Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Ethiopian Baptism and The Pope on Breastfeeding

I feel like I've just returned from Ethiopia. In a way I have. I spent the day at an Ethiopian Orthodox baptism. It was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but nothing inside the church all day could hint at any place other than the old country. Much like Roman Catholicism in the Western World, the Orthodox Church traditionally baptizes infants, rather than adults. A custom no doubt reflecting the high infant mortality around the world, where baby boys die even earlier than baby girls for a whole host of reasons, Ethiopian baby boys are traditionally baptized when they are 40 days old, and baby girls, who are often stronger at birth, at 80 days. Perhaps the thinking goes something like this: “Let’s get these boys baptized sooner and maybe some of that grace will rub off and cause more of them to live longer….”
A study published in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  of infant mortality in 15 developed countries, including Australia, found that baby boys are 24% more likely to die than baby girls. This is down from a peak of 31% in 1970. "The marked reversal of historical trends indicates that at an age when males and females experience very similar lives, they are very different in their biological vulnerability," says co-author Professor Eileen Crimmins at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. "As infant mortality falls to very low levels, infant deaths become increasingly concentrated among those who are born with some weakness." However, it is still double the rate in the days before the development of vaccines and public health measures, such as improved sanitation, dramatically improved infant mortality rates.

The male disadvantage begins in utero. Girls have a stronger immune system while boys are 60% more likely to be born prematurely and experience respiratory problems.
Boys are also more likely to cause difficult labor because their body and head sizes are often larger than girls. When poor sanitation and nutrition weakened all mothers and babies, the male disadvantage was less noticeable. Today (2014 findings), look more like this:
5.7 deaths per 1,000 births in the U.S.; 70 deaths per 1,000 births in Ethiopia, 98 deaths per 1,000 births in Somalia, Iceland has only 3.14 deaths per 1,000 births—even better than the U.S. as does Greece at 4.7 deaths per 1,000 births, Cuba at 4.6, Ireland at 3.7, Sweden at 2.7, and Monaco with only 1.8 deaths per 1,000 births; however, in 1990, the infant mortality rate in Tibet, according to a study in the Chinese Journal of Population Science, was 92.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, roughly triple the national average for China. I am still sending out antennae, hoping to find backing for a trip to Tibet in the near future in order to get some real data on the situation there and hopefully some answers, too. In Tibet, the death rate of women in childbirth in 2012 was 174 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, compared to about 28 maternal deaths per 100,000 births in the U.S. Something needs to be done.
But back to Little Ethiopia in Minneapolis. The invitation said 6 a.m. Really? I was there. As the doors closed behind me, I smelled incense. I noticed shoes lined up by the door, too, off to one side. I removed mine and stepped into the church. Even the priest was standing up front reciting the prayers, clad in ornate gold vestments, in his stocking feet. The church was very traditional Orthodox with icons filling the walls and a gate at the front closing off the actual altar. Colorful tapestries and rugs covered the floor, the steps up to the gate, and the aisles. Heavy satin and velvet maroon curtains hung over the gate and across the front of the sanctuary. Giant sequined red and gold ceremonial umbrellas were lined up off to one side of the sanctuary next to 2 huge drums, also opulently decorated.
The women were all standing in the pews on the right of the church and the men on the left. A tiny girl, not more than 3 years old, with an impish smirk on her face, wandered up and down the center aisle, stopping to visit with different ones who invited her over. She was dressed in a miniature copy of the richly embroidered dress and veil of the older women, though her tiny pigtail tufts held her veil up at a funny angle which made her even cuter. All were dressed in white linen. No one tried to hush her or the other children in the pews. All the children were held or cuddled or left to wander around, unlike many churches in America where children are expected to sit still and remain perfectly quiet. Except, I now recall, the Amish services I have attended, 
despite their strict rules and old fashioned religiosity. At one point during a particularly long service, great big cookies were passed out to keep the children happy and they were free to come and go should they need to use the outhouse out back. Hutterite services were definitely different, however. The littlest children are expected to fill the front-most pews, the next group in age taking the next rows, and so on. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the meeting house, filling up the middle and back pews. This arrangement makes it possible for the parents to watch their children during the services and should there be anything out of the expected behavior in church, it will be taken up later at home. Babies and toddlers go to the kliene shul (little school) or daycare during services.
An aside here, I was happy to read that before a baptism recently in Rome, the Pope made a general announcement that during the service it is perfectly alright to breastfeed the babies there that day. Good for him. You rock, Pope Francis!
Against one of the walls to the right of the pews about 30 sticks were hung up like brooms in a janitor’s closet. They looked like broom handles or crutches. Maybe shepherd staffs. I couldn’t guess what they were for.
So we stood. The first hour went by quickly. So much was new to me, and the icons were beautiful, some framed with embroidered white scarves. The next hour was getting harder. How could they stand for so long? One older grandmother left her pew at one point, took one of the broom handles from the rack on the wall and returned to her place. She held the top handle of it with both hands, closed her eyes and leaned in against it. It was a crutch! You could prop yourself up with it and rest awhile.
So went the next hour. Prayers, hymns, incense, bells, responsorial prayers where the congregation answers the priest, all in Amharic. Not one word of English so far. The next hour dragged on. Then all of a sudden two gold-robbed deacons with matching gold brocade fez-like hats started filling up the baptismal font from two huge tea kettles. It was a brass caldron-like affair. The two families in the first pews started undressing their babies as I wondered if they had given them chamomile tea or something to quiet them. They hadn’t cried at all during the service so far. The priest then produced a huge ledger and wrote down the babies and parents’ names in the book, having the mothers check the spelling of the names before he closed it.
At this point the dads from the men’s side came over to hold their naked babies. A blanket was thrown around them to keep them warm until it was their turn at the font. Dozens of cell phones and cameras stood ready.
Then the priests, deacons, acolytes, and the two families moved forward to the water. More hymns and prayers for a while and then the priest signaled to the first dad to hand the baby to him. The tiny girl was wide awake but completely quiet. A deacon held the baby above the water as the priest scooped up a handful of the water three times and trickled it over the baby’s head. Then the priest took the baby from the deacon and dunked her three times, careful to only submerge her up to her armpits. She still didn’t cry. Another man was ready behind the priest with a towel. Then the priest did same thing again with the baby boy. Still wrapped in their respective towels, the priest blessed the babies with holy oil. Returning again through the gate, the priest along with the whole entourage proceeded with the Divine Liturgy. Oh, I almost forgot. After the babies were baptized, the people came out from the pews up to the steps of the sanctuary and the priest splashed water from the font onto them, group by group as they came up. Then they returned to the pews, making room for the next group to get splashed. I was pushed along by the wave of women in my pew and similarly, liberally doused.
Toward the end of the fourth hour I was standing with my eyes closed, listening to the beautiful eastern melodies when someone touched my sleeve. It was one of the deacons with a large book. He was holding it out to me. I panicked. What was I supposed to do with it? I winced and looked straight at him, hoping for a clue. Was I being invited to recite the next reading? Smart man, he whispered, “You may honor the gospel”, which is a custom I was familiar with from my monastery days—and that is another story altogether. At least then, usually at Easter, a cross or a bible was brought to the people to venerate. This one was an ancient, leather-bound tome with an orthodox cross embroidered on the cover. I touched my forehead to the book and then kissed the cross. I must have done it right because he moved on to the next person. It must have taken him another half hour to circulate through the whole assembly. When he returned to the priest, he read from the gospel for that day, and then afterwards, the bible was brought around again for all the people to kiss.
After the reading, one of the deacons came straight down the aisle and turned into my pew. Oh, no. Had I done something wrong? He opened a book he had under his arm and pointed to the verse the priest was reciting at that moment. There were three columns of writing on each page, one in Amharic, one in Oromo, and the last in English. Oh, good. Now I could somewhat follow what was going on.
So this was what Sundays are for. It is the Sabbath, and these people took that very seriously. If you can’t work, you might as well spend the day at church, praying, worshipping and singing. I started composing this story in my head as we neared the beginning of the next hour. Then my cell phone went off. EEEEKKKK! How could I be so stupid? I grabbed it out of my purse and tried to muffle it against my chest. I quickly turned it off. No one turned to admonish me or even glare at me. A minute later someone else’s phone rang, so I didn’t feel so completely mortified.
Two more grandmothers and a grandfather from the other side of the room retrieved crutches during the next hour. Then the umbrellas were opened and marched over to the tabernacle where the bread and wine had been consecrated, and the entire entourage processed back through the gate to the people who were lining up for communion. The newly baptized babies were presented first. The priest dropped a miniscule crumb of the bread onto a silver spoon that contained a drop of the wine and fed the babies their first communion like that. They still had not fussed at all. After all of the people received communion, the umbrellas were put aside and the priest delivered a sermon. It was all in Amharic, so I sat quietly and went back to composing my notes in my head.
As soon as the sermon was over, four young people dressed in blue headdresses and robes came forward, each holding a staff or crutch. Then one of the deacons took off his outer vestment and picked up one of the drums. The air was instantly electrified. The women started clapping and swaying as he began a low, slow, deep boom boom boom beat on the drum. He slowly marched in a little circle in the center of the sanctuary as the people in blue—two young men and two young women—marched toward each other and then back again. All of a sudden the beat picked up and the staffs were whacked on the floor with the beat and the drumming got louder and louder and on some cue that I couldn’t discern, all the women did some kind of trilling with their tongues, all in unison, and then stopped, all together, something I had heard in African music before, but never live. It was all so amazing! 
Even the littlest children were dancing and clapping. I remembered then that in the Old Testament King David had danced before the Arc of the Covenant (II Samuel 6 and Psalm 132) and wondered when we in the Western World had lost this part of our worship and had become so very serious. Dads were holding their tiny children dancing between the pews. At one point the drummer turned his drum over to another deacon who started right away with the faster beat, much to the agreement of his audience who trilled and clapped and kept dancing. Then things settled down and the priest walked up to the lectern to deliver another lesson. I guessed it was on a secular subject because he had removed his gold vestments before mounting the steps up to the podium. We all sat at that point. I wasn’t looking at my watch anymore, resigned that this was what I had committed to for the day, so it no longer mattered if he spoke for 15 minutes or an hour. When he was done, it was obvious that the service was indeed over. People stood up, the staffs were all returned to the broom rack on the wall and people were wading through the piles of shoes in the back looking for their own pair. As all of that was happening, the two acolytes were passing out paper cups of water. I was handed a cup as a girl asked me, “Do you drink holy water?” I said yes and gladly drank it, but within another moment wondered to myself if somehow we were consuming the water that the priest had blessed and both naked babies had been immersed in. Oh, well. I just chocked it up to another new experience.
People were slowly making their way to the bottleneck at the front doors and on down into the church’s basement, and then just as quickly coming back up with huge chunks of homemade bread. Then they broke pieces off and handed them out to everyone else still on the steps. It wasn’t the same bread as the communion host, but most likely, I imagine, something to hold everyone over so they wouldn’t faint on the way home. In many faiths, people fast from food from the night before they wish to receive communion, so if that were the case, these people had had a very long wait until now. It was past noon.
I greeted the priest on the last steps leading down to the street. He offered his hand to me to shake. Unlike our Muslim friends who never shake hands with the opposite sex, these people always did. Even hugs were not verboten here. I only realized as people flooded out of the church that I was the only white face there. The thought had not occurred to me until then. The priest took my hand and immediately apologized that the service was only in their language, “No English, I am so sorry.” I told him that it was beautiful, that the reverence and joy came through loud and clear. I told him I enjoyed attending their worship and felt blessed by it. He said he had heard from Selassie that I had been helping her during her pregnancy and he thanked me. I told him that Selassie has appointed me as the baby’s American grandma, and that I wouldn’t have missed this day for anything. He agreed. At that moment she found me and shuttled me over to their car. It is still winter in Minnesota, so we were anxious to get the babies and little children into the cars quickly.
Back at Selassie’s apartment we all fell into the plush sofas and finished off our bread. It was wonderful, though unlike any bread I had eaten at their houses before. It was definitely sweeter. Soon more and more people were arriving with hot and cold dishes and the kitchen was humming. I had waited to hold little Kelile all day until now, and I finally got to play with him. He seemed to know me right away, though I had only been checking in less than once a week since the birth. He looked so good, so happy and filling out. We had concerns in the beginning. One of the specialty children’s hospitals here has checked him over and put in place a care plan to address the concerns. He will be fine. An emergency C-section didn’t help Selassie worry any less about him. Her husband Yonas was still back home in Africa, plodding through the immigration process. The latest fly in the works is a new requirement from the U.S. visa department. Selassie had to come up with $600 and have the baby’s DNA tested and then send the file to a hospital in Dolo Odo, Ethiopia and have her husband’s tested too. If he proves to be his father, then he might still get a visa, on the condition that he meets all of the other requirements. I have worked with many women from Africa who come here, either pregnant or with small children, find work and housing, and then proceed to try to sponsor their husbands. If the whole family applies all at once, they are not always granted permission to immigrate.
I went into the kitchen after Kelile made it very clear that it was time for him to eat, and Selassie disappeared into the other room with him. I was hoping to help with the preparations, but they were mostly finish. The last ingera pancakes were being rolled and stacked on a huge straw platter and the buffet was ready. Stews and various curries sat steaming: red curries, yellow curries, curries with chicken, curries with hard boiled eggs swimming in the sauce, yellow rice, barbequed ribs, steak strips in another pan, all elegantly arranged. Trays of sodas and coolers of bottled water and beer were being brought out to the tables. All of us were being ushered then into the kitchen to pick up our plates and drinks. The food and people too kept coming and going all afternoon and into the evening as Kelile slept. 

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