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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"We have 45 crosses on the church--I guess someone figured we needed two more."

We don't live that far from the new home of St. Mary's Parish of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Warren, Michigan. So after hearing about the vandalism, I thought we ought to go up there and offer some moral and material support. I'm glad we did--Fr. Benjamin Benjamin and his equally friendly parishioners offered us the grand tour. And yes, I saw the graffiti, too.

When we arrived, there were about 15 church members at the front entrance, including Father. Heather, good cradle Catholic that she is, noticed the Roman collar before I did. I went up, shook his hand and that of several other members and said we were appalled by what happened and wanted to help out.

He thanked us and said, "So, you want to see the church?" I was pleasantly surprised by the offer, and after several of the men and women offered a chorus of "yes" and "oh, sure"s, we went inside.

The first thing we were told is that they celebrate the Mass (yes, that's the term) in Aramaic, the language of Christ. They have a large bronze plaque in the vestibule which has the Lord's Prayer in that language. I was also gently and laughingly reminded that Aramaic (like Hebrew and Arabic) reads right to left.

Then we went into the Church proper--which is truly beautiful. It's not quite complete--an iconostasis goes in later--though I may have garbled this part. The ceiling is painted in fluorescent colors that display the night sky (if I understood correctly) over Assyria when the lighting is dimmed. It took four months of work by an Assyrian painter brought in for that purpose. He worked on his back on a scaffold, then would descend to see if the details were correct.

"Like Michelangelo," Heather said.

"Exactly!" was the response.

Father and the parishioners take pride in the fact they are Assyrians, and emphasized that fact. For instance, Nineveh was their city.

"You've read Jonah? That was our city he warned. Now, just a few statues left there."

"Well, you listened," said Heather with a laugh.

"Yes, we listened to Jonah," Father responded, also laughing.
For my part, I remembered my Kipling, even if I didn't recite it: "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre."

But the Assyrians still live.

"We are from Iraq, but we were there long before there was an Iraq. Mesopotamia, 4000 BC, we lived there. Now we are all over the world, too--North America, Australia, even Sweden."

That made the crude graffiti on the south side of the church (which faces away from the road) even more puzzling. The graffiti, which I won't describe in great detail, included two crosses, "Arabs die" and a suggestion to worship Jesus, along with the f-word.

"We aren't Arabs, and we worship the [same] God. The whole church is covered with crosses--how could someone miss that?"

As in the 45 mentioned above--and though you it's hard to see it in the picture, each of the windows has a matte finish cross about three feet high (which cast impressive shadows inside the church). The window crosses were about fifteen feet above the sprayed crosses.

Other details were pointed out--like the cross above the altar, which has Assyrian symbols for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and for "3 in 1", both in the center.

The rear has a stained glass window with the colors of the Assyrian flag on it. The Boy and I also had a guided tour of the choir loft, but we had to pull Dale back from the not-quite-anchored rails. Then we went to the parish basement, which seats 400 and has two flat screen TVs so overflow crowds can watch the Mass, along with two new classrooms for catechism. "They'll also sell candy and snacks out the classroom windows for parties," a 12 year old boy with a flip phone said.

Father and the parishioners fully expect such an overflow crowd for the dedication of the church on May 6, which will be attended by representatives from the Assyrian community around the world. We'll tell you how it goes.

All in all, we spent about an hour there--our kids played with the parishioner's kids (and Rachel, in a mortifying moment, successfully begged for McDonald's fries from a 10 year old girl. "Oh, I was done," she gracefully said). All in all, we couldn't have met a nicer group of folks, nor ones less deserving of the indignities that were inflicted on them. If you get a chance, go to 4320 E. 14 Mile Road in Warren and offer them your support.

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