The Americanization of an Ancient Faith

lead_720_405The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church is trying something new: spreading its message across the United States—and the rest of the world.

One day in the fall of 2010, Father Anthony Messeh, then a priest at the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia, sat down with a list of names. There were 30 individuals—all American converts with no Egyptian heritage—who had been baptized at the church since his arrival in 2001. Of the group, only eight were still active members.

“That just broke my heart,” Messeh told me one afternoon last summer. “If one or two people had left, then maybe I could say it was something wrong with them. But if 22 out of 30 had left, that meant it’s something wrong with me

One American couple who’d left the congregation told him that while the church felt like a family, it didn’t feel like their family. St. Mark’s, like many of the over 250 Coptic churches in the United States, is overwhelmingly comprised of Copts raised in Egypt or born to Egyptian parents. Of the nearly 6,000 members of the church, most still converse comfortably in Arabic, and the services retain Egyptian cultural norms: Men and women tend to sit separately, people move around freely during prayers, and Egyptian food is often served.

Americans, even those baptized into the faith, could feel like outsiders—not only at St. Mark’s, but at churches across the country. Recent waves of immigration from Egypt had intensified the influence of Egyptian culture across American congregations.

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