Ethiopians in D.C. Region Mourn Archbishop's Death

Orthodox priests say a funeral Mass for Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, head of the Ethiopian church in the Western Hemisphere.
Orthodox priests say a funeral Mass for Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, head of the Ethiopian church in the Western Hemisphere. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants gathered at a District church yesterday to mourn Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, who spent decades launching congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean and is credited with leading thousands of Rastafarians -- including reggae great Bob Marley -- toward Orthodox Christianity.

The elaborate funeral Mass and memorial service unfolded over nearly 10 hours at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation that worships in a converted parking garage on Buchanan Street NW in 16th Street Heights.

Men and women -- many wearing traditional, gauzy robes over Western-style attire -- wept as clerics chanted the liturgy, sang hymns and recited eulogies in praise of the man whom many consider the father of Orthodox Christianity in the Ethiopian diaspora.

"He was the one who really started this church. He would come here from New York and give us service," recalled Sergout Workue, the church secretary, who immigrated to the United States 28 years ago.

Back then, she said, there were no Ethiopian churches in this area. She went to Mass at a Roman Catholic church instead. "When we didn't have anything in this community, he was the one who was there for us," said Workue, of Mount Rainier. "We run to him, everybody. He touched our lives."

The bishop commonly known as Abuna Yesehaq -- Father Isaac in Ethiopia's Amharic language -- died Dec. 29 in Newark at age 72. His body lay in state in New York before being brought to Washington. From here, it will travel to Dallas for another memorial service, then to Jamaica for burial.

As a young cleric, Yesehaq was a protege of Emperor Haile Selassie, titular head of the Ethiopian church. Yesehaq was sent to the United States in the 1960s and eventually became administrator of the church in the hemisphere, launching about 70 congregations, his followers say.

Yesehaq's work in the Caribbean began after Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966 and was thronged by local Rastafarians, who saw Selassie as a modern-day messiah. According to church leaders, Selassie denied being a deity and urged Yesehaq to try to draw the Rastafarians to the Ethiopian church. Yesehaq served many Jamaicans and others of Caribbean descent, in the islands and in immigrant enclaves in the United States. Among them was Marley, at whose funeral Yesehaq officiated in 1981.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of Christianity's oldest branches, was linked to the Coptic Church in Egypt until the 1050s, when it began conducting worship in the ancient Ethiopian language of Geez.

In the 1990s, Yesehaq declared the Western branch of Ethiopian Orthodoxy independent of the hierarchy in Addis Ababa, rejecting the authority of the new patriarch, Abuna Paulos. The rift endures today, although there are no liturgical differences between the two branches.

Every Ethiopian church includes a mekdes , or holy of holies, containing a replica of the biblical ark of the covenant -- which according to some was taken to Ethiopia after the conquest of the Israelite Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Only clergy can enter the mekdes.

At the Mariam Church, Yesehaq's casket was positioned in front of the white-curtained mekdes, draped in a vivid burgundy tapestry embroidered with turquoise and gold. Bishops and priests from Ethiopian Orthodox congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean read scripture, burned incense and chanted traditional prayers.

The D.C. congregation was started in 1987, renting space from another church for a decade until it bought the former Bell Atlantic parking garage. At first, services there were held in a small chapel created from office space on the structure's upper level. But when the number of faithful grew, the garage space was remade for worship, with chandeliers, carpet and colorful tapestries installed amid the exposed ductwork and wiring.

Yesehaq visited the church often, hearing parishioners' confessions and celebrating holidays and other special occasions. In 2001, he granted the church cathedral status. More than 400 people attend most Sundays, church leaders said, and on holidays, more than 1,000.

When church members offered Yesehaq a stipend for his visits or for travel expenses, "He'd say, 'No, no, no, no, no,' " recalled deacon Dagne Gizaw of Silver Spring. "He'd say, 'We need to strengthen your church.' And he would give his own money to make his own donation."

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