The Ethiopian Church in the Caribbean
The Establishment of the Church
Jamaica had all the known Christian denominations and more, all but one. She lacked the ancient religion of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Knowing this many people over the years made efforts to establish a branch of this important ancient Christian church in the island. It was their hard and persistent labours that caused the final coming of this church. In 1966 Emperor Haile Selassie visited the island officially and on that occasion laid the cornerstone for the Haile Selassie I Junior Secondary School in Kingston.
After that, more constant contact was kept with the Ethiopian Patriarchcate. After many requests to the mother church from numerous groups in Jamaica who were interested in becoming members of the faith, a branch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church was established in Kingston, Jamaica. His Eminence Abuna Yesehaq then Abba Laike Mariam Mandefro was elected to be the first priest. On his first visit beginning on May 14, 1970 he was met at the Palisadoes Airport by hundreds of enthusiastic people waving Ethiopian flags and banners. There was also a large sign of welcome prepared by the government of Jamaica.
As the Air Jamaica Plane carrying Abba touched down, the waving crowd that thronged the gallery sang hymns. Among the welcoming group was Mr. Cecil Gordon, chairman of the Ethiopian World Federation, and Mr. J. N. Hibbert, organizer. His Eminence then met with several government officials and religious leaders of Jamaica, such as the Most Reverend John J. McEleney, then archbishop of the Roman Catholic church of Jamaica, and his successor the Most Reverend Samuel Carter, archbishop of Kingston; the Right Reverend John Swaby, Anglican Bishop of Jamaica; Dr. Neville Gallimore, parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; the Honourable Michael Manley at the time opposition leader of Jamaica and his party. With Michael Manley His Eminence discussed matters concerning African culture to be introduced to Jamaica, where, he suggested, Amharic and Arabic languages should be taught at the University of the West Indies. After this His Eminence held a series of very important sessions of instructions in preparation for the baptism of those who desired to become members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
The Right Reverend John C. Swaby, gave permission for the Anglican Kingston Parish Church to be used for the ecclesiastical duties. Abba Yesehaq was then faced with various problems with some candidates for baptism. Most candidates were Rastafarians who had contrary ideas based on various philosophical concepts. At a registration meeting held at the Ebenezer Church, in Kingston, some candidates demanded baptism in the name of Rastafari, and this resulted in much confusion and aggravation among them.
Beyond almost every action lies a deep-seated motive for reaction, and from what His Eminence had learned from observation and interaction, there existed a serious motive beyond the fact some do not identify with Eyesus Kristos. They believed that Christianity had been used by the Western world to create slavery, so many passed away without accepting baptism from Western churches. Rastafarians developed a militant nature as a result of the situation in the West and therefore will not as much as listen to any mention of church, much less baptism.
Rastafarians know that to enforce slavery the "slave master" indoctrinated africans with church, a Western version of Christianity and the white Jesus Christ. However Rastafarians who have accepted the Ethiopian Orthodox church and have come to be known as orthodox do not seem to have any problem identifying with the black Eyesus Kristos. Unfortunately, those who demanded baptism in the name of Ras Tafari misunderstood the mission of the Church in the West. Many thought the church was not genuine and did not have their best interest at heart. Therefore they were cautious when they heard that the Ethiopian Orthodox church proclaimed Eyesus Kristos and baptism for the remission of sins.
Abba Yesehaq understood and identified with their discontent and frustration. Here were a people searching for their identity, which was lost in Western civilization, a scattered and rejected people(acts 7:6). His Eminence knew that the church would be the institution from their motherland to which they could constantly reach out, to link them to themselves and to God. Regardless of the misunderstanding Rastafarians must not be ridiculed or condemned. This His Eminence told a news reporter, to whom he further stated that they must be taught of the gradually of Eyesus Kristos (Medhane Alem - Saviour Of the World) the dreadlocked dark-skinned Redeemer, as one cannot come unto the Father unless one comes through the Son. His Eminence emphasized that the Emperor was a deeply religious man and would give his life for the Church of Christ.
On Saturday May 23,1970 (315 years to the day after Venables and Penn formally took over Jamaica from Spain) over 600 new members were baptized in an all day service, and 150 more later that same day at the Ebenezer Hall. On Sunday, May 24, the first High Mass of the Ethiopian Orthodox church was celebrated at the Kingston Parish Church. Over three thousand people attended including Archbishop John McEleney and the Hon. George Shoucair consul general of Lebanon. Also during the visit a trustee board, a national planning committee, an evangelistic department and building fund committee were organized, George Shoucair was appointed adviser.
It has now become history that the Church of Ethiopia has accepted Rastafarians who have long isolated themselves from society because of their lifestyle and controversial concepts. The Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jamaica has great future ahead of her. She will be the yardstick by which the African-minded will be measured. Most of these people want with their whole heart to live in Ethiopia. They will learn culture through the church, and all the world will be able to judge these people and see if they are truly of merit or if they are a people to be left alone to their own destruction.The true Rastafarians are not without significance. They are a people who are continuously struggling toward their freedom and identity and should be encouraged in the development of their talents and skills for their own benefit and the benefit of the country where they live. His Eminence says this with the hope that they will be fully aware of their home in Africa but also in Jamaica.
We all know that the Rastafarians have a sincere desire to repatriate. The idea itself is good, but many have passed waiting for it. This is because the idea has been limited only to the physical movement from one country to another. This should not be so. "...The Jews have taught us a lesson that we can pattern ourselves after. They do not seek to isolate themselves from the Western world, yet they maintain their heritage and, from where they are, provide valuable help to their country Israel. Because they have involved themselves in every community of which they are citizens, they have become dominant in many fields, thereby making themselves respected by all. Similarly Rastafarians who wish to return to Africa while awaiting that day should become involved in the life of Jamaica and make their contribution to that country and to mankind. In doing this they will certainly accomplish their purpose, and the whole world will witness it."(Yesehaq, 226)