LAYTON, Utah — A prayer to know how to build bridges in their community led to a beautiful partnership and friendship between different churches.
Members of the Layton Utah Creekside Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Utah now visit back and forth often, serve together and serve each other. Recently the two participated in a JustServe project and exceeded their goal to assemble 10,000 pantry packs for families in need.
How it began
St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Utah had been in Layton for about 15 years without any visitors from the community, until one day Dan and Kris Beech came by.
“It all started when some random Sunday, two nice people walked into our church,” said Michael Mamo, who is on the Utah St. Mary board of directors. “We didn’t know who they were and they didn’t know about us. They just came.”
It turns out they were on an inspired mission. The Beeches serve on the Weber Area communication council for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had been praying for an opportunity to build bridges with other churches and neighbors around them. And they felt they needed to introduce themselves to the Ethiopian church.
Kris Beech said when they walked in that Sunday, the priest was surprised but immediately welcoming. “He says, ‘How did you find us?’ I said, ‘Heavenly Father sent us,’ and he looked in my eyes and he said, ‘God sent you.’”
The Beeches now attend Utah St. Mary once or twice a month, and have done so ever since that first visit.
“They were guided by some kind of spirit, guiding them to end up in our church. And since that day — it’s been more than two years now — so since that day, we have been friends,” said Mamo.
Ethiopia and Utah
Many members of Utah St. Mary have family still in Ethiopia. Some immigrated to the U.S., and others are refugees who resettled in Utah. All are worried about the current violence and civil war in the country.
“It’s heartbreaking for many of us,” said Mamo. “The news coming every day does not look good. It’s not encouraging. Not only are people dying from the war, but there are other victims of people that can not get back to work, people that can not go through the daily routine of life. They have to put their life on hold, and many thousands are displaced, and they are refugees elsewhere.”
Mamo came to the United States to attend graduate school. He has taught economics at Westminster College for 20 years and goes to Layton for the morning services on Sundays.
He said other members of the congregation travel many miles by car pool or public transportation, often beginning their journey early Sunday to get there in time for Mass. Utah families who have adopted children from Ethiopia also attend.
“They go that distance to worship and to be with other families,” Mamo said. “If you stop by, you will see most people who come are families, refugees, people who spend most of their days working a couple of jobs, some of them night shifts. Despite the hardship of livelihood, they still make it on a Sunday to come to church with their children.”
Mamo said there is a good chance additional Ethiopian families and refugees may find their way to Utah because of what is happening in that country. And he knows Utah will welcome them and help them, because he has seen it happen in the past. He also sees it in the relationship that has grown between Utah St. Mary and Dan and Kris Beech.
“I think we have found common ground in terms of serving the community and helping people in need,” he said.
Love, share, invite
As the Beeches shared their experiences with others about their new friends at the Ethiopian church, opportunities grew for more collaboration. Utah St. Mary is within the boundaries of the Layton Utah Creekside Stake, and stake Relief Society President Julia Hartvigsen wanted to see how they could strengthen their relationship. So she attended Utah St. Mary’s Sunday meeting.
Hartvigsen is originally from Jamaica and said it seemed the Ethiopian community appreciated meeting someone else who is also Black in a state where they are in the minority.
“They were very kind and very welcoming. We didn’t understand anything they were saying, but we felt the spirit and a connection right away,” said Hartvigsen.
Hartvigsen and her counselors were invited to a luncheon with the Ethiopian church. In return they invited the Ethiopian women to their Relief Society women’s conference. And they all served side-by-side on the 9/11 Day of Service project through JustServe.org.
That day they assembled 10,395 pantry packs for schoolchildren in the Layton area to take home. Hartvigsen said many children may only eat breakfast and lunch at school, and need more help at home. The extra food was sent to Utah St. Mary and also donated to the Layton High School food pantry.
Hartvigsen called it an amazing experience. “Had we not had this project, I would not have had contact with them, and felt their impact on us. I feel like we are friends. It’s a great opportunity to do what President [Russell M.] Nelson has asked us to do, to love, to share and to invite.”
A long-term relationship
Hartvigsen is now praying about the next opportunity she can use to reach out to Utah St. Mary, perhaps with a gift or message during the Christmas season. The Beeches believe the Ethiopian community will reach out to them even more, as well.
“They are wonderful people, they love our Father in Heaven, they love the Savior, and it’s a privilege to be able to associate with them and worship with them,” said Dan Beech.
Mamo said there are many reasons why it is so important for his congregation at Utah St. Mary to work with Latter-day Saints. And he said the Beeches were key in bridging that gap by walking into the building two years ago.
“It was not just a visit, but the visit turned out to be an opportunity to collaborate, to work together for a common end, and to share our beliefs, our cultural systems, and to make a difference in the life of people everywhere,” he said.