While all Coptic Orthodox churches have the same worship prayers, rites and multitude of activities, some consider the Church of St. Mark in Jersey City as “a church covered with badger skins”. Perhaps you may ask, why talk about this church and not others, and what “badger skins” are? Let me share with you some personal memories that you may share how I feel about calling this church, A Church Covered with Badger Skins.
I revere all the churches, and appreciate the effort of all their fathers, but I simply testify of what I have been touched within the church of St. Mark in Jersey City. Following the example of St. Paul, and as a servant of St. Mark’s church in Jersey City I magnify the ministry that has been entrusted to my weakness by the Lord. In doing so, declare the strong work of God, and to bring glory to His name (Romans 11:13).
The Thrice-blessed of Memory H.H. Pope Shenouda III called my weakness to serve in this church in 1995. I remember at that time, there were many loved ones waiting for my return from Colorado to serve in the Church of the Virgin in Ard El-Golf in Cairo, where I had previously started my service. When they heard that my next stop would be Jersey City, they were upset. One of them had even called me and warned me saying: “Are you going to serve in the garage?” I was not comforted with this description of the church. I replied back: “I do not deserve to serve, even in a manger of Bethlehem.”
If you are not familiar with Jersey City, it is a city suitable for new immigrants to the United States, because of the availability of public transportation, its proximity to Manhattan, and the high concentration Egyptians and Egyptian stores. You do not feel alienated in Jersey City, but rather that may be in Shubra or Upper Egypt. However, the situation was a little different for us, since we were not new immigrants. The idea of moving to Jersey City was a shock to my young children, because – according to human wisdom – it did not make sense to leave Ard El-Golf or Colorado for Jersey City; except the Divine plan is greater than human wisdom.
What awaited us was even more shocking. First, the church building was outdated and its architectural design was no longer suitable for the growing number of congregants served by the church. The church doors were not adequate to enter and exit the building. The staircase was not safe for going up and down. The restrooms were unacceptable. Due to this shock, I said bluntly to the Thrice-Blessed of memory H.H. the Pope: “When I entered the church at first glance I felt I was in prison”. But by the grace of God and the love of the people, the church has been renovated with simple architectural modifications that were necessary for the church service. May the Lord reward everyone’s labor of love with regards to this matter, and write their names in His Kingdom.
The biggest shock was even not in the building, but in the congregation which had fallen into a state of disunity. To make matters worse, some of its leaders were spreading propaganda against others, but thanks to the Lord that the voice of the Spirit of God has been much louder those voices. Again the compassionate fatherhood of God embraced all who were at odds with one another and brought peace.
I will skip the details of the long years that I have spent in St Mark in Jersey City. However, there is something worth mentioning that from the first day I considered it as the place of my witnessing and martyrdom. During these years, the altar of the church witnessed many tears, shed for everyone in the church by name, especially for all antagonists and wrongdoers, to be blessed children of grace
God’s response was amazing. The Lord has called some of the children of the church to the holy priesthood and to the monastic life. Many have become blessed deacons and servants in whom the church rejoices. Even the children have enjoyed the fatherhood of God in the church, and wore their diaconal vestments with their fathers in joy. These young children shared in the church readings from the lectern joyfully. Moreover, many of the church’s youth have attained advanced degrees, and prestigious positions in their careers. I thank You, my God on Your great work with the children of this church.
I have a lot to say about this church which I love from my heart. Many honored Bishops and visitors have testified of the work of the Lord in this church. But, unfortunately, in spite of all this grace in which we stand, some see the Church of St. Mark in Jersey City as church covered with badger skins.
In the Old Testament “ram skins dyed red, and badger skins” were the outer cover of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:5). This was according to the Lord’s command: “You shall also make a covering of ram skins dyed red for the tent, and a covering of badger skins above that” (Exodus 26:14). As many have interpreted this, the badger skins were unsightly in appearance and taken from animals that were unclean. So, the appearance of the tabernacle from outside was not appealing.
Badger skins here symbolize the external condition of the Church of St. Mark in Jersey City, which is no longer favored by some due to reasons that are unrelated to the essence of the Church. Some have mentioned that one of the reasons is that the church is a little more distant from their homes which they have chosen in better places, away from Jersey City. Others see the effort that is sometimes necessary to find parking. Or perhaps newly-built churches are more appealing. Some others do not like the fact that St Mark Church in Jersey City includes so many of the new immigrants, “the brethren of the Lord”, while other churches have families that are more stable and well-to-do.
Calling St. Mark’s church a “church covered with badger skins”, in that sense does not degrade the church or making little of the glory that God shed on it. While the Tabernacle was not so pleasant from the outside because of the badger skins, it was adorned with gold from the inside. Moreover, inside the Tabernacle, there was what is greater than gold which is the dwelling of God with His glory on the Mercy Seat (the cover of the Ark of the Covenant). That is according to the words of the Lord: “And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:22).
Jesus was not born in Herod’s palace, but in Bethlehem amid the animals of the manger. Neither the palace nor the manger matters, and not the visitors of either, but what matters to us Christ of the manger. I have seen Him in the Church of St. Mark through the afflicted souls and in those who are in need of service. For the spiritual person, Church is not for socializing with friends, but it is a place to worship the Lord, and to have a real encounter with the Lord Jesus and to serve Him through those who are needy and hurting. I thank God that the church is always filled with such blessed people.
The Lord asked His people to come and present to Him their offerings in the Tabernacle or the Temple no matter how distant their countries were. This is so according to His command: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16).
The Psalms of Ascents have always been a joyful expression of the people to ascend to the house of the Lord, saying: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’ Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122:1-2). Jerusalem was not in the backyard of their houses, but many miles away during an era when travelling by animals were very difficult.
The spirit of God made of the Church of St. Mark a resting place for them. They found in it loving people who embrace them and support them, making their new journey easier. Thus, St. Mark’s church has become a fertile field to serve Christ through these people. A church without serving the needy is a church without serving Christ, according to what He said: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).
There are now what are the so-called “wealthy churches” and “poor churches” depending on the income of their members. Sadly, some have forgotten what is real wealth and what is real poverty, as the Apostle Paul said: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10). So is the case with the Church of St. Mark, which is the church that is poor in financial resources, but rich in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of love. We thank God for this because living in luxury might be the cause of spiritual death, according to the words of the Apostle Paul: “but she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives” (1 Timothy 5:6). Moreover, we thank God that He satisfies all our needs in due time.
In a testimony to the history, I have discovered, over the years, that the Church of St. Mark in Jersey City is not a “garage” nor a “prison”, but a resting place of the spirit of God, where He works with amazing strength. From the beginning we have accepted the words of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’” (Zechariah 4:6-7). Thus the church emerged out of all the challenges she faced with a great glory that bears witness to the Lord’s work through His Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God has made the Church St. Mark a safe haven for children to be raised according to the Gospel and away from human wisdom and currents of American society. This is also is according to the words of St. Paul the Apostle: “and my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
I thank God that the skins of the badger, that are not so appealing have, have a deeper meaning in the scriptures. The are symbol of equipping and beautifying the church with the readiness of the Gospel of peace. The Lord said, I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk” (Ezekiel 16:10). St Paul reveals the meaning and says, “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).
The Spirit of God has instilled a sense of responsibility in St Mark Church’s priests and srevants to have Bible classes for all the ages of her children in addition to the Sunday school classes. Again, I thank God that the sound doctrines of the Bible are emphasized in all the sermons and the services of the church, as the early church fathers did. Thus many have become disciples of the Lord according to His promise: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13).
Also, by the grace of the Lord, the message of the Gospel is sent from St. Mark’s church to the whole world via satellite TV and internet. This is to feed the hearts of thousands with the word of God, as it is written: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11). I thank God that in this we see the fulfillment of what the Scripture says: “There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalms 19:3-4).
It is worthy to mention that behind all this services in the church were the efforts of the Late Hegumen Reverend Fr. Gabriel Abdelsayed over the span of no less than 23 years. Then the Spirit of God, along with my weakness, provided blessed priests, numerous servants, deacons and people, in a harmonious symphony of love led by the Holy Spirit, to speak of the glory of God and His salvation in Jesus Christ. O Lord, reward everyone who labors in the church.
By faith, I hear what the Lord is saying for this amazing church: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) … and also what Nehemiah said: “Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach” (Nehemiah 2:17).
I thank You my God for this great blessing …
I thank You my God for every soul that enjoyed being in Your presence in this church …
Remember O Lord all those who labored with us and reward them the heavenly reward …Fr. Abraam Sleman