OAKLAND -- Bishops from one of the world's oldest Christian churches gathered in the Oakland hills for a four-day summit last week, hoping to sort out their differences as they shepherd an East African denomination to new lands.

The gathering was "to talk about the next generation, the one in the United States, what we have to do for them," said Palo Alto resident Benyam Mulugeta, president of the board of Oakland's Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Mekane Selam Medhane Alem Cathedral. "We don't want to lose the next generation."

Exiled Patriarch Abune Merkorios was scheduled to preside over the convening of the Holy Synod, but the elder church leader fell ill shortly before his flight to the Bay Area.

Local Ethiopian-Americans attend a mass during the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s 39th Holy Synod meeting at the Mekane Selam Medhanealem Ethiopian
Local Ethiopian-Americans attend a mass during the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's 39th Holy Synod meeting at the Mekane Selam Medhanealem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Cathedral in Oakland on May 16, 2014. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Merkorios was dethroned and replaced amid Ethiopia's political turmoil of the 1990s, but he still has a worldwide following of Ethiopian emigrants who consider him the true spiritual leader of an institution that dates back to the 4th century.

Merkorios lives in New Jersey. A rival patriarch and institution continue to be seated in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Clergy from Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Sweden and across the United States gathered at the Mountain Boulevard cathedral from Wednesday through Saturday.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians say they hope to establish the kind of American footprint that Greek and Russian Orthodox churches began more than a century ago, building their own churches and monasteries and appealing to younger, U.S.-born congregants who grow up speaking English.


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Hosting the convention was 90-year-old Abune Melketsedek, who heads the Oakland cathedral and is also the general secretary for the exiled church. Bishops and congregants were seen tearfully hugging on Friday after resolving some internal disputes over church policies.

"It's one of the big events of our church," Mulugeta said of the meeting.