Gilbert, Arizona Assyrians rewarded for years of never quitting on their dream
By Maryam Ishaya and Joe Snell
A week before Christmas, as the new Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Mar Yosip Khnanisho Parish in Gilbert, Arizona was scheduled to open its doors to the public for the first time, a technicality threatened to keep the doors locked until 2019.
Church officials were informed they could not use the facility in a public manner, including having to cancel all upcoming Christmas services, until city inspectors visited the property and issued a permit. The inspection was scheduled to be completed a week before services but city scheduling issues delayed a visit to the site.
“Wednesday morning was our final hope of doing the inspection before the holiday,” said Shamasha (deacon) Andrew Aziz. That morning, church priest Qasha Khoshaba Sholimun sat inside his car in the church parking lot waiting to see if the church would be able to open its doors.
“The contractor came up to his car window and said, ‘Rabi are you ready to celebrate Christmas?’” Aziz said.
The week of Christmas, the newly opened church would celebrate three masses. One of the highlights of the first services, according to the Secretary of the Church Committee Nenwe Geeso, was seeing the curtains covering the altar.
“If you looked around the room, everyone had tears in their eyes when the curtain first opened,” Geeso said. “We have celebrated mass for years without curtains in the altar. It’s a big deal for the Assyrian Church of the East to have curtains covering the altar so as soon as those curtains opened and we celebrated our first mass, we were so thankful to have the opportunity to finally have our own church to call home.”
In the early 2000s, nearly 30 Assyrian families in Gilbert, Arizona had finally grown tired of traveling sometimes over an hour to attend church services at St. Peters ACOE in Glendale, Arizona. They reached out to Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, bishop of the Western United States ACOE, and by 2005, the Mar Yosip Mission Parish was established.
The parish initially celebrated Eucharist twice a month, renting out a local school auditorium and bringing in an ACOE priest from a sister parish. Within a year, the mission parish had its own priest and began establishing a church committee.
Beginning in 2005, the church committee concentrated on building up the mission’s membership and spreading the word about the parish.
In 2012, the church committee began seriously evaluating land for a church. Two unsuccessful attempts were launched until 2015, when a new piece of land was approved by the congregation. The land was purchased for $240,000 and, including additional construction, design, and extra costs, the total price was just over $1 million.
“A majority of the money came from donations and we also received loans for the rest of the payments,” Aziz said. “Also from all of the other ACOE churches, aside from individuals donating, we had clergy send us things. They would send us a chalice and the paten that we now use for Eucharist and different sets of books that we needed for the liturgical services. Everyone’s been helpful.”
The church belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East Western Diocese. Led by His Grace Bishop Mar Aprim Khamis, the diocese has seven churches and three mission parishes across California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.
ORGANIZING A YOUTH GROUP
In 2009, Goriel Yaro organized a group of five young members of the mission parish to join their fellow Arizona church, St. Peters ACOE in Glendale, and together they would attend the Assyrian National Youth Conference.
“Gorial was that older figure, the role model that we all looked up to,” Aziz said.
A few years later, Julie Benyamin became the youth leader and encouraged more youth in the area to get involved.
“When Julie came around, she shaped us to take leadership on our own,” Geeso said.
The main challenge, Aziz and Geeso admitted, was not having a church.
“You look at other youth groups and they’ll be at church every night of the week, whereas we were renting a rec center for youth bible studies that we could only use for an hour and a half on Friday nights,” Aziz said. “But once we were all 18 or 19, we had this drive to get the church and it came with the help of hundreds and thousands of other people that were able to donate and support.”
Today, the youth group boasts 25 active members. Together, they help organize major events and fundraising efforts. Some of these initiatives, including a telethon, were key to helping grow the church monetary fund.
Two months before the church was scheduled to open in December, church members began discussing creative new fundraising ideas. Someone in the group had heard about the telethons that the Central Valley Diocese of California had been conducting. These telethons were marketed and live streamed across social media and KBSV (Assyrian Sat).
“We reached out to KBSV (Assyrian Sat) and Steven Melham from Turlock and he came out to help us with the recording and live streaming,” Aziz said.
On Oct. 20 and 21, the telethon live-streamed different speakers involved in the church, including the priest and deacons, Sunday School teachers, the choir, and the youth group. Callers were encouraged to donate anything they could and those that donated $200 or more were eligible for a prize.
In two days, the videos generated over 3,000 views on Facebook and raised $55,000, with money coming from all over the United States as well as Iraq and Australia.
A number of additional fundraising initiatives were organized, including a “Brick Campaign” that allowed church members as well as non-members to buy a brick as a donation to the new church. These bricks, engraved with the family’s name, were ordered from all over the world and now line a wall near the main entrance.
The new church, which holds up to 272 individuals, is currently preparing to hold the sacred consecration. A consecration is an important event in the timeline of a church where the Bishop and priests and deacons anoint the altar.
“The consecration is a very historical and memorable day for the church,” Aziz said. “When the altar is anointed, it’s sort of sealed. It’s sacred for the church and the faithful of the church.”
After nearly a decade of working toward the building of the church, as the Gilbert, Arizona community prepares for the consecration, Geeso reflects on her first mass inside the building.
“Seeing the congregation come together in the name of our Lord to put their efforts in building their own home goes to show what can be achieved when you put your faith in God,” she said.
Learn more about the new Mar Yosip church by visiting their Facebook page.