The walls are bare and the congregation sits in chairs instead of pews, but for the members of St. Aphraim's Syriac Orthodox Church in Alexandria, the important parts are there — stained glass windows, the gold-domed altar and the people.
At a St. Aphraim's service Sunday, Nov. 6, the small church was filled with sound as the nearly 50 congregants sang hymns and prayers in a language as old, they said, as Jesus Christ. Switching back and forth between Aramaic, English and Arabic, the congregants celebrated one of the first services ever at a metropolitan D.C.-area Syriac Orthodox church. Some had come from as far as Baltimore or Richmond to get to their new house of worship.
For Burke resident and St. Aphraim's member Simon Shammas, however, driving in the car for a few hours is worth having a place to worship. In the Washington D.C. area, about 150 families worship in the ancient religion, whose members started out in Turkey and migrated all over the world. But up until four weeks ago, they had no church in which to worship.
“When we had to go to other churches, we felt welcome, but we didn’t have our own,” said Shammas. The D.C. Syriac community often organized services at Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Coptic churches, but these were often scheduled around the other churches’ services, he said, at odd hours of the afternoon or evening.
St. Aphraim’s changed all that. "Once we know that we have our own church, it makes it a little better," said Shammas. "We are proud of our new church."
Syrian Orthodoxy is, according to its members, the most ancient of all Eastern Orthodox religions. Its members are concentrated in Middle Eastern countries but can be found across Europe and the Americas. Forty Syriac Orthodox churches are located in the United States.
As far as belief is concerned, said Shammas, Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox religions are similar to Syriac Orthodoxy. But the traditions in the Syriac Orthodox service have roots from the days of Jesus Christ, said Shammas, such as a special round bell, shaken by the altar server at intervals throughout the Mass, the liturgy itself, and most profoundly, the language.
Syriac Orthodox masses are celebrated in Aramaic, the same language said to have been used by Jesus Christ. Although Aramaic is a rare language, said Simon Shammas, many people still speak it fluently at home, he said.
"A lot of the congregation reads and writes [Aramaic]. Some know things by heart," said Shammas. "My parents spoke Aramaic in the house every day."
ACCORDING TO congregant Jamil Namman, it has been two and a half years since Syriac Orthodox community members first started planning for a church they could call their own. Progress was slow for a while, said Namman, but the members of the Syriac Orthodox community worked together, donating decorations, supplies and hours of free time to make the church look the way it does.
"Everyone helped," said Namman. "Everyone pitched in a little. It's not some huge cathedral, but everyone helped out."
It took a while to make the former Baptist church, located off Indian River Run, look like a Syriac Orthodox church, said Fred Shammas, Simon's brother and deacon at St. Aphraim's. As in the other Eastern Orthodox religions, Syriac Orthodox churches use icons rather than statues to decorate the walls of their holy space; at St. Aphraim's, stained glass windows depict St. Aphraim, the Virgin Mary, and scenes from the life of Jesus.
The only window left that is not a stained-glass picture is a large triangular one above the church's main doorway. After seeing the success of the community and the church, said Father Eli Shabo, the archbishop offered to donate the money for a new window.
"We believe in God, that God will provide," said Shabo, who travels from New Jersey every other weekend to celebrate Mass for the D.C.-area Syriac Orthodox community. "People want to pray in the capital of the United States."
Even when no church existed to speak of, community members still got together for services.
"That is the one thing about the Syriac Orthodox community," said Namman. "Whatever means we have, we always try to establish a small church so that God can be with us."
"[Members of the Syriac Orthodox religion] like to live around each other, like any other community," said Simon Shammas. "Having our own church is going to bring a lot of other people to the area."
For Rita Mallouh, who comes from Baltimore with her father Chris, a deacon, the Syriac Orthodox community is like "a second home."
"I like it because it's our own church," she said. "We eat here. We have barbecues."
Malek Masoud, who comes to St. Aphraim's from Rockville, Md. with his wife Lisa and son Spencer, agreed. "It's a small community, and everyone is scattered," he said. "having something to come to every week is really special."