The Assyrian Journal | March 2018 | Featured photo by Ted Campbell | By Joe Snell
Dallas, TX – Rachel Sangsura and her family file into an old Armenian building in Dallas, Texas. Once inside, they joined nearly 50 other Assyrians that are gathered to celebrate an Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) service.
Rachel’s family had just driven over three hours from Shreveport, Louisiana. Like many Assyrians growing up in the South, she was fighting to keep the culture alive for her family.
“Growing up in Shreveport, there was nobody else around like our family,” Sangsura said. “Despite not having that really close connection to Assyrians, I’m also not like anybody else around me.”
The service, held on February 17, was part of the Saint Jacob Assyrian Church of the East Mission, a group established in 2012 to serve a growing community of Assyrians in the Southern United States.
Dallas and Houston have become hubs to serve these isolated communities, and February’s ceremony was as much a religious celebration as a cultural one. This was the first Assyrian Church of the East mass in Dallas in nearly two years and drew Assyrians from hours away and sometimes even across state borders.
“I’m trying to make up for the lack of a community that we had growing up,” Sangsura said. “Our blood keeps diluting, but I still think that keeping the Assyrian culture alive is important. It’s unfortunately something that I’m not intimately familiar with because I didn’t grow up around it.”
BUILDING AN ASSYRIAN COMMUNITY IN DALLAS
For decades, if a wedding or baptism needed to take place in the South, families would individually reach out to priests in major Assyrian hubs including Los Angeles or Chicago. These individual families would have to arrange travel, housing, and church rental.
It wasn’t until 2012 when Raumin Benjamin, a deacon in the ACOE, moved to Dallas from San Jose. After discovering there was no organized Assyrian community, he called on a few Assyrians and discussed regularly bringing in a priest.
The small Dallas group approached Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis in Arizona and was granted mission status under his diocese. A church committee of six individuals was quickly established.
To fund services, including flying a priest and deacon into town, the committee began collecting $200 each year from member families. Originally, eight families contributed to the fund.
Despite money coming in, a number of ways to save money were also approved, including driving the priest between Houston and Dallas instead of buying an extra plane ticket.
“For about two years, Raumin Benjamin and I would drive down to Houston for their service,” said Ramel Nasseri, the current mission church committee president. “After the service, we would take the priest with us back to Dallas and he would fly back home from here.”
Father Youkhana was the traveling priest at the time, but around 2015 he was given his own parish in San Diego. Months later, Benjamin moved away from Dallas and the mission church found themselves back at square one.
The mission church rarely held a service during that span, partly due to a priest shortage and also because of difficulties raising money within the city’s Assyrian community.
“A lot of things happened in the last few years and we fell on the backburner,” Nasseri said.
Then in January 2018, Father Youkhana in San Diego contacted Nasseri about putting the Dallas mission under the jurisdiction of Father George in Los Angeles. Father George’s church now had two new auxiliary priests and could afford to regularly send one to Texas.
“I remember Father George said to us, ‘If you guys do a service two or three times a year, you are never going to get anywhere. You aren’t going to build a community that way,'” Nasseri said.
FINDING A NEW PRIEST
Father Paulis of Los Angeles was assigned to host the first service in Dallas in over a year. February’s trip would be his first trip to the city, but the recently ordained priest is used to spreading his message across the world, at one point even hosting a Bible study show on ANB (Assyrian National Broadcast).
According to Father Paulis, Saturday’s service in Texas is much more significant than just a gathering of local Assyrians.
“This is not just about Assyrians, we’re talking about Christianity,” Father Paulis said. “We have to know our heritage and our language, but at the same time we’re doing it as being part of the body of Christ. We have to do what God taught us to do – to get together, to be strong, to strengthen each other, and to strengthen the body of Christ as a whole.”
While also working as a full time chiropractor, Father Paulis will now work in rotation with two other priests in Los Angeles to travel monthly to the mission.
He cautioned Dallas Assyrians to build a church only if that’s what the people truly want. What’s most important, he urged, was bringing the community together.
“There are a lot of Assyrians in Dallas and I see the hunger for the word of God,” he said. “I see the hunger of this gathering to be in a community and that’s something that we Assyrians are known for, we have to be around Assyrians.”
DALLAS ASSYRIAN COMMUNITY TODAY
Today, the Dallas mission receives support from the local Armenian community. The Saint Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church now offers their space free of charge.
“The support we get from the Armenian Church is tremendous,” said Father Paulis. “That made it extremely easy for us not to bring a lot of items except our books and our clothing.”
The church committee relies heavily on word of mouth and Nasseri is the first to admit, “we’re definitely in need of a better communication method, not only for the church but also overall for the community.”
Today, Nasseri estimates the Dallas Assyrian population is around 200. He hopes to grow that number by promoting Assyrian events on social media.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed to receive communion in any other ancient Christian community like I have in this one,” said Southern Methodist University (SMU) Professor of Christian History, Ted Campbell.
Campbell heard about the service through the mission’s Facebook page and had previously attended The Mar Gewargis Assyrian Cathedral in Chicago.
“What fascinates me about this church is that it carries on its existence despite enormous persecution through the centuries,” Campbell said. “It’s very moving and impressive. I’ll share this service with my students about what the Assyrian churches are like.”
The next service is scheduled for Friday, March 23 at 4pm with Father Paulis and will also include a baptism. For now, Nasseri hopes that the monthly services will encourage the Assyrian community in Dallas to support more initiatives, including the city’s upcoming Assyrian New Year’s party, which will be the first since 2012.
“Once people see that something is happening on a regular basis, they will make the commitment to be a part of it,” he said. “They won’t mind investing both time and money. If we can offer them stability, they’d be more willing to come.”
Check out the Saint Jacob Assyrian Church of the East Mission, Dallas Texas Facebook page.