The rainy weather outside could not diminish the spirits of the people who turned out for the dedication of the new Ethiopian Orthodox church building in Woodlawn early yesterday afternoon.
At the end of the ceremony, which began with the clergy's prayers at 4 a.m., the congregation sung and clapped to the beat of two drums as dancers led the priests in a slow parade around the sanctuary.
When they reached the front, the priests watched while laymen chanted and danced. The pungent scent of incense mingled with the smell of Ethiopian food cooking in the kitchen downstairs.
The 300-member Ethiopian Tewahedo Mekane Selam Eyesus Church will hold its first regular service in the newly dedicated building today.
The building, at 2024 Gwynn Oak Ave., was purchased in September from the Knights of Columbus and is the first Ethiopian Orthodox church in greater Baltimore.
The church has held services at a Reformed Episcopal church in Catonsville since it was founded in 1995. With its own building, the church can move the service from Saturday to Sunday, and may consider adding a Saturday evening service, said member Yeshitila Araya.
Everything in the building, from the fresh white paint to the maroon carpet, looks new. Even the radiators along the walls are painted shiny gold. The red, green and yellow flag of Ethiopia hangs from a pole near the front, opposite an American flag, and a larger Ethiopian flag hangs on the back wall.
As well as a place to worship, the new building will allow the church to serve the larger community, said Dr. Gebremariam Moges, a lay elder of the church.
"We will try to make this an Ethiopian center," Moges said.
Church officials estimated that about 3,000 Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans live in the Baltimore area.
As part of the church's new Ethiopian Community Center services, Moges and several other physicians will offer free medical care, treating patients at various locations because the church building has no clinic.
In addition to health care, the community center plans to offer English classes, job training, and other services to help Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans of any religion, said Araya, the center chairman.
During the dedication ceremonies, more than 300 people filled the sanctuary, many standing in the back and the aisles. Some said they were visitors from other Ethiopian Orthodox congregations in the Mid-Atlantic region.
"People are very excited and very supportive each time there is a church that's purchased and opened," said Rebkha Atnafou, a community center officer.
The Ethiopian people are one of the most active and unified groups in the area, Araya said.
Church leaders honored the Rev. Paul Schenck, pastor of Bishop Cummins Memorial Church, where they had held their services.
Schenck suppressed tears, which he said were of joy for the Ethiopian church's new building and sadness for the friends he would miss, as he discussed how his own church would change. "When I come to church on Sunday morning, I won't smell the incense," he said.