Sunday, September 16, 2007

Harlem to Ethiopia, in Search of Their Spiritual Roots

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III has never had trouble getting his flock to follow his lead. But typically he does not have to lead them this far.

Yesterday, Mr. Butts and more than 150 members of his church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, boarded a plane for the church’s first pilgrimage to Ethiopia, its spiritual homeland.

“I think we will all come back better people,” one of the travelers, Doris Brunson, said last week. “As American blacks, we really need to understand the importance of our source. I think what we will see will be beautiful in some ways, and devastating in some ways.”

The two-week trip is part of the church’s 18-month-long bicentennial celebration, which coincides with the observance of the Ethiopian millennium (the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar entered year 2000 last week).

Although the Abyssinian Baptist Church is now practically synonymous with Harlem, its connection to Ethiopia goes back to the church’s founding in 1808 by free blacks and Ethiopian merchant seamen who refused to worship in churches where blacks and whites were segregated. (Abyssinia is a historical name for Ethiopia.)

Today, the majestic church boasts a congregation several thousand strong and is one of the original African-American megachurches. It has been led by a string of influential pastors, like Adam Clayton Powell Sr.; his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; and Mr. Butts, 58, who has held the post since 1989 and whose political endorsements are a sought-after commodity.

Under Mr. Butts, the church formed a nonprofit group, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has helped create housing and commercial development in Harlem, including a supermarket, schools, homeless shelters and apartments for low-income residents.

The purpose of the Ethiopia trip, Mr. Butts said, is to forge stronger spiritual, financial and perhaps political connections with Ethiopia.

“When I speak with ministers and officials from Ethiopia, and I ask them what their No. 1 problem is, they tell me it is poverty,” Mr. Butts said. “As much as I think we have to offer them, this is about sharing.”

He added, “Perhaps they have some things that they can teach us as well, because we definitely can’t teach them about Jesus; they’ve known him longer than we have.”

Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the 4th century. Today, Islam and Orthodox Christianity are the dominant religions in the country. In 1954, its emperor, Haile Selassie, visited Abyssinian Baptist and presented Adam Clayton Powell Jr. with an Ethiopian Coptic cross. This cross has since become the official symbol of the church, and still stands on the pulpit.

Last Sunday, the congregation spilled out from the sanctuary to join a bon voyage block party on Odell Clark Place, also known as West 138th Street. A slight breeze carried along the harmonies of an Ethiopian choir that sang in Amharic, a native language, and members of the church milled about with plates of traditional Ethiopian food: messer wott, a lentil dish made with onions, ginger and garlic; sega wott, a beef stew; and doro, chicken with boiled eggs and hot Ethiopian spices.

During the trip, Mr. Butts is scheduled to meet with dignitaries like Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church patriarch, Abuna Paulos. Mr. Butts said he hoped to return to New York with a clear assessment of the nation’s needs, and to urge politicians in the United States to do what they can to help.

For the rest of the group, the itinerary includes tours of revered sites, like the Queen of Sheba’s palace and the Chapel of the Tablet in Axum, where members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church say the biblical Ark of the Covenant is kept. The journey will also include visits to schools, museums and rock-hewn churches.

The travelers are paying their own way, $3,000 a person. For more than a year, they have studied Ethiopian history and culture.

While the pilgrimage has a spiritual backbone, some participants were looking forward to simply seeing a country not usually explored by tourists.

“I’m not looking for enlightenment,” said Martia Goodman, a novice photographer and Abyssinian Baptist Church historian. “I’m not looking to put my foot down and feel some tingly feeling. I’m going without expectations.”

Ms. Brunson, who will turn 75 this week, has already traveled the world that she dreamt of as a girl in Harlem before World War II, when she was struck by the romance and adventures in the films of the day.

The characters “were always coming from Paris or England,” she said. “I fell in love with airplanes. I wanted to fly and learn languages. I was just thrilled with the idea of traveling.”

A retired English teacher, she has done research in China, taken a cruise to Scandinavia and traipsed through Europe and the Greek Isles. She has twice traveled to Africa, once to Uganda, where she laid flowers on the grave of a man she met at sea, fell in love with and lost to bone cancer.

Ms. Brunson said she made sure to keep her preparations for this trip simple.

“You get caught up in the minutia of it all: what kind of shoes am I going to wear, and so forth,” she said.

Ms. Brunson said she would be traveling lightly to save energy, taking just a rolling tote and a garment bag. She has been working out every morning, walking or biking with weights strapped to her ankles.

“I don’t want to be one of those people that say, ‘Go, go on without me,’ ” she said, laughing. “That’s not what I want to do. I want to be in the number seeing everything that I can see, absorbing everything that I can absorb.”

SOURCE(with pictures):

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