way an African sun can. The women scattered back towards to streets, kicking on battered shoes and easing out ofÂ their shawls,Â and I reflected that whilst most had been clothed in white cloaks that day, I had been cloaked in blessings.