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‘It makes me feel at home’: Ethiopian diaspora celebrate the Epiphany at Worcester church

A woman smiled as she swung a child into the arms of a fellow member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as they celebrated the Ethiopian Epiphany.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

WORCESTER — Sounds of prayer, song, and music echoed through a Vernon Street church Sunday, as more than 1,000 worshipers celebrated the Epiphany — and the spiritual strength of the region’s deeply rooted Ethiopian diaspora.

Members of eight area churches belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church gathered for Timket, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

A mainstay of Christian worship in Ethiopia, the tradition has long been practiced in the US — marked by its joyful pageantry, celebration of community, and the sprinkling of holy water to bless the faithful.


“The Epiphany brought us all together for one purpose, to worship God,” said Amanual Abate, 32, of Boston. “It makes me feel at home. I’m surrounded by my community.”

Timket, also called the Ethiopian Epiphany, asks the faithful to remember how Jesus was baptized, said Nekatibeb Yemane, the head of priests for the church’s district of Boston, through a translator.

A young deacon looked over his shoulder as members of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrated the Ethiopian Epiphany. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A child of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church looked up as an adult helped him wipe the water from his face after symbolically renewing his baptismal vows. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church processed as they celebrated Ethiopian Epiphany.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Showing humility for us, he came down to us, and then was baptized by man,” Yemane said.

A key part of Timket is that it draws the faithful together, Yemane said.

“The people coming together is a sign of oneness of their unity and faith, they are praying for the whole world,” Yemane said. “This feast is an opportunity for them to petition for peace, for blessings, for the whole world, and also for their own unity — above all the divisions and separations that are going on.”

In Ethiopia, jubilation and celebrations of Timket can last several days, as church members hold festivities honoring Christ.

Church members in the US have adapted the traditional ritual for life here: One change has been to move the celebration from Jan. 19 to the closest weekend, so people are able to attend without missing work. New England’s cold winters have meant that the celebration is held indoors rather than outside, like it is in Ethiopia.


In Worcester Sunday, at the Debre Genet Kidist Kidane Meheret Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, celebrants greeted one another with warm handshakes and embraces. They listened to priests as they delivered sermons reminding them of the importance of the day. Here and there, people talked, children laughed, and occasionally a kid ran down the church aisles.

Celebrants removed their shoes before they entered, and wrapped themselves in white shawls. The traditional Timket shawl, called a Netela, is intended to symbolize the Holy Spirit, and cleanliness from sins, said Yedne Gebreyes, 38, of Roxbury.

Children who are members of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church reacted as they are sprayed with water by a priest symbolically renewing their baptismal vows as they celebrate Ethiopian Epiphany. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On Saturday, priests from the eight churches brought their replicas of the Ark of the Covenant to Worcester. Each replica, called a Tabot, was wrapped in rich fabrics and at noontime Sunday the priests took them to an adjoining community building, where an inflated pool had been filled with water.

Throngs of people surrounded the pool, with the priests standing closest to bless the water in a series of prayers. The faithful sang, a man played a drum at a slow, steady pace, while rich incense hung in the air.

Each priest sprinkled holy water across each other’s heads, then used pitchers to collect the water, and scattered it onto the faithful as a blessing. People laughed as the cool water touched skin and hair, many crowded the pool, hoping to catch a second, or even third splash of water. Some asked a priest to sprinkle water on their faces or heads.


The Ethiopian Epiphany merges religious belief with cultural and patriotic traditions. Images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary were displayed throughout the church, while triangle streamers and balloons in red, yellow, and green — the colors of the Ethiopian flag — hung between the church’s columns.

Many worshipers had been in the Worcester church since early that morning, Abate said.

“I didn’t expect this turnout,” he said, marveling at the crowd.

Virtually every seat was taken, while others found places to stand. Children sat up front, or in the laps of parents.

A young woman used a fan to cool herself off as she and her fellow members of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrated Ethiopian Epiphany. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Priests called Kahinat carried the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
A priest slipped behind a curtain as he prepared to carry the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, as part of a procession as members of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrate Ethiopian Epiphany. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Elleni Sishuh, 53, who lives in Milton and is part of a congregation in Cambridge, said children are an important part of the Ethiopian church. Sishuh, who arrived in the US 26 years ago from Ethiopia, raised her 23-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son in the faith.

“if they don’t know the culture, the religion early on, they would be lost,” she said. The church “teaches a fear of God, and learning to treat other people with respect.”

Mihret Melaku, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles studying neurobiology at Harvard University, said the church has been a vital part of his upbringing.

Melaku, who has spent most of his life in the US, said the church gave him the chance to learn about his faith, culture, and heritage. He became a church deacon at age 11, part of a tradition in the church of teaching children about their faith starting early in life.


“It’s part of my identity,” Melaku said. “It nurtured discipline and hard work.”

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.