Yikeset Sintayhu worshipped in someone’s home when he moved to Sioux Falls 12 years ago.
The Ethiopian community was so small, that was enough space to gather together to support one another spiritually and to help explain and understand a new community and culture.
But in the past decade, the needs of the congregation of St. Kidanemhiret Ethiopian Orthodox Church have grown — first to a location on Fairfax Avenue. Soon enough, that became too small.
“Everything is growing. Holidays we have a hard time housing everybody because of the (crowd) size,” Sintayhu said. He is the Sunday School Chairman. “We decided we needed a new church. So we built a committee from the congregation to find a newer, bigger church.”
That’s when church leaders heard that Lutheran Social Services was selling its building on West 11th Street. Money is always an issue in the congregation, Sintayhu said, but they came together to help buy the building.
The church bought the building for $480,000. They made a $200,000 down payment and will pay the remaining $280,000 in monthly installments. The congregation stepped up with donations and helped with fundraisers.
“People work hard to give donations,” Sintayhu said. “Most people who go here are working production jobs, so money is hard. but people are excited to come to a big church and celebrate.”
And celebrate they did.
A crowd of more than 600 gathered on a recent Sunday to march, sing, dance, praise and eat at an inaugural celebration for the new church.
Priests began prepping for the celebration at 3:30 a.m., and the service lasted until about 2 p.m. The church flew in the bishop from New York, and priests and monks traveled from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“It was beautiful. It was a blessing,” Sintayhu said. “It’s amazing for us.”
A typical Sunday service draws about 100 people.
Everybody leaves their shoes at the door and often bows before entering the sanctuary. The men fill pews on one side of the church, women fill the other, and children play in an open area in the back. Most are dressed in a traditional white scarf called a netela.
Sunday services begin with priests arriving at 6 a.m. The majority of the congregation arrives at 7 a.m. to sing, chant, pray and dance until about 11:30 a.m. There are no books or screens for people to follow the songs. Everybody learns every song – sung in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
Almost 7 percent of Sioux Falls’ population is foreign-born, or about 10,300 people, according to the 2010 census. One of the largest foreign-born ethnic groups in South Dakota hails from Africa, and the Ethiopian community in Sioux Falls is growing.
“Everybody knows the U.S. is the best place to live. You all grow up here and don’t see that,” Sintayhu said. “In Africa, we know life is hard. Politics are bad. When we come here, we’re happy. We are changing our lives, families’ lives.”
The church, he said, is a way for those who made the nearly 8,000-mile trip to start a new life to have a supportive community.
“Coming here is a culture shock,” Sintayhu said. “Our community stuck together to achieve this goal. Everybody was happy to do their part.”
Living in a country with different politics, varying foods and new faces can be difficult to adjust to, Sintayhu said, and that’s where the church steps in and helps members transition to living in Sioux Falls.
Abebe Lamesgin, administor at the church, said leaders help with financial and family struggles.
“We help each other,” Lamesgin said. “If a parent passes away back home, we visit (the family) here and try to make them happy.”
Zerihun Feleke, chairman of the church, came to Sioux Falls in July 2009 after living in Seattle for four months and said he likes life a bit more here.
“Sioux Falls is very nice, except for the humidity,” Feleke said. “It’s very quiet. Life is easy here and housing is cheaper. Job opportunities are better here. And we’re more familiar with your accents.”
After living in Boston for three years, churchgoer Senait Bisrat came to Sioux Falls in 2009. She said she likes the town, especially with the church here.
“(Coming to church) is like having a little piece of home,” Bisrat said.
Sintayhu is appreciative of the church and is thankful for the opportunity to come to America to attend school and find a better job, which he said is the story of many from the Ethiopian community here in Sioux Falls.
“As long as you work hard, follow the rules, you can see yourself grow as a human being,” Sintayhu said. “I worked hard and I’m now a college graduate. That’s what the United States gives us. Freedom is in your hand.”