Genete Tsige St. George Ethiopian Orthodox
Tewahedo Church was established in 2006, formed by families who previously attended St.Micheal Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Garland, TX. Currently located on 1150 Fuller Dr. in Dallas, the church is a religious center for Ethiopian refugees who were resettled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. St. George facilitates cultural retention and provides community support during the adaptation process for these immigrants and their families.
History and Life in Ethiopia
Many of the members of St. George’s stated that they came to the United States to create a better life for them and their family. Ethiopia has a very high poverty rate, as of 2010 every 1 in 3 Ethiopians lives in poverty (the poverty line is an income that is less than $1.25 a day.) The poorest 40% of the country holds 20% of household income, while the richest 20% holds 42% of household income, indicating a large wealth gap in Ethiopia. A lot of those that chose to immigrate seem to have been of lower socioeconomic status and were searching for better economic and educational opportunities. Though literacy rates are up from a limited 10% in the early 1970s, only about 50% of the population can read today. Education in America was a highlight mentioned by numerous church-goers, as most had young children that are currently enrolled in Dallas schools. Ethiopia is not particularly impoverished when compared to nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo where 63.6% of the population lives under the poverty line. Although all of the St. George’s members that we interviewed said that life in America is much better than their life in Ethiopia, most of them were quick to admit that they did miss their homeland.
Immigration to the U.S.
For years Ethiopia was at war with Eritrea, a nearby territory fighting for independence from them. This war caused great destruction and incited a refugee movement out of the country. However, many of the church members do not cite the war as reason for leaving Ethiopia, rather they came to the United States in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families.
Dallas is the second largest city for Ethiopian refugee resettlement due to its great diversity and job opportunities. Several U.S. Departments work together to carry out the refugee process. In order to gain refugee status one must demonstrate one is being persecuted, and thus are in great need to be resettled as seen with Ethiopians who gain refugee status to escape the turmoil of the war. After application, potential refugees are screened and interviewed before being transferred to the U.S.. Once in the U.S. they are given resources such as housing, food, and clothes with the expectation that within a few months they will find a job and adapt to their new location. After a year in the U.S. refugees may apply to become a Lawful Permanent Residence and become a natural citizen in five years.
The original generation of St. George’s members are Ethiopian refugees. Many of them arrived in Dallas about 16 years ago in 2000- near the end of the war. Those who were given a choice where they relocated chose Dallas because they had heard of its low unemployment rate. When they arrived, many recall the opportunities were and still are today abundant. One church member had lived in another popular refugee resettlement state, Virginia, before moving to Dallas and mentioned that the cost of living was very expensive there but the job opportunities were low.
It is important that these refugees are able to adapt to their new lives, so they often resettle in communities and come together in places like St. George’s. When many of the refugees first arrived in Dallas, they attended a different Ethiopian church. However, when it grew too crowded they opened up St. George’s. The church members recall attending the church for ten years now- serving as a bonding place for refugees who want to hold on to their Ethiopian heritage while also socially expanding through support from one another.
Winning the Lottery
One of the greatest challenges for new immigrants to the United States is living with the uncertainty of whether or not he or she will be able to stay in the country. This is because the process to obtain citizenship or a visa is very difficult. One of the ways the unique ways to gain this documentation is the “Visa Lottery” which was brought to our attention by many of the members of St. George’s Church. They told us stories of how they were waiting to hear if they would be receiving a visa this year.
After completing follow up research, it became clear that this lottery system is formally called “The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.” The United States Department of State issues about 50,000 visas each year to immigrants from countries that the US does not have many citizens from in order to increase the diversity in the nation. Through this program, many immigrants already in the country and those hoping to move to the US have a chance at establishing a stable life. Though an incredible program for these people, it seems to be random and fairly unlikely to achieve. The program also has a strict set of requirements of document that one must present to apply for this visa. Some examples of these difficult requirements are a report of medical examination and vaccination record, copy of birth certificate, processing fee, and a arrival record. Although the things on this list may seem easy, for someone who is thousands of miles from home and from less a developed country, these records may not exist.
Because of the difficulty of the program, many members of the St. George’s community have a hard time finding work and security, but are able to achieve this through their community at the church.
Ethiopia in particular has almost 5000 people registered for the DV Program. This is one of the highest numbers per country listed in the program. See https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/immigrate/ diversity-visa/dv-2015-selected-entrants.html for more information on the countries involved with the program.
This program seems like it provides a great opportunity for stability to the people of St. George’s and other communities, but overall it is unrealistic for people to count on this program to provide them with what they need. Therefore, it is essential for communities like St. George’s to exist to give lost people a home and extend a helping hand to those considered family.
Life In America for Ethiopian Immigrants
The members of St. George’s often stated that their reason for coming to America was for a betterment of their lives, often economically. This is the belief for many Ethiopian immigrants that America provides opportunities for improving one’s life that are not found in Ethiopia. However, this does not always seem to be the case. In a recent study of over 1200 Ethiopian immigrants, ¾ claimed to be working their current job out of necessity rather than preference. Those able to move out of Ethiopia often constitute the richer and more educated portion of the population. When they move to America they expect to get the same or higher paying jobs, possibly continuing their education. However, the reality does not quite line up. Moving into a foreign country where the language, culture and values are all drastically different is a huge hindrance to new immigrants, especially in the job market. In addition, money is often sent back to Ethiopia, either to provide for family back home or as a means to bring family to America. Because of this, many immigrants do not further their education as planned but instead take lower status jobs.
The 2000 census reports 15,000 Ethiopians under the poverty line. With an average of 5.2 children per household about ⅓ of Ethiopian children are under the poverty line. However, there is some hope. The reason Ethiopian immigrants migrate to big metropolitan cities is job opportunities. With so many immigrants in one place they are able to form a church to celebrate Ethiopian religion and culture. The benefit of an Ethiopian church such as St. George’s extends beyond sharing in Ethiopian culture, it creates a community of immigrants who help each other in their adaptation to American life, including finding a job and making a living.
Interviews with Church Members
Perhaps the most informative part of our project studying Genete Tsige St. George’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church was finding community members to participate in interviews during our church visits. Through these interviews, we discovered many similar patterns in the immigration experiences of the church members. When asked why they came to the United States, nearly every interviewee responded, “for a chance at a better life.” For the most part, the church members immigrated from Ethiopia to Texas for more opportunities in schooling and jobs and to provide a more stable future for their children. However, the most commonly reported challenge for them was leaving their older family members back home. It seems as though older Ethiopians, like the members’ parents or grandparents, did not want to leave Ethiopia – the country they had called home for the entirety of their lives.
Because leaving one’s family is a very difficult thing to do, the church served as a place for these interviewees to find a community and get settled into a new life. One interviewee, a middle-aged woman, said she attended a St. George’s Church back at home that provided the exact same services as the St. George’s in Dallas. This provides her with a connection to her home country and a way to keep her religion central in her life. The sense of community provided through the church also allowed members to help each other find jobs, help kids find friends, and help emotionally support each other through the challenge of moving countries.
Another pattern we noticed through our interviews was the community members’ focus on the positive. When asked why they left Ethiopia, they never complained about conditions they endured in the past, but always focused on what they stood to gain from the United States and how immigrating would be a positive experience for them and their families. One woman told us about how much she loved the church community and her life in Texas, including her job working as a buyer for the large company Ericcson.
Overall, through our interviews, we established that the St. George’s community provides Ethiopian immigrants with a peaceful sanctuary where they can feel at home, remember where they come from, and develop a sense of belonging through finding supportive friends with similar backgrounds.
The Service/The Experience
The service at St. George is similar to what is traditionally seen in an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church back in Ethiopia. The church is housed in a small building, and despite the early morning, cars fill the parking lot. Upon entering, attendees remove their shoes before heading upstairs and entering the pre-service chanting and prayers that begin at three in the morning. Everyone dresses in white coverings and women wear headscarves. There is only one small room for worship, with yellow walls filled with images of angels and Jesus Christ covered with sheer white veils. Wooden pews are available, but much of the service requires standing up or kneeling. There are powerpoint slides with chants in Amharic and an English translation projected onto a screen for everyone to follow. Women and men are separated to opposite sides of the room and men are always served first throughout the service. The priest and all of the deacons are men. The atmosphere is smoky due to the constant incense burning, a purification rite, throughout the service. Before the service begins at 7am, a small number of members are already chanting, kneeling, and waiting as the priest and deacons prepare for the main service at the altar, behind a closed curtain. Most of the service consists of call and response, chanting and prayer in Ge’ez, bowing, kissing the Bible and cross as the priest and deacons bring various items around the room. There is also an offering collection, a short sermon, a communion exclusively for the children, teens in blue and white robes chanting and singing as part of the choir, and a conclusion with offerings of holy water for all to drink and wash themselves. Altogether, the service lasts five hours.
St. George’s is built on a tight-knit common identity fostered by the elders of the church. For church members, this is their social circle and sole community. Religion and cultural identity led to the formation of the church and the development of St. George’s common identity because while religion may guide culture in Ethiopia, St. George’s members’ desire to maintain their Ethiopian culture guides their religion from the constant threat of American influence. As scholar Robert Orsi states, “people appropriate religious idioms as they need them, in response to particular circumstances.” In this case, the members are appropriating their religion in order to educate their children on their Ethiopian origins, hold onto a connection with their cultural identity, and maintain a community where they all feel acceptance due to their shared interests. Fighting assimilation in order to preserve their tradition is a response to their movement away from the familiar. This is similar to the Aliyah movements of the Jewish people from the Diaspora to Israel, when masses had to adapt to their new surroundings while also attempting to maintain their previous way of life.
The members of the Saint George’s community attempt to preserve their culture a number of different ways, which varies from that of the United States substantially. For example, the service reflects a slower pace to life, as it usually lasts at least four hours, with church elders arriving at seven to begin. Most members of the congregation speak in English, but most women speak mainly Amharic, and all of the families spoke in Amharic to their children. The community is also patriarchal, as only men are allowed to be priests or deacons and some feel that the service should have a curtain between the men and the women to prevent the men from becoming “distracted” by the women. The community also seems much more communal and intermixed amongst its members with regard to conversation and politeness. Taking care of children is also a communal task, as many children are often disciplined by those other than their parents. After the service each week there is a social hour, where all of the community gathers over bread and tea. Members of the community know each other very well, and love to take their time chatting and catching up during this time. Church is viewed as the heart of the community and vehicle for cultural protection through teaching children Orthodoxy and Amharic. One congregation member, Ayalew, describes the community of St. George’s as “insular and un-mingling with the surrounding Dallas community, [despite] everyone within know[ing] everyone else,” and another, Dee Dee, stated that “everyone [at the church is] joined through family or close friends,” showing that the church is as much of a place for mingling with familiar faces as it is for religious practice.
Youth and Challenges
While the church is the primary community for elders, this is not the case for the youth. Most of the children were either born in the U.S., or have lived here since they were young. They all attend school in the DFW area, creating communities and identities outside the church sphere. For example, Dagne and Yonas are deacons for the church, but are also high school students. When asked if their friends knew about their Ethiopian Orthodox religion, and their role as deacons, both said that it wasn’t something that came up in conversation. However, they are very active in their roles as deacons. They fast Saturday night before services, come to the church around 6:00am to prepare for the Sunday service, and study Ethiopian Orthodoxy under the priest as his right-hand men. Both Dagne and Yonas plan on attending college. When asked how they plan on keeping up with their religion when they leave church community to go to college or move away, they said they did not know. Dee Dee, one of the elders at the church, has two kids currently attending college in New York. She says that her children came to the church much less frequently as teenagers, voicing concern for the long services that were not understandable in Ge’ez. Dee Dee specified that they do not have a similar church community in New York and says that they keep their religion through private prayer. Such narratives point to the difficulty of keeping culture and religion alive as an individual outside the church community.
Less teenagers attend the church, but many parents bring their younger kids. While few parents, like Yonas’s, are waking their kids up early in the morning and taking them to church to be put in line and be chosen by Papas as a deacon, the majority bring their children to be in the choir and learn about Ethiopian Orthodoxy through Sunday school. While adults attend the main service, the children learn about their religion from 7-10am. They return to join the last hour and a half of service with their parents, following along and singing in the choir. In fact, Beniyam who created the power-point slides for the service, includes an English translation for the kids who are learning to read Amharic. For some children, religious education continues outside these hours as their parents teach them Amharic, or they learn from books that can be purchased from the church that teaches them about Ethiopian Orthodoxy and culture. Keeping the kids engaged and understanding the importance of their religious studies has been a challenge, however. One of the 9-year-olds exclaimed that he wanted to forget Amharic because “it wasn’t useful,” and he didn’t even use it in school. Amharic is needed to read prayers from a prayer book before going to bed and after waking up, but the children who cannot read Amharic instead recite a few basic prayers they have memorized. While St. George EOTC tries to keep their children educated and engaged, most parents seem to have the same notion that it is up to the kids to pick up the religion. Dee Dee put it best when talking about her own children. She claims “it is up to them if they want to follow the religion closely. I cannot force them. But I always remind them to pray.”
An essential element of life as an East-African immigrant in Dallas is the economic change and challenge associated with life in an unfamiliar location. According to our group’s research, every adult member of the St. George’s Christian Orthodox is a first-generation immigrant to the United States, and as such, we assert that many of them likely experienced difficulty when adapting to the breakneck pace of the Dallas marketplace. The Ethiopian people in particular are well-known for their industrious tendencies and hardworking attitude. This perception is supported by the fact that all of the men and many of the women who attend St. George’s church have jobs in the DFW area or are self-employed through entrepreneurial ventures. For nearly forty years, thousands of esteemed and accomplished Ethiopians have immigrated to Dallas and brought their expertise with them. Some of the industries that Dallas’ Ethiopians are a part of include, but are not limited to, science, technology, dining, transportation and service.
One of our interviewees, Ayalew, is a cab driver who has claimed his piece of the metaphorical pie that is the Dallas economy. He uses his earnings to support his family in Ethiopia and even periodically visit his country of origin. Eventually, Ayalew wants to pay for his family to migrate to Dallas so that they can be united and enjoy normal family life once again.
For many Ethiopians, the ultimate goal of their earning and saving is the ability to bring one’s relatives over to the United States to join the existing community. Some of the churchgoers we spoke to have family members who remain in Ethiopia, and as such, are responsible for sending remittances abroad to their dependents. Conversely, some people have successfully transplanted their children and spouses into Dallas. The ability to do so is, with the exception of winning the immigration lottery, largely based on one’s financial ability. We assume that among the regular congregation there exists wealth disparities between individuals. Even so, the church provides a common thread that diminishes the significance of money. Instead, reverence to God, faith, and servitude are of primary importance whenever one is at church.
Genete Tsige St. George Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church offers place of community for first generation Ethiopian immigrants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by providing a place for religious and cultural retention within a new society. Congregation members at the church continue to practice their Orthodox faith while in community with others with their same financial and social status, which develops a strong identity within the congregation. Despite this intense cultural and religious identity within St. George’s Church, however, there is question as to how much retention the younger, and more assimilated, generation will seek to maintain.