It was deadline night. The Talon staff was hustling in the publications room, littering the center table with rough draft newspaper spreads and empty Chinese take out containers.
Suddenly, the sound of keyboard clicks was interrupted by reverberating thuds. The school began to vibrate. I put my pen down and hastily followed the drumming into the Commons.
A sharp-featured woman drifted through the front entrance, a white-draped dress flowing loosely at her ankles. She tucked her tight curls of hair underneath a white scarf on her head. She skipped up the staircase and explained, in a soft and rhythmic voice, that she had come to Minnehaha to hear “the very famous preacher from Ethiopia.” Radiantly bursting with excitement, she disappeared into the drum-throbbing auditorium.
On Nov. 6, Minneapolis’ Ethiopian Orthodox Church congregated in Minnehaha’s Hognander Chapel to hear sermons from the renowned Ethiopian preacher Mehreteab Asefa, and bishops Atnatios and Daniel.
“Today’s a special occasion. We [have] a preacher and two bishops who came from Ethiopia,” church president Melaku Weldestsadik said. “At the church, we don’t have enough space, and that’s why we rented this place. It’s beautiful.”
I was craning my neck to see inside the chapel, when an affable man waved me closer.
After offering a white headscarf and inviting me to grab my camera, a man nicknamed ‘China’ gently led me down the chapel aisle to the front row, where I kneeled directly under the stage.
The black-robed and bearded bishops sat in a row at the back of the stage, their staffs held upright. In front of them, young men danced and sung and beat on large drums swung over their shoulders.
A calm voice recited scripture melodically in a foreign language. Raising wooden staffs, the dancers moved in calculated unison.
The congregation clapped with jangling bracelets and firm hands. They swayed, they laughed with each other, they let out battle-like cries in rejoicement.
Nearly every single seat in the chapel, both floor and balcony, was taken.
The maroon rows were flooded with waves of white head scarves and draped dresses: in the same rows where Minnehaha high schoolers read Bible verses off of projected screens on Thursdays, in the same chapel where students sing to the strums of senior Ingrid Snook’s acoustic guitar.
I looked across a sea of unfamiliarity and did not know how to worship like the people around me.
Then I noticed the wooden cross. Though it was draped with ornamented blankets, the cross stood in its home, stage left and gleaming in the spotlight. The cross was the only thing I recognized in that service.
I realized that the people around me were praising the same God that I praise. I realized that God’s church extends beyond the walls of Hognander Chapel.
Leaning into my ear, members of the congregation continued to affirm, “It’s beautiful isn’t it?”
I smiled. “It’s very beautiful.”
Every Sunday, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church congregates in a formerly-Lutheran sanctuary on the corner of Minnehaha Ave. and 44th St., only one mile away from Minnehaha’s South Campus.
I visited the church on a Sunday, when the doors were propped open and men leaned in doorways outside the overcrowded sanctuary.
In the darkened basement of the church, a glowing screen projected a live streaming of the upstairs service. The room held rows of folding chairs, which seated “overflow” church members.
Bustling children ran through the narrow hallways of the basement.
The small kitchen in the back hallway steamed, as church members frantically dished out Ethiopia’s national dish, cooked with chunks of potato squares in curry sauce. (I was offered a take-out box before I left and devoured the dish immediately when I got home.)
Before entering the upstairs sanctuary, I was asked to leave my shoes in a plastic bag outside. I entered when the children were taking communion. They raised small paper cups to their mouths and held scarves to their lips after they swallowed.
I sat on the carpet in the front row of the chapel, cross-legged next to barefooted mothers who refilled bottles of milk, with crying babies in their laps. Small boys with wide and bright eyes kneeled on the floor and playfully tapped the canvases on drums.
When the choir rose, they did not line up in rows with hymnals in their arms. A group of white-robed church members crowded in a circle. Then, steady drumming began and the church tied their deepened voices together.
They thrusted metal percussion shakers, they raised wooden staffs called ‘mekomyas’ in the air, they expanded and tightened the circle as they matched their inward and outward steps to the beat.
The church hollered and clapped and battle-cried throaty ululatations.
The whole church service sounded like a poem, especially when the renowned preacher Mehreteab Asefa delivered his sermon. Since the Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy is delivered in the language of Ge’ez, I did not understand Asefa’s sermon. However, charisma speaks many languages.
The audience was leaning over the edges of their pews that Sunday. Asefa dramatically gestured with his arms and his eyes.
He spit out sharp words when he shifted to passionate passages and leaned back to smooth out one-liners when he wanted to make the church echo with laughter.
I did not translate a single word from Ge’ez but I did notice Asefa’s undisputable talent for preaching God’s word.
After three hours of soaking in this colorful worship ceremony, the candles in front of me had melted into stubs. I leaned over to ask the woman next to me if the service ended at noon. She giggled and shook her head. “No, 2 pm. It’s a Holy Day.” I was bewildered.
I chuckled because I remembered restlessly sitting through twenty-minute school chapel. Then I smiled because I remembered times of worship when my heart swelled with love for God.
I remembered the times when I raised my hands out so that I could grasp Him closer and I remembered the simple acoustic guitar chords that led me to that place.
I looked around at the mothers sitting on the carpet of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and I found it beautiful that they too raised their hands out to grasp and love the same Father that I praised.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traditionally celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. This date is not the date of my Christmas , Dec. 25, nonetheless, it celebrates the birth of the Jesus that we share.