The Gateway to Heaven

(This is a cross-post with my travel blog at

Nathan and I woke up in a place called Woodland, California. The sun was up early and so were we, taking a few minutes to polish-off the leftover Laos food from the night before. With only about 3 hours’ drive to our next destination (in San Miguel), we weren’t in much of a hurry. But, considering that our original plan had been to camp at the monastery the night before, we wanted no more delays.

We didn’t actually know anything about what the program at the monastery would entail. All I’d seen was a simple image, shared with me through a messaging app (Viber, I think?), all in Amharic. The only information in English was the date and the address. As we drove the dusty California highways this Friday, I had no idea if we were missing a morning church service, or if we’d be arriving early for an evening celebration.

The first part of our drive skirted the San Francisco Bay and took us through the Silicon Valley area. It was mind-blowing to see the sudden shift from rural, agricultural California to urban sprawl, Teslas everywhere, traffic jams, and inescapable highway construction. People in California drive like trash anyway, so I had to stay on high alert to avoid becoming a traffic fatality statistic. Then, just as soon as we had entered it, we were out of it, emerging into another sun-drenched rural region.

Driving through San Luis Obispo County was all vineyards and cattle ranches. I tried calling my Mother to tell her where we were and see if there was anything she recommended we stop to see. She grew up in this area, living itinerantly in something like 28 different places before the age of 14, when she moved to Washington and settled into stable housing. We couldn’t get her on the phone, however, because she was somewhere in North Carolina having her own fun adventure.

The road to the monastery was long and remote. It actually reminded me a lot of Africa. The landscape here looked like places I’d seen in Kenya, where the verdant hills meet the savannah lands. And the sun was strong and direct like the African sun. The road felt like an African road too, full of cracks and potholes.

It was a long drive down a winding road with no cross-streets, stores, or landmarks. I would have easily thought we were lost if not for the handful of Ethiopians we met along the way, all either searching for the place which must be up ahead somewhere, or returning from there on some errand.

This was exactly as it should be, really. A monastery is not a family parish or a community gathering place, not meant to attract converts, and not a visible symbol of the faith. A monastery is a place for monks to retreat into the wilderness in search of a life of silence, prayer, fasting, work, and solitude. This location far from anywhere in the midst of green, sunny hills was perfectly appropriate

Eventually we found the place. We could tell by the cluster of men busy repairing the front gate. They were erecting a metal arch carrying the words: “Gateway to Heaven St. John the Baptist and St. Arsema Ethiopan Orthodox Tewah do unity of Monestery in CA.” The spelling wasn’t perfect, and the lettering had some issues, but it looked like this was actually a last-minute replacement for the former gate, which lay crumpled on the ground nearby. It must have been knocked over by heavy winds in the recent past.

After a pleasant drive along winding roads that led deeper into the hills, we found the main building. Apparently this was a former ranch house of some wealthy rancher. The grounds were extensive, with barns and outbuildings, and a playground that looked like it came from Disneyland or some other theme park. I asked a parking attendant if this was where the services would be held. He told us no, in fact, there was a chapel further down the road where the services themselves would take place. This house was for sleeping and meals for the clergy.

We continued along the road, which wound tightly between more hills before opening onto a vast field. Some massive tents had been set up in the field and there was a large barn to our right. Many people were buzzing around, finishing various tasks to get the place ready for visitors. We parked the truck and wandered a bit, discovering that the inside of the barn had been converted to a fine church, with a large overflow room and a second story viewing platform. There were 10 golden chairs set out along the stage in front of the Holy of Holies, presumably where the Bishops would sit during the service.

Other than construction, there was nothing happening here yet, so we returned to the main building. I let Nathan run around and play on the playground, which featured elaborate treehouses and huts in the theme of a “pioneer village” of woodland creatures. There was owl’s house and rabbit’s house, the beaver’s house was a sawmill. That kind of thing.

I made eye contact with a priest seated under the big tree and approached him for greetings and blessings. Coming closer, I began to recognize the man. I knew him! But where from? I wasn’t sure, but as we spoke we were certain we’d met before. A short conversation determined that this was Abba Gebre Mariam, a priest based in Florida who had been in the Seattle area about a year ago and had served in our church. We made a video call to one of my friends back home in Washington, another Ethiopian priest, who was well acquainted with the Abba and we all had a nice time catching up.

After parting with Abba Gebre Mariam, I left Nathan to play and went inside the former ranch-house turned priest’s quarters. I was pretty immediately offered some injera for lunch and sat down at one of the long kitchen counters to eat with a number of other men. I sparked up a conversation with a next Rastaman, Max, a dread from Puerto Rico who has joined the Orthodox Church along with his family. We had a lot to share in our experiences and trod of Rastafari, culminating in the embrace of the Church. He’d been on site for a month helping build the sanctuary and prepare the space for this opening weekend. I also learned that he has opened an Ethiopian Orthodox mission in his home island of Puerto Rico.

While we were eating, I recognized another man I know. It was our Archbishop from Seattle, Abuna Markos. He is the one who baptized my sons and he was overjoyed to see me. He said, “I am proud of you” and gave me a big hug. Neither of us knew that the other was going to be there, but after a time I came to realize that all of the Ethiopian Bishops in the United States were probably there, and then some.

After the meal and socializing, we went down to the church for the ceremony of the consecration of the Tabot. This requires some explanation. A “Tabot” in an Ethiopian church is a duplicate of the Ark of the Covenant that Moses had the people carry through the wilderness. The word comes from an even older Egyptian (Khemetic) word referring to the sacred arks, or boats, that were used in religious ceremonies, and it is the same word that is used to refer to Noah’s Ark. Tabots are especially sacred in Ethiopia because of the history of the Ark of the Covenant leaving Israel in the time of Solomon to reside in Axsum, Ethiopia, where it now remains today. A Tabot, in this case, isn’t actually a reproduction of the entire Ark, just the two tablets of the law that were given to Moses. Since time immemorial, the presence of a Tabot has been a necessary component for any Ethiopian church to be able to perform baptisms, communion, marriages, and other sacred ceremonies.

The ceremony itself was new to me. This was my first time witnessing the consecration of a new church and it’s sacred Tabot. It had much in common with the preparatory services on a Sunday, without the communion service, which would be held the next morning. Many of the prayers and chants were familiar to me and I was able to follow along with much of it, surprising myself at how many Ge’ez and Amharic words I was able to remember and respond to during the service. Every time I looked up I saw new priests or bishops appear. At one point I counted 9 or 10 bishops and at least two dozen priests, plus deacons. This was something quite special.

After the service, I went outside to find my son. He’s only 6 years old, and still shy when first meeting new people, but he had quickly become comfortable here and wandered off from me. He found me at the door while I was putting my shoes on and I was pleasantly surprised to hear little children calling, “Nathan, Nathan,” as they would call a familiar friend. Apparently he’d made some new best buds while I was praying in the church.

Someone handed me a program for the weekend. It was my first time seeing the agenda of events and it looked like things were just getting started. There would be a large dinner now, and prayers through the night, a morning mass beginning at 5am, followed by many speeches, ceremonies, and presentations all day Saturday. I was conflicted now, because I was expecting to be at the Nyahbinghi Tabernacle this same night, 3 hours drive from here, where another ceremony would be kicking-off around midnight.

It was a tough choice to make, but I was called to continue moving. We’d only planned to be here for one day, then to spend the next day at the Nyahbinghi before heading home on Sunday. If we stayed here tonight and remained for the service tomorrow, we’d miss most of the Nyahbinghi Ilahbrations. There was no getting home late on this trip. I had appointments scheduled for Tuesday and there’d be a couple days’ worth of driving. The fact that we didn’t have a second set of decent church clothes sealed the deal. If we stayed tonight, we’d have nothing nice to wear for the services in the morning, so it was better that we stick with our plan and drive onward tonight.

We needed to say goodbye to a couple of people first, and the Lord graced us by presenting them right there in front of us rather than making us search for them. Abuna Markos was being hustled into an SUV to rush off to the next service. He gave us his blessings and handed me a book saying, “return this to me in Seattle.” This sounds strange, I know, but it is the kind of thing I’ve known Ethiopian priests to do. It’s some kind of test, and I will bring him the book. Next we bumped into Max, exchanged contact info, and shared blessings. We bought some souvenirs and then hit the road on our way to the next destination.

Published by nicnakis

Nicholas |nik-uh-luhs| n. a male given name: from Greek words meaning "victory of the people" John |jon| n. a male given name: from Hebrew Yohanan, derivative of Yehohanan "God has been gracious" Nakis |nah-kis| n. a Greek family name derived from the patronymic ending -akis (from Crete) Amha |am-hah| n. an Ethiopian given name meaning "gift", from Geez Selassie |suh-la-see| n. Ethiopian name meaning "trinity", from Geez

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