Choir members including Mengisthiu Mamo, Ashanafi Abebe, and Yemane Kassa,… (Christina House/For The…)
Huddled beneath a large white tent, hundreds of people sang together in the early morning darkness. For hours, they repeated a single word: Hallelujah.
They were gathered last Sunday to mark Timket, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany. For the faithful, the holiday commemorates Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan and his revelation as the son of God.
Los Angeles' Timket celebration is the largest in the United States. It takes place over a January weekend each year in a parking lot outside the Forum in Inglewood.
Ethiopian immigrants flock from across the country and Canada to receive blessings from church bishops who wear elaborate beaded cloaks and full gray beards. Organizers say it may be the largest gathering of Ethiopians outside that nation in the Horn of Africa.
The highlight takes place Sunday afternoon, when the bishops dip their crosses into a plastic pool of water and sprinkle it on the bowed heads of believers.
The feeling during the reenactment of the baptism is beyond words, said one participant, Tsehay Tseghun. "It blesses you the whole year," she said.
Tsehay and some friends were sitting near the tent last Sunday, preparing lunch. They chatted as they trimmed slices of beef that would be cooked with chili peppers, rosemary and onions and piled onto sourdough flatbread.
The festival, she said, goes beyond religion. It's a chance for Ethiopians to reconnect with their friends, family and culture.
Tsehay, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and lives with her family in Baldwin Hills, grew up in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. She remembers the way Timket is celebrated there.
Schools and shops are closed during the weeklong festivities, she said. And there are splendid processions, in which bishops carry replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, venerated as the vessel that carried the Ten Commandments, on their heads.
In Los Angeles, organizers have made some adaptations. Timket lasts only two days, and replicas of the covenant are brought to the Forum not on bishops' heads, but in limousines.
Under the tent Sunday, several of the city's prominent African American politicians sat in folding chairs in the front row. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who was draped in a gauzy Ethiopian scarf, Maxine Waters and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), said they had come to show their support for the community.
In 2001, the City Council designated several blocks of Fairfax Avenue as Little Ethiopia — a symbol of the political sway the immigrants have won since they started arriving here three decades ago. Many were fleeing the Derg regime, a Communist military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1987.
Kesis Melaku Terefe, a priest at Los Angeles' Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which organized this year's event, alluded to that strife in a sermon in which he called on the audience to work for peace.
"Let us not forget the path that Jesus took and the path that our leader Martin Luther King took," he said in English.
Despite the fact that much of the service was conducted in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, the festival attracted a varied crowd.
Harold Gabourel, a reggae singer and Rastafarian who was raised in South Los Angeles, said he had come because he wanted to witness the ceremonies of one of the few pre-Colonial Christian churches of Africa.
"It's celebrating something ancient," said Gabourel, dressed in a white linen suit whose shoulders bore the green, yellow and red stripes of the Ethiopian flag.
Ethiopians believe their religion dates to the time of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles describe Philip the Evangelist baptizing an Ethiopian official, laying the foundations for what would become the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
The church, which broke with the Roman Catholic Church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, is closely related to other Orthodox branches, including the Armenian Orthodox Church.
Jamie Grumet, who was raised in the Armenian church, brought her husband, Brian, and their two sons to Timket. She said she had come to see the Ethiopian incarnation of Orthodox Christianity, and also to show their 4-year-old, Samuel, a bit of his culture. The Grumets adopted Samuel from an orphanage in Ethiopia last November.
"We're just trying to keep up his heritage, she said as Samuel played with a water bottle nearby.
Fassika Kebede, an Ethiopian who moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, had also brought his son to the festival. He and Yadel, 3, had ducked out of the ceremony and were looking at a display of gospel music CDs outside the tent.
In Ethiopia, Fassika said, children learn Amharic in school by reading spiritual texts. To learn Ethiopian culture, his son would have to learn its religion.
"I want to pass it on to him," Fassika said. He pointed to the tent, where people were once again singing. "Because he's the one who is going to be doing this some day."