As newspapers report on conflicts and unprecedented alliances between African and North American Anglicans, a group of priests and laypeople from the Diocese of California are reaching out and learning more about African Christianity. The current exhibit of photographs on view at Gallery 1055, 1055 Taylor Street in San Francisco, documents their encounter with the Ethiopian Church, one of the most ancient forms of Christianity. During Timkat 2006 (The Feast of the Epiphany), these California pilgrims traveled to Ethiopia where they met ordinary believers, monks, priests and the Patriarch Abune Paulos. They read icons and prayed in the holy churches of Lalibela, St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Debre Berhan in Gondar, St. Mary’s in Axum and in the monasteries of Lake Tana. They looked for what we share in common as Christians widely separated by our culture and daily life. The current exhibition, Ethiopia Calling, shares their discoveries.
The artist is documentary photographer Malcolm C. Young. He writes, “The Lilly Foundation provided a grant that made it possible for our family to explore Africa in 2007. We visited old friends and made many new ones, but the centerpiece of this adventure was our pilgrimage with other Bay Area priests and laypeople to Ethiopia for Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany.
“Many twelfth century Europeans believed in the myth of Prester John and his distant, peaceful kingdom, at one with itself and surrounded by Muslim nations. I felt drawn to Ethiopia in large part because of my own myth. I wanted to experience the holiness of God in Christ outside the context of European and North American culture. I, perhaps unreasonably, hoped to draw nearer to the heart of Christianity by reaching beyond the culture that so deeply influences my experience of the world. This was not a missionary trip or for the purpose of relieving poverty or suffering. We traveled as pilgrims and found our faith deepened.
“To understand how Ethiopian Christians practice their faith we learned the stories that orient them. We read histories about failed European colonial efforts to suppress the church and about Ethiopian Christological controversies in the Middle Ages. We heard stories about the saints who built one of the first Christian kingdoms in the world and about the Axumite Empire that controlled Red Sea trade in the years after Christ’s birth. The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church told us that Christianity began when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in 41 CE (Acts 8:27). We encountered important traditions inspired by the Hebrew Bible. New friends told us how the Queen of Sheba went to Solomon’s court and how Menelik, the son she had with him, brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.
“In our church Epiphany commemorates Jesus’ baptism, the journey of the magi and the coming of Christ’s light into the world. At Timkat Ethiopians also celebrate God’s generosity in giving them the Ark of the Covenant. Each church brings out its ark to public gathering places where thousands of people receive blessings with holy water. The Ethiopians we met did not seem to regard themselves as God’s chosen people, but they did have the strong sense that God has especially blessed them.
“This experience of holiness inspires the striking piety that we witnessed as visitors. In California only a few people in their twenties worship in Episcopal churches. In Ethiopia it is not uncommon to see young people kissing the doors, walls and gates of churches. The young people we talked to were embarking on arduous pilgrimages. They fasted regularly. They sought out blessings by monks and priests who carry ornately designed hand-crosses. They removed their shoes and wore special garments in church.
“For most Episcopalians today a church’s holiness comes from the gathered body of believers who are created in the image of God and blessed by the spirit of Jesus. In Ethiopia, the presence of the ark makes the church holy. This in part explains why so many churches have circular or octagonal designs and concentric regions of holiness expanding from the ark at the center. Genuflection, prostration, dancing, loudly-chanted prayers, processions, a strong reliance on rhythm and drumming make church a more physical experience in Ethiopia.
“A few days before we left home, Ethiopia invaded Somalia. This reminded us how political realities always influence the religious situation. When we asked the patriarch why young people in his country have such a strong faith, he talked about poverty, the terrible effect that AIDS is having on society and also about the communists who controlled the government until a few years ago and sought to suppress religion.
” If you are interested in reading the journal we kept in Africa or seeing other pictures you can find them at www.malcolmcyoung.com”
~ Malcolm C. Young
About the Artist Malcolm C. Young is a photographer, theologian, and Episcopal priest in the Diocese of California. Educated at U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, he currently serves as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Mercer, 2009).