St. Ephrem celebrates faith and culture

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The faith is a Christian faith, but at the same time, it preserves the Lebanese culture that encompasses many kinds of religions. This is important because it widens the horizon in teaching children the truths because the people of Lebanon now have a stigma of wars and conflict. Teaching them that historically, the people of Lebanon are people of peace, love and understanding helps them understand the pride and culture of themselves and others.

The faith is a Christian faith, but at the same time, it preserves the Lebanese culture that encompasses many kinds of religions. This is important because it widens the horizon in teaching children the truths because the people of Lebanon now have a stigma of wars and conflict. Teaching them that historically, the people of Lebanon are people of peace, love and understanding helps them understand the pride and culture of themselves and others.

This is the spiritual and cultural philosophy of Father Toufic Nasr of El Cajon’s St. Ephrem Maronite Catholic Church. After nearly a year in service in El Cajon, he and his parishioners are preparing for the church’s largest celebration of the year, the 10th Annual Lebanese Festival, a festival meant to share the culture of the Lebanese people with the community of all religions and ethnic histories.

Nasr, born in Beirut, said he came to America in his calling to be a Maronite priest, studying the eastern Catholic religion at a seminary in Washington D.C., being ordained in 1997. His travels took him through Ohio Michigan, the San Francisco bay area and eventually led him to his new home in El Cajon. He said like his church, which is diversified with Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants, understanding and teaching the culture of the people is as important as feeding their spirit.

“Like every ethnic community, it is important to teach and retain the culture of our ancestors,” he said. “We like to keep our language, tradition, values. We come from a free country that has many religions, and although we have had problems in the recent past, our history is living together in a beautiful harmonic way. On personal levels, we still do. You have Islam, Christianity, Druze, all together 16 different religions and they all love living in peace and they all mean to do that. Here in this country, the church enforces both the faith and the culture”
A parishioner in San Antonio that grew up in this country, but his parents were from Lebanon said he envied the tremendous pride in the culture of that gives parishioners from Lebanon the power to be happy and proud of their heritage. Nasr said to him that it is the same for him, because he comes from that culture.

“I know there are some things you cannot explain in words, but a person without history is like a branch that is not connected to the tree. It withers and dies,” he said. “They need that connection. I see it in their eyes. The children that are connected have better lives. So, it is not just them knowing Arabic or Lebanese, it is the connection. Without it, they will have a gap in their lives that they might not understand, so it is our mission to fill that gap both spiritually and socially. These are things I have seen with my eyes they are not just words. That is why I believe this and work towards it all the time.”

He said sometimes people question why he puts a party (the festival) together, with dancing, celebrating with food and festivities
“But they do not know that it is extremely important,” he said. “Sometimes just as the spiritual teachings. Because God did not come into a vacuum, he came into a space, a place and a time and you have to connect those together or they will have a vacuum and be lost.”
Ghada Kadri said what moves her in the people that Nasr connects with is his genuine spirit and approach to people.

“Most of my friends attend this church, and the few times that I have met with Father Toufic and we have talked and connected, I found how he intermingled from the five year old to the 55 year old, and he is just amazing,” she said. “He touches everybody. He touched my husband and my lives and we are friends and supporters of this church.”
Nasr said in Lebanon, the U.S. or any country in the world, people can go to their own church and in Lebanon, there are many churches of many faiths.

“You belong to your church, but here in this country we are a Maronite church, but we attract all Lebanese people, even the Muslims and Druze,” he said. “The sense of belonging here is national and ethnic, not just church wise. People come here to worship, even though they are not Catholic.”
Elie Haddad said St. Ephrem is always inclusive with the community and feels it is important that everyone knows that they are welcome, not only to their annual festival, but to their house of worship.
“This church has been open to all, many of the Chaldeans in the community and I think that it is important to the community,” he said.

Nasr said the festival is a social event to introduce the community to the Middle East Lebanese traditions, food, dance, music and a fundraiser at the same time. He said it is a great time to meet the community.

“It is our way to bring the community together, not only in El Cajon, but all of San Diego and it brings more than 5,000 people together,” he said. “We have something for everyone, rides for the children, food, a cultural booth and many events for every age. There is a lot of traditional food and great entertainment, folklore dance and music and it is a lovely way to spend the weekend. You can come every day and you will see something different.”

St. Ephrem’s 10th Annual Lebanese Festival runs from Friday May 24-Sunday May 26. For more information about times, program, food and festivities go to www.lebanesefestivalsandiego.com.

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