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Christians helping Christians: First Lutheran Church lends hand to Worthington-based Ethiopian Orthodox members

A contingent of Ethiopian Orthodox churchgoers participate in worship Sunday morning inside the choir room of Worthington’s First Lutheran Church. (Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Prayer, persistence and patience all played a part in a local congregation of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians finally finding a place to worship in Worthington.

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Since the start of November, First Lutheran Church has opened its doors to about 50 Ethiopian-Americans, many of whom had previously traveled regularly to Sioux Falls, S.D., to worship at an Ethiopian Orthodox church there.

“It’s so meaningful to them to have a church in Worthington, and not to have to drive to Sioux Falls,” said Peter Abraham, the youngest son of congregational organizer Asefafh Hailu, Worthington.

“Everyone went to Sioux Falls,” said Hailu. “We did not have a place in Worthington, and we didn’t have a monk [religious leader for their church].

“This is very nice, and everyone is happy.”

The Rev. Richard Ricker of First Lutheran confirmed the collaboration.

“They were looking for a place to worship and approached our church,” Ricker explained. “We were open to having them, so they are meeting in our church’s choir room on Sunday mornings.

“They are very committed and devoted to their worship, with a lot of young people involved,” he continued. “It’s a marvelous thing to see.”

Hailu, who helped spearhead the arrangement with First Lutheran, has lived in Worthington for 18 years, and four of her five children are Worthington High School graduates; her youngest, Peter, is a current high school junior.

A native of Ethiopia, Hailu spent time in a Sudanese refugee camp before being sponsored by a church to come to Sioux Falls, where she initially worked at John Morrell.

A job at Campbell’s Soup brought her family to Worthington and marked the start of years of commuting to church services for Hailu and other committed Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

“We worship God and follow the Old Testament pretty closely,” Hailu shared. “Baby boys are baptized when they are 40 days old, and baby girls are baptized when they are 80 days old.”

Because of their strong belief in the tenets of the Old Testament, the Ethiopian Orthodox church members do not approve of drinking or dancing.

“In the Bible, it says no dancing, no drinking,” Hailu stressed. “True Christians have to be strong in this world if they follow God.”

Hailu explained that Orthodox Ethiopian Christians fast during Lent, and at some other times during the liturgical year. The monk who serves as their religious leader is called Abba, and is an unmarried person who is solely dedicated to the church.

“They had been waiting for years to get a monk here,” said Ricker. “There are many refugees from Ethiopia living here in Worthington, and all their stories are remarkable.”

Hailu’s life is just one example. After injuring her back on the job at Swift (now JBS), she supported her family as a dishwasher at Perkins and the Blue Line Travel Center. For some years, she operated the Queen of Sheba restaurant in the former Thompson Hotel building.

To date, three of Hailu’s five children have graduated from college, and a fourth will soon follow. Her youngest, Peter, is an active student and athlete (football, wrestling and track) at WHS.

On Sunday morning, Hailu and her fellow congregants gather enthusiastically at First Lutheran, from about 8 a.m. until noon.

“We study the Bible and pray, and Abba comes at 7:30 a.m.,” noted Hailu. “Everything is done at noon.”

Ricker says the First Lutheran parishioners have been understanding and willing to help meet the needs of their fellow Christians, even though their beliefs may not coincide at every point.

“Our congregation feels positive about this, too,” Ricker said. “We’re extending our good wishes to them, and we are all worshiping God together.”

As for Hailu and her church, they couldn’t be more thrilled with the acceptance and assistance they are receiving.

“Everybody said, ‘God bless the Lutherans,’” Hailu said. “We are praying for them and are so thankful to them for letting us meet there.

“Everyone is excited and happy to have a place to meet and worship for church. The Lutherans are nice people, and we feel very blessed, very blessed. God watch over these people.”