It was a mass of thousands, everyone dressed in holy white. I was one of the many who had gathered in Addis Ababa Stadium for the celebration of Epiphany, one of the most sacred holidays for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. The ancient ceremony, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ, brought the fourth largest city in Africa to a standstill. I couldn’t help but feel like a gawking heathen, gathering snapshots of a party I wasn’t invited to, but the high priest’s voice over the loud speakers assured me of my welcome.

“Let the ferenji (foreigners) gather close,” he said. “We all serve the same God.”

Children kicked around deflated soccer balls, hustlers created make-shift betting games in the dirt, and youth groups representing various Orthodox churches in the city drummed and danced in anticipation of the priests’ arrival with the Tabot, a replica of the famed Ark of the Covenant, believed to represent the manifestation of Jesus when he came to the Jordan River for baptism.

Gaiety momentarily masked the reality of hardship for many in the booming yet still struggling economy of Addis.  Solemnity — as thousands simultaneously bowed and kissed the ground — revealed a reverence for the sacred not often displayed in public life in the West.

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