West St. Paul church shares its ‘warm, welcoming’ culture through Middle Eastern Festival


Members of the St. George Middle Eastern dance troupe ride a camel at a past Middle Eastern Festival at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in West St. Paul. The fundraiser and celebration is July 18-20 this year. (Submitted photo)

Event will include camel rides, cuisine

A West St. Paul church’s Middle Eastern Festival this weekend is about more than raising money for the Orthodox Christian parish. Organizers say they want to share their culture steeped in generosity, inviting in the community with an array of homemade specialties, including gyros, tabouli and hummus, and baked goods, like baklawa and mamool, a cookie stuffed with nuts and dates.

The lavish spread will resemble what the event’s co-chair would experience if he were a guest at a home in the Middle East, he said.

“The Levantine culture is a warm, welcoming and fun culture,” said Anthony Rezcallah, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Lebanon to the U.S. “They really put on a feast to welcome you; to show their hospitality and their love. (We want to) recreate that culture of warmth and hospitality with our friends and neighbors.”

He said the festival, which draws thousands of visitors over three days, is also meant to inform the community about Christianity in the Middle East by putting on an example of a Christian village in the Levant, an area that includes Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Church tours will also be offered.

St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church is hosting its seventh annual Middle Eastern Festival July 18-20. It’s scheduled noon to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

Deep roots in church

The history behind St. George goes back to the 1890s, when Syrian and Lebanese immigrants settled on St. Paul’s West Side. Early on, the Christian immigrants held services in a home with priests from other Orthodox churches.

Syrian immigrants formally organized and founded St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in 1913 on St. Paul’s West Side at Clinton and Isabel streets. That building declined, so the congregation constructed another one on five acres of land in West St. Paul and moved there in 1974.

Syrian immigrants formally organized and founded St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in 1913 on St. Paul’s West Side at Clinton and Isabel streets. That building declined, so the congregation constructed another one on five acres of land in West St. Paul and moved there in 1974.

Paul Ablan’s grandparents were among the church’s founders 101 years ago. He said the church now has about 350 parishioners.

“(The church is) where I worship God and, at the same time, it’s a connection not only to the faith of my ancestors, but also to the land from which they came,” said Ablan, a festival co-chair and parish council president. “It’s a very important connection for us.”

He added: “In the Orthodox faith, we hold fast to the traditions and the teachings of the disciples and the holy fathers of the church. To say that we are old-fashioned and traditional Christians would be very accurate.”

Ablan said many of the parishioners are Middle Eastern immigrants or descendants of Middle Eastern immigrants, but there are also “converts to our faith from other parts of the Christian world.”

Ablan said he and other church members are strongly connected to the Middle East.

“Not only because our church’s headquarters (and) our patriarch is in Damascus, but also because we have many parish members who still have family in the Middle East, we still maintain our ties to our relatives and our friends in the Middle East,” he said.

Festival highlights

Along with the ever-popular camel rides, the festival offers performances from John Khoury Band and the St. George Middle Eastern dance troupe. There will be a marketplace, a silent auction and a beer and wine garden, as well as a kids area, where youngsters can play mini golf or mini bowling, have fun on inflatables or get their faces painted.

The wide-ranging menu is meant to offer another cultural experience. And as there’s only so much falafel, lamb on a spit and spinach fatayer (a spinach pie) one can shovel in, the festival offers the St. George Sampler Platter. It includes shish tawook (chicken kabob), shawarma (gyros) and falafel, as well as hummus, tabouli salad and homemade sauces — all in generous servings.

The platter also harkens back to the theme of Middle Eastern hospitality, drawing attention to one phrase that’s all over the menu: Ahlan wa sahlan. It means, “Welcome, you’re like family, so take it easy.”

Ablan offered a similar welcome.

“We hope all of our friends and neighbors in Dakota County come and visit and get a taste of some of our culture and listen to our music and have a wonderful time,” he said. “Everyone’s welcome.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.


If you go

Who: St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church

What: Middle Eastern Festival

When: Noon to 10 p.m. July 18-19; noon to 6 p.m. July 20

Where: 1250 Oakdale Ave., West St. Paul

Why: A church fundraiser that offers food (gyros, tabouli, baklawa, roast lamb), camel rides, music and dancing, usually attracting thousands of attendees

Admission: Free

For more information, visit www.mideastfest.com.

 

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