How Coptic Christianity is Finding a Refuge in America
A new church in Northern Virginia finds the historically Egyptian faith traveling to new shores.
Five years ago, on a Libyan beach, ISIS militants beheaded 21 orange-clad Christian men in a meticulously choreographed propaganda video. Twenty of them were Coptic Christians originally from Egypt, while the 21st was a Ghanian convert to Christianity. The event not only terrified international audiences, but drew unprecedented attention to the plight of Egypt’s Coptic community, which comprises approximately 10 percent of that country’s population. The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, by Martin Mosebach, became an international bestseller. Media attention on the Copts exploded.
Yet there’s another story about Coptic Christianity worth telling: its growth (and metamorphosis) in the United States.
A fascinating example is St. Timothy & St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church (STSA), founded in Arlington, Virginia, in 2012. There are a number of things that make STSA different from other Coptic and Orthodox churches. The first is language. Unlike most Coptic congregations, whose liturgy is largely, if not entirely, in Arabic and Copt (the ancient language of Egypt), STSA worships in English. The second is the worship itself. Though STSA maintains a traditional Coptic Orthodox liturgy, it is followed directly afterwards by a more modern evangelical service that includes a longer sermon, given by STSA’s founder and pastor, Father Anthony Messeh. Also, STSA’s community is increasingly diverse—of 382 adult members, about 29 percent are not ethnic Egyptian.
The idea for STSA started at a much larger Coptic church in Fairfax, Virginia, St. Marks. Father Anthony, who was ordained in 2001 and served at St. Marks for 10 years, saw a need for a service that was both outreach and mission, as well as evangelistic in nature. “The liturgy is not the best venue for inviting a friend who is not Copt,” he acknowledges. This eventually matured into what has become “The Well,” the outreach service at STSA. Father Anthony’s sermons, which are both engaging and entertaining, are uploaded on The Well’s podcast.
“The Well reminds us that we are called both to worship and be an outreach to the community,” Father Anthony explains. According to Pope Shenouda, the Coptic pope, the role of the church is twofold: preaching and teaching. St. Timothy is the patron of STSA’s evangelism efforts, while St. Athanasius is the patron of the church’s teaching. Father Anthony is adamant that The Well is not a replacement for the liturgy, but part of the church’s mission of “bringing an ancient faith to a modern world.” The liturgy represents the former, while the Well is the latter.
The role of language—a controversial topic among the 500,000-strong American Coptic community—is very close to Father Anthony’s heart. He explains:
To me [the church] is more than the language. You’re valuable and important and I can’t make you learn a language. Does the church exist for heritage? Is it a museum? I didn’t sign up to be a museum curator. I love the Coptic language, but what I want is secondary to what my brother needs…. Language is just a tool to communicate the faith, just a vehicle.
Father Anthony believes he has the history of the Church on his side:
Those who say the church should be in Coptic need to remember that Coptic was the language of the people, whereas Greek was the language of the priests/educated class. The idea from the start is that true Orthodox worship should be in the language of the people. If it’s all about language, we should all be speaking Aramaic [the spoken language of Jesus].
The oldest debate in the Church, says Father Anthony, is about its “culture.” In Acts, we read of debates between those who want the Church to remain essentially Jewish in culture (the “circumcised”) versus those willing to accommodate it to Gentile culture (the “uncircumcised”). Father Anthony explains: “St. Paul’s central message is that God for everyone, not just for the Jews. The message of Christ is that God is for everyone: the tax collector, the centurion, the Samaritan woman.”
This perspective on language even extends to how Father Anthony and his wife parent their two children. They don’t teach them Arabic or Coptic. “Not the highest priority,” he says. Moreover, one need not spend much time listening to his sermons or speaking to him to appreciate how deeply American he is. Born in New Jersey, he moved to Virginia as a child. He attended the University of Virginia, and has spent 42 years, including the entirety of his professional career, in Northern Virginia. The Washington Redskins are one of his favorite teams, “though what’s happened with them is unfortunate,” he muses diplomatically. He’s also a big basketball fan, and stayed up late watching both the Capitals and Nationals win their titles.
STSA and Father Anthony fall within the broader paradigm of what has been termed the “Canterbury Trail,” “Swimming the Tiber,” or “Swimming the Bosphorus”—those who seek in the Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox traditions a more historical, liturgically grounded Christianity. “People are searching for something that has more depth and that has roots, for something that is tried and true,” says Father Anthony. “One of the beautiful things about Orthodoxy is that it is not subject to the latest culture fancies, the ‘blowing of the wind.’ I’m all for adapting the culture of the church, but not for adapting to the culture.” He contrasts the Orthodox liturgy, whose rites remain the same because the audience, God, remains the same, with many contemporary forms of worship, where the audience is the people and their passing whims.
Father Anthony very intentionally chose Arlington, Virginia, an inner suburb of Washington, D.C. with a high volume of Millennial residents, as the locus of STSA’s ministry. “St. Paul always chose high-profile port cities. He chose cities that had high traffic. If we can win the highly transient Arlington, then [converts] will take the Gospel with them.” Moreover, Arlington, though one of the largest counties in the Commonwealth and home to several old, historic churches, is one of the least churched parts of Virginia. Indeed, as the viral 2009 rap video “Arlington: The Rap” by comedian Remy observes, the city is better known for its proliferation of Starbucks.
In determining how best to serve Arlington, STSA took a surprisingly novel approach—it reached out to county officials. The answer was a request to care for at-risk children and the sick. “If we are going to be Christ, we need to be wanted by the community,” explains Father Anthony. Hope Multiplied, a non-profit directly tied to STSA, developed a mentoring program at two local public elementary schools. In a time of rising antagonism between traditional churches and public education systems, their success is remarkable. The non-profit also organized volunteer efforts aimed at kids with sickle cell anemia at a local hospital, because that particular population was underserved by volunteers.
Father Anthony is quick to declare his aversion to discussing politics at STSA, emphasizing that his priority is building the kingdom of God. All the same, his sermon “Faith Before Politics,” given several months before the 2016 elections (and available on YouTube), provides insight. Though he would probably deny it, that vision bleeds the red, white, and blue of main street conservatism:
Freedom without limits really isn’t freedom…. We’ve been given liberty not to use for ourselves…. This country is founded on freedom, not for the sake of myself…. Our country is based on the faith of certain individuals and that faith is what made this country great…. Ours is the only country in the world where the country itself stopped its own slavery. That has never happened anywhere [else] in the history of the world…. That’s what people of faith do.
Such a conception of America’s founding seems at odds with libertarian talking points of maximizing personal freedom. It is also in tension with historical revisionism (e.g. The 1619 Project) that aims to undermine the honoring of America’s Christian-informed foundation.
In a time of declining church attendance, especially among Millennials, STSA is growing in one of the most unchurched and youthful communities in the country. Indeed, STSA recently bought land in exorbitantly expensive Arlington to build a church. At a time of nauseating consumerism and obsession with technological novelty, STSA is practicing an ancient form of worship and gaining new members. And at a time of intense debate about immigration and assimilation, STSA has creatively wed an historically Egyptian community with American culture. “If I’m going to serve an American community, I need to be an American priest,” says the prelate.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.