A Holy Man Treads the Ism-Schisms of Rastafari
Interview by by Carol Amaruso
This article was originally published in Dub Missive magazine.
He is a man of bulk, but he walks quietly, almost glides; his flowing robes, tufted raincloud beard and gold cross clutched in his fist dramatically portray his eminence, but he keeps a low profile, his life has been full of contention, but he speaks softly. Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq is the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, emissary and shuttle diplomacist of Emperor Haile Selassie to the new world, godfather and spiritual advisor of Bob and Rita Marley and their children. His accomplishments are impressive, yet mysteriously unheralded. Inheralded perhaps because the Archbishop is the kingpin in a deep schism running through the Rastafarian community which many would probably prefer to keep hushed.
A Shining Light from Ethiopia
The archbishop is a comfortable, affable, generous man, and fatherly in the way priests are painted in the movies. I have seen him in three of his guises: as a prelate serving mass, as a mover and shaker amongst peoples of the Diaspora in New York City, and at home with his church "family." In each aspect one senses a quiet awe and obeisance of those around him, paternal concern, and familiarity on his part and the underlying thrill of history drawing you to him.
Laike Mandefro was born in Addis Ababa in 1933. He attended first lay then liturgical schools in Ethiopia and was ordained a deacon and priest there. The young prelate was among several taken under Emperor's Haile Selassie's wing. As the Archbishop relates it, "His Majesty was tutoring us as his own children." Laike Mandfredo was invested as Abuna Yesehaq (the Old Testament's "Isaac"), Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, in 1979.
Selassie made a momentous trip to Jamaica in 1966, where for the first time he saw people - Rastafarians - worshipping him as God. The emperor was reportedly deeply dismayed. At a Kingston news conference he attempted to dispel the belief in his divinity with his response to a pointed question from Jamaican Minister of Education, Edward Allen. "I am a man, and man cannot worship man" are perhaps the most oft-quoted word the Emperor has ever said. Despite the famous disavowal, the Archbishop relates that many continued to maintain, "He is our God, even if he doesn't say he's God." In 1970, still distressed, the Emperor announced to the priest: "There is a problem in Jamaica.... Please, help these people. They are misunderstanding, they do not understand our culture.... They need a church to be established and you are chosen to go." He arrived in Jamaica shortly thereafter and began building the first Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston. Later, "Rasta churches" would dot the island, in fact, the whole English-speaking Caribbean, and various locations in North America, including New York and Toronto.
While the prelate was busy in Kingston founding a house of worship and gathering a flock, he had another, perhaps more difficult task to accomplish - that of mediating between the authorities and the Rastafarian community as a whole. Wholesale persecutions were being carried out against Rasta. Be found on the streets with lock by a cop with an attitude or something to prove, and you ran the risk of being arrested, roughed up, even shot. Some call those roundups attempted genocide.
The Archbishop agrees they were terrible times and says he spent endless hours ate the station house securing Rastas' release. "They (the police) used to beat them and kill them. Just for nothing." he recollects. "All that pain is eased now," he observes. "After that, they have good relations with the police." I had to correct him, "Better relations with the police." "Yes, better. Thank you."
The major condition for baptism is to renounce the divinity of Haile Selassie. "That is number one," says the Archbishop. "It is the major thing." And it remains the primary point of departure separating the "Rasta Christians" from all other branches of Rastafari. Another philosophical chasm is the categorical unacceptability, on the part of many outside the Church, of embracing any form of Christianity, a "Babylon religion," one that preaches the same tenets as the "hypocrites" who brought Africans here as slaves - even if that Christianity, the oldest in the world, was founded by Africans with strong, Africanist teachings.
Other departures of doctrine exist as well. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church preaches the equality of men and women. "When God brought Eve from the rib of Adam, He took that rib from Adam's sid; He did not create her from the head or the feet," the Archbishop explains. Has she come from Adam's head, she would be superior, from his feet, inferior. The Archbishop, in citing the common practice amongst Rastas of having "concubines", as he puts it, stresses that it is a sin in his Church. "Rastas believe that a man has more than one wife. That is not our Church teaching. One man, one woman. That's it," he insists. He adds that couples who come into the Church practicing concubinage may receive support and counseling from specially designated priests to abandon the practice. The family unit is considered sacred by the Church and "family values."
The question of ganja is thorny. The archbishop maintains that it is the main reason his church is seen as a Rasta church and attracts few non-Rastafarians adherents from the Caribbean. He claims that most people cling to old-time fears of Rastas which are somehow symbolized by the ganja smoking. "There are so many people here in New York," he laments. "They want to come into our church. But they see them (Rastas) around the church, in the area, smoking. So it's embarrassing and they don't want to come." A Church Sister, Terseta, agrees that the fear has history. "Lots of people don't come here (to the New York church, in the Bronx)," she says, "because they scared of Rasta. Like they do in the island, too." It comes, she avers, from "the beginning" when Rastas essentially devolved out of the Maroons. "The Maroons was the original Rasta people", and folks, black and white, were afraid of them.
The Archbishop is firm about expelling those Rastas who, by their unabated and flagrant ganja smoking, disturb and intimidate "those people who are trying to work for their own salvation." Since ganja is illegal, he cannot condone its use. "As long as it is illegal, we do not, we can not agree." he explains. "But we are not in control of what people do in their own houses."
What Rastas in and outside the Church have clearly in common is their pride in Africa and her traditions. The Church supports the aims of all Rastafarians for repatriation. "The Rastas are really the only black people in the West, who demand... their freedom and their Africanism," Yesehaq observes. And he continues, "We encourage them to preach about Africa, to learn about Africa, about their heritage, to reconnect themselves with the heritage if their forefathers which is in Africa. That is important," He stresses the role of Marcus Garvey in instilling proper pride in Africans in the West and for his embracing the Ethiopian Church. "We support Marcus Garvey, we support Marcus Garvey," he says with his own reverance. But, he expects more than lip-service on repatriation. "His Majesty said to them, you have to learn your skills and trades, then come to Africa to develop Africa and help your people." The one or two week visit that many make each year is not enough. The Church expects a deeper commitment from the Rastas, like that the Diaspora Jews have towards Israel: gaining enough political, and economic power in their adopted lands to then carry back to develop and strengthen the motherland.
As many musicians in Jamaica have been Rastafarians, so many have been among the over 45,000 baptized into the church. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who later renounced the Church, are among them. But the most notable was Bob Marley who remained outside the Church for several years after Rita and the children converted, in 1972. Bob was under the spiritual guidance of the Archbishop but was baptized just a year before his death, after three aborted attempts to convert in Kingston. He backed out each time, says the Archbishop, after being threatened by other Rastas. Marley was finally baptized in the Ethiopian Church in New York where less resentments were less inflamed. The Archbishop christened him Berhane Selassie, "light of the Trinity".
Not many knew then of Bob's conversion, but just about everyone found out when the by-then invested Abuna Yesehaq, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere (he was installed in 1979), presided over his state funeral, in 1981. Bob's family was successful in felling the customary line-up of profiteering Babylon clergy, insuring that the only rites said for Bob would be those of his officially adopted religion. The Church has also volunteered to bury other Rastas whose loved ones, insisting on burial by an institutional religion, could find not other to inter them: Jacob Miller and Garnett Silk are examples. Tosh, too, was buried by the Church, apparently at his family's insistence, but since he had "cursed and cursed and cursed" the Church, the Archbishop neither presided over nor attended the rites.
Curiously, the Archbishop downplays the disagreements over spiritual teachings while emphasizing what he seems to feel is a second phase of persecutions against Rasta, these against members of his church by other Rastas, exemplified by Bob's experiences, and by, he says, similar threats made to Judy Mowatt, who finally became a Pentecostal Christian. Nevertheless, his concealed bitterness comes forth when he talks about the project he and Marley launched, establishing a bakery in West Kingston's ghetto, on Haile Selassie Drive. "But then they (other Rastas) captured it. They destroyed it," he says, still perplexed, "because they said the Church is going to take the money. The bakery was not for us." Yesehaq recalls, too, that a year later, Bob's funeral was interrupted by "the Twelve Tribes again", when someone came up to the altar during the service and "in front of all those thousands of people, disturbed... it was embarrassing. But through the help of God, the service was completed in the right way." Others contend that the confusion was created by Bob's confidant, Alan "Skill" Cole, was out of sheer grief rather than spiritual sabotage.
In another frame of mind, he professes understanding and sympathy for the Church's detractors, especially in their cynicism about Christianity. He even acknowledges that many of his converts still cling privately to Selassie's divinity. Even the very loyal, devoted Terseta is equivocal. "Some people say, he (Selassie) is not God," she says. "But I know I don't forget His Majesty. Nobody must tell me I must forget him."
The native Ethiopian members of the church seem to have no problem with the Rastas. Everyone I've spoke to expresses the utmost respect for them and while, due to language differences, liturgical services and even church buildings are separate, the Ethiopians have told me they are proud that Rastas have adopted their religion and repatriates have reportedly been received and treated well in Ethiopia.
The majority of dreads who identify with Rastafari here in rural Jamaica and New York, where I've taken a man-on-the-street informal survey, have never or just vaguely heard of the Archbishop, the conversions, the Ethiopian orthodox Church. Lester Ebanks is an unaffiliated Rastafarian Elder. He's a man of many years of living and reflection. He lives in tranquillity in Great Bay (St. Elizabeth) now, after a long stretch in Kingston and at sea.
"Christianity and Rasta, it's a war," he tells me, looking up from his callaloo omelet one Sunday Morning as we chat. "There is NO man that is a god," he adds, unequivocally, gazing on the fields in stillness beyond him. "God is in the tree, he's in the sea, the breeze, the air we breathe. No man was born to take our sins away." More conciliatory a moment later, Lester acknowledges the Ethiopian, albeit a Christian, Church has made to accommodate, protect and grant a kind of "legitimacy" in the eyes of this deeply Christian society at large to its Rastas. But there is no indignation again when this Rasta is asked about the Emperor's divinity. He recites the famous quote: "..man cannot worship man." If he (Selassie) said it himself, it's nonsense to believe otherwise."
Lester was a chef in Kingston when the trashing of the bakery went down. "I Remember it, it was very unfortunate." he reflects. "But nobody knows the whole story." Indeed, no one knows the whole story of this long, deep, rending of the Rastafarian belief system. And the Archbishop, the schism's almost silent symbol, remains a puzzle: a man who continues to speak so ecumenically, with so much seeming charity towards those who threaten him, his mission, the existence of his Church.
Perhaps the answer to this paradox lies in his faith in the power of his Church to convert. For the Archbishop believes fervently that "the Church is a divinity for the Rastafarians. It brings them all their heritage and teachings... We tell them what is right and wrong. Gradually every Rasta will realize this. Now, it's just half and half."
Abuna Yesehaq: Bob was really a good brother, a child of God, regardless of how people looked at him. He had a desire to be baptised long ago, but there were people close to him who controlled him and who were aligned to a different aspect of Rastafari. But he came to Church regularly. I remember once while I was conducting the Mass, I looked at Bob and tears were streaming down his face.... When he toured Los Angeles and New York and England, he preached the Orthodox Faith, and many members in those cities came to the Church because of Bob. Many people think he was baptised because he knew he was dying, but that is not so... he did it when there was no longer any pressure on him, and when he was baptised, he hugged his family and wept, they all wept together for about half an hour.
Abuna Yesehaq is the author of The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church: An Integrally African Church. Those who enjoy Abuna Yesehaq's book will also appreciate Wade in the River: The Story of the African Christian Faith and An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience by Father Paisius Altschul.