“They made history for black people in this church, so this is your church,” the tour guide told our group seconds before leading us through St. George’s Cathedral, a 120-year-old landmark of great historical significance located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.
For an hour, we toured the Orthodox Christian church barefoot, taking in the smell of burning myrrh and gawking in awe at paintings of St. George, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Jesus Christ, and other historical and biblical figures. After introducing us to a church elder, our guide played drums while chanting a hymn penned by Saint Yared — a routine commonly carried out during weekly services. He later showed us a prayer stick, which represented the staff of Moses and the cross on which Jesus Christ died. At a museum located across the complex, we gleaned through the Amharic Bible.
As our tour guide told us, St. George’s Cathedral evokes a sense of pride among Abyssinians.
The Battle of Adwa, a fight between the Ethiopian Empire and Italian fascists, took place on the grounds of the church in 1896. That year, Ethiopian soldiers, led by Emperor Menelik II — Selassie’s cousin and predecessor — defeated the European aggressors, carrying what they claimed to be the Ark of the Covenant – a wooden chest containing two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod, and the pot of manna. The historic battle happened nearly three decades before the Benito Mussolini and his men successfully occupied Ethiopia and forced Selassie – then known as Ras Tafari — into exile.
On that brisk Thursday morning, we soaked in pieces of that history. Even after the stress of a 12-hour plane ride and flare up of allergies likely caused by exposure to the air, I remained resolute to answer questions about Christianity that have weighed heavily on my mind since I consciously rejected the religion nearly two years ago. However, as some of my confidants predicted earlier this week, I came out of that cathedral visit with more questions than answers.
The tenets of the Christian faith as I and millions of Afrikan people worldwide have grown to know it were created during the Council of Nicea — a gathering of more than 310 bishops in the 4th century. At this meeting, religious leaders compiled a set of Christian beliefs and customs. That type of Christianity, as supported by the Roman Catholic Church, became a tool in the oppression of Afrikans worldwide in subsequent centuries.
Furthermore, learning about similarities between Christianity and ancient Egyptian spirituality – an older and more African-centered system – diminished its appeal. Unearthing that truth would be the final nail in the coffin in my relationship with Jesus Christ. That came after years of my struggles with judgmental clergy at my home church and feelings the ritualistic nature of how I had to connect with a higher power.
Ironically, the further I drifted away from Christianity, the more that aspects of the somewhat similar Rastafarian faith resonated with me, especially as I carried along on my journey to a higher Afrikan consciousness. I’ve overlooked the fact that Rastas were, in a sense, Christian because many of them cite the Biblical text’s mention of Ethiopia while denouncing the King James version of the Holy Book.
I was formally introduced to Rasta through my study of Marcus Garvey, famed Pan-African revolutionary and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Upon learning about what Rastas celebrate as his prophecy of Haile Selassie’s rise as the second coming of Christ, my mission to spread messages of Afrikan unity became more of a spiritual calling rather than a profession. Additionally, the inspirational messages of the Honorable Bob Nesta Marley, Buju Banton, Jah9, Protoje, and other reggae artists crystallized what I consider an important transformation.
Due in part to my reluctance to connect to God through a routine, I haven’t embraced Rastafari as a religion. However, I appreciate its messages of railing against the Babylon system. Part of putting those words into action include forgoing a fresh shape up and neatly fitting suits for thickening, unruly locs and African garb. These aesthetically pleasing tools protect me against forces that don’t want me to represent the interests of Afrikan people in my news gathering.
Paralleling my favorite reggae artists’ references to Selassie, King Solomon, and Queen Makeda of Sheba to what I saw in St. George’s Cathedral proved refreshing. With that realization however came some confusion amid my efforts to chart out a chronology of Jesus Christ’s life and the part the Solomonic Dynasty played in introducing Orthodox Christianity to Ethiopians.
For a long time, there has been some discrepancy about when Ethiopians embraced what has come to be known as Christianity. Our tour guide clarified that point when he noted that the Abyssinians took on those principles in the 1st century – nearly 300 years before the Council of Nicea. Even so, the complication persisted as I thought about Jesus Christ as a historical figure rather than the physical representation of God.
The more I pontificated on that aspect, the more I realized that the Bible isn’t really a historical text, rather a compilation of stories for those who have faith in that belief system. At the age of 26, I know in my heart that I can no longer rely on faith alone when the stakes are high in keeping a clear mind. I’ve instead look to common sense as a guide. After that tour of St. George’s Cathedral, things still aren’t making much sense.
There’s always tomorrow.