The Assyrians in Phoenix, AZ are a Christian minority and primarily immigrants from either Iran or Iraq, with a minority being from Syria or Turkey. They left for the sake of safety as their homelands were ravaged by bloody conflicts and one can hear them reminisce about more peaceful days prior to war, times when they could go throughout their homeland peacefully and not fear being targeted for their faith. Most came as refugees and wanted to leave due to the 2003 Iraq War and subsequent turmoil. These people wanted to gain overall stability in their lives; to them America was a country which promised this. They are primarily in the middle-class and are happy to live in Phoenix, mainly making livings for themselves through small businesses, such as shops and restaurants where they can share their culture with others.
Churches are the prime places to find Assyrians in Phoenix, Arizona. Church attendance for this Middle Eastern Christian minority is held in high regard. Assyrians living throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area attend these religious institutions. They are an ideal place for community members to gather and worship as well as converse after the scheduled service concludes. As Assyrians, my family and I attend every Sunday we can. Hence, I have first-hand experience, which I will share for this entry.
The St. George Parish of the Ancient Church of the East Arizona is one of the few Assyrian churches within the state. It is located in Glendale, AZ and is relatively unnoticeable except for a cross on the roof and a simple sign written in Aramaic and English outside.
The church structure is similar to Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox systems. Our priest, native to Iraq, leads the prayers and is assisted by the deacons standing by his side. The major feature of the worship rituals is the "Qurbana Qaddisha", or "Holy Offering". It is a series of prayers that relates to all members present instead of the individual sacraments which are more specific. This takes several hours to complete and is simply the equivalent to “Mass”. The only language spoken is modern Aramaic.
The time most members arrive for Qurbana is 9:00 AM, however, one can come earlier for an initial morning prayer at 8:00 AM if they truly wish. The people in the pews will usually all be teens to elderly as small children are at the “Academy”, a school within the church for children to learn how to read and write in their native language. Once they are older and have a better grasp of what is going on as well as how to sit still for more than a few moments, children can attend the usual Mass at 9:00 AM. The Qurbana is for approximately one hundred people at a time, and there is another shift later in the day. The church serves several hundred people each Sabbath.
During the service, incense is burned in a thurible, a type of censer or container, to represent the prayers rising up to heaven. In order to accomplish this, red hot coals are placed inside the thurible and the incense in powder form is spooned over several times after being blessed with a prayer. Then, the thurible is closed by the deacon and swung on the chain towards the bread and wine which is being blessed and around the front of the service. Some reach out to touch the smoke floating around, if they are in the beginning pews. The smell of the incense aside from the obvious smoky smell is sweet and not too over-whelming. It is tolerable to attendees.
In between prayers, there is an all-female choir that sings several hymns throughout the service. Members of the congregation can feel free to sing along with them. The singers are reading and following along in their song books and do a good job of remaining on key and not losing their place. The higher-pitched voices provide a nice contrast to the deeper voices of the deacons who also sing from time to time.
Towards the end of the service, when the bread and wine which represent the body and blood of Christ have been successfully blessed, the attendees will receive them. During this time, the children from the “Academy” will finish class and line up as they always go before anyone else. Then, a line of men will go. After, a line of women will take their turn. It continues to alternate between a line of men and women from the pews. Finally, the choir girls will take their turn. This ritual is completed by the attendee slightly bowing in the direction of the priest with their right palm facing upwards over their left palm. The priest will give them a small piece of bread. The attendee eats it and then proceeds to take a sip of wine. Then, they may leave to eat breakfast. This concludes the service.
It is in the dining hall, where breakfast is held, that one can get a better look at the population. The breakfast each morning tends to vary widely, bar a few staples. Pita bread and tea, along with hardboiled eggs are present every single time. There is no water set out to drink, unless one asks for it. There is only tea because it is considered the ideal drink to start the day, it’s a tradition for Assyrians. The reason the food is not always the same is because the volunteer staff who work in the kitchen choose to cook what they wish. There are no guidelines as long as it is appropriate food to have in the morning. An example of a meal, is tea, naturally, along with dolma, stuffed grape leaves, which may or may not have meat depending upon if it is a time to fast or not, a mashed potato dish, and a form of tomato soup. Other dishes which make an appearance every now and then tend to be Tepsi, which is a casserole, various types of rice, and a Chorba (soup). No matter what is available, it has been lovingly prepared with Middle Eastern flavors.
After breakfast, unless one wants to stay after and chat with their relatives and/or friends, they may leave to go home or complete any other business the day has for them. Then, the routine is repeated all over again the next week. Personally, I believe that this is the most important day of the week to many Assyrians not only because they are fulfilling their spiritual duties, but also because this is one of the few shreds of their culture that they have left. Sunday is a set day which never fails to come. It is a day in which they can see others who they have known for years, possibly even grew up with before coming to the United States, and catch up with them. It is also a day to enjoy wonderful food in the company of others who need to take a deep breath and relax as much as they do. It is a time to reflect and not worry about the stress that everyday life can bring, as everyone there is present for a common purpose.