WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Amanuel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church welcomed the West Orange community to its new building at 15 Dean St. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 9.
Mayor Robert Parisi, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., much of the West Orange Township Council, and numerous township officials and members of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce joined the congregation to celebrate the official opening, which represented the first time that the church has moved into a permanent base since it was established in 2006. Previously, it rented space from other churches in town, most recently calling Pleasantdale Presbyterian Church its temporary home.
And, according to Getachew Lemma, the chairman of the church board, the parishioners are understandably excited about no longer living a nomadic existence.
“We don’t have to move from place to place,” Lemma told the West Orange Chronicle in a Nov. 5 phone interview. “Finally we have our own place.”
Building committee chairman Tekeste “Cass” Gebremichael agreed that having its own building is a dream come true for the church. But it was a long time coming. Gebremichael said the approximately 100-member congregation, much of which consists of first-generation immigrants, has been raising money for a home ever since he and nine other families founded the church nine years ago. It was not always easy, but he said the parishioners’ generosity and love for their church really came through.
In the end, Gebremichael said they were able to raise almost all of the $475,000 to purchase the property, in addition to the $250,000 to renovate it. For that, he said the church will be forever grateful.
“It’s a blessing,” Gebremichael told the Chronicle in a Nov. 5 phone interview. “And God will give them twice as much as they gave. I’m quite sure that they will receive it from God in many different ways — with their children, their marriage, their social life. They’ll be rewarded.”
But even with the money in place, the church had its work cut out for it. Since the building at 15 Dean St. used to be a Verizon warehouse, Gebremichael said the interior had to be constructed completely from scratch, from building bathrooms to a meeting room to everything in between. In fact, he said the only thing not new about the church is the exterior.
All the effort was worthwhile, Gebremichael said, because now the congregation can say it has a home of its own with the freedom that comes along with it. That freedom is a major benefit, he pointed out, since it means the church can avoid the frustrations of sharing its space.
“Now, we can meet during the week and teach our language to our children, teach our religion to our children and teach our culture to our children, and the grown-ups can meet and do Bible study,” Gebremichael said. “We couldn’t do that with the rented spaces because there was a limited time we could use it. So it’s very beneficial, culturally and socially.”
Preserving the Ethiopian culture and the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church is indeed vital to the Amanuel parishioners. All services are held in Amharic — the official language of Ethiopia — led by a priest dressed in traditional garb, while congregation members observe customs including going barefoot.
Overall, the church simply provides a place for Ethiopian residents to connect, Lemma said.
“For anything, good or bad, we should be together,” Lemma said. “That’s why we’re united here.”
The parishioners are not the only ones happy to have their own church in West Orange. Parisi said he thinks Amanuel will be highly rewarding for the township, especially considering that it could attract many new residents hoping to live closer to the church. And since many congregants are already local residents, the church provides yet another benefit to living in West Orange, Parisi added.
“It’s a great addition having a permanent home here for people who made their homes here and raised their families here,” Parisi told the Chronicle in a Nov. 6 phone interview. “I’m thrilled for them that they were able to pursue this dream and turn it into a reality.”
Likewise, Gebremichael said the outside West Orange community has supported the church since it first started, which its members appreciate. He pointed out that many of the parishioners live and work locally, which is why finding a space right in town was always their goal.
Now that this goal has been accomplished, Gebremichael said the church members look forward to continuing to worship within West Orange, a township that has always embraced them with open arms.
“(West Orange) is a very loving and caring community,” Gebremichael said. “West Orange is our home. The people have been good to us. We’ve been here for nine years, and we do plan to be here forever.”