A sea of black and white filled the sanctuary. Men in dark suits and women in floor-length skirts and light scarves stood for hours, their attention focused on the proceedings at the front of the church.
Loud chanting and singing penetrated every corner as worshippers sent praises and prayers heavenward. Church leaders in elaborate robes walked the aisles, swinging the incense burner and holding richly embroidered umbrellas aloft. Latecomers entered through the main doors, then immediately bent down to take off their shoes.
Members and visitors of St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox church gather this way every Sunday, following the centuries-old traditions ingrained in Ethiopia’s history, culture and religious life.
Many of the estimated 30,000 Ethiopians in the Denver area immigrated for a variety of reasons, among them safety and opportunity for a better life or a more complete education. Their move may have forced them to leave behind homes, families and jobs, but not their faith.
For many, church is not merely a building they visit on Sunday mornings, but a way of life.
Girum Alemayehu, a board member at St. Mary’s, moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia for better educational opportunities when he was 26. He arrived in Colorado in 1994, and has been a member of the congregation ever since. Alemayehu’s longtime residence both in Ethiopia and Colorado, along with his active involvement in the church, give him an in-depth understanding of the religious sentiment that permeates the Ethiopian community.
“Historically our leaders were religious and they gave emphasis to our religion,” he said. “Our family, our ancestors, everybody, the first thing they learn is to go to the church. My first teacher was a priest and he taught me how to write my letters.”
Those habits didn’t fade with a cross-continental move. The church brings individuals in the Aurora community together the same way it did in Ethiopia, Alemayehu said.
“Most of the things we do in a church exemplifies what we do as a society,” he said. “Anything we do revolves around our church. Our social gatherings, our celebrations, our mourning, our happiness, our weddings.”
The integration of religion and society is certainly true for Zewdu Getachew, an aerospace engineer who has lived in the Denver area for more than a decade.
Getachew’s fascination with flying brought him to the U.S. He’d always dreamed of pursuing a career in space, an opportunity that was not available in his hometown of Addis Ababa.
Getachew’s move to Colorado fulfilled his career goals, but left him feeling cut off from his roots, he said. Although he didn’t have a particularly religious background, he started attending St. Mary’s to build cultural connections.
“Eventually I started to learn more about the church,” he said. “And the more I understood it, the more I was drawn in to the church life, the life of Christianity, and the more I wanted to learn.”
In addition to spiritual enlightenment, the church offers concrete benefits as well, Getachew said. Those experiencing losses come for emotional support. Those in need of a job or networking opportunities come to find those resources.
The importance of church in the Ethiopian culture is not a recent development. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has roots going back to the fourth century. Ethiopia has the third highest Christian population in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 63 percent of the country identifying as Christian, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report.
Neither time nor distance, however, has changed the way their community worships, Alemayehu said.
“Our religion, we believe, is one of the oldest religions, and nobody wants anything to be changed from that. We try to keep it the same way.”
Woldey Assefa, another church board member, also emphasized the importance of tradition.
“Everything is linked to the Bible,” he said. “The way the priest turns to the west, the way the deacon holds the cross, everything is related to a particular verse or particular event in the Bible.”
“We do not take things lightly because we do things in the presence of God,” Assefa said.
Assefa has been a member at St. Mary’s for almost 17 years. As important as tradition is to their church, Assefa admits to the challenges that face them as they try to keep ancient traditions alive in a modern world.
“It’s going through a generation change,” he said. “New generations who are raised and born in this country, they have different thinking. But the clergy that is on the top, they are of the old thinking. There are some struggles in that. How do we bring these two together?”
There are, however, still many younger Ethiopians who plan on keeping their ancestors’ traditions alive. Heleena Alemayehu, a 19-year-old who was born and raised in Colorado, is dedicated to her church as well as its traditions
She comes to services on a regular basis and is in the choir, along with her sister, she said.
“It’s always been a part of our life growing up,” she said. “My senior year of high school I would come to church when I would feel down or sad, even if there was no service. I would come to pray and that really helped me get through the year and come out stronger.”
Getachew also sees promise in the next generation.
“I’m really happy to see kids that were very young when I joined the church now know the Ethiopian language, Amharic,” he said. “They know all the traditional dances. They also know their religion, they serve in the church and they’re really attached to the culture.”
He added, “If I was a parent it would make me proud, and as an Ethiopian it makes me proud as well.”