St. Joseph’s in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

St. Joseph’s Church

While studying Persian in Central Asia years ago, I found myself missing me some Christ-talk. Jesus is revered in Islam as a prophet, but not the Son of God, so Tajikistan being a Muslim country, I had to look hard for some Easter action. Thus I found the Roman Catholic church in Dushanbe, St. Joseph’s. I did not happen upon it, I Googled “church in Dushanbe.” The first time I visited, I took a taxi and the driver found the place by asking people on the street. It was the first he’d heard of it too!  Although it did not look much like a church initially, when I looked up and saw crosses, I was in the clear. I looked around a bit, then went into the chapel and sat down towards the back, my usual spot where I attempt to be inconspicuous. First, several Mother Theresa nuns in their white uniforms with blue trim (Missionaries of Charity turns out, interesting infos on their work in Tajikistan here) came and introduced themselves (mostly they were from India) and immediately asked if I would do the reading. I had no idea what this reading was, what that entailed, or even what I would be reading! I demurred. Not being Catholic, or particularly familiar with the mass at that point, I felt like I was trespassing. I had that feeling I’ve had at other religious events where my only desire was to melt into the background and observe – the last thing I would want was to participate in an unknown ritual. The priest introduced himself, an Argentinian, he said all three priests assigned to Tajikistan are from Argentina—seems an odd place to send them—but what do I know about the inner workings of the Vatican and its priestly assignments. Father Lopez was charming and welcoming, and I was immediately reassured. I felt the strange urge to confess my lack of Catholicism, which I blurted out as soon as possible. He invited me to come up for a blessing instead of communion. The second time I went back to mass (for those still living in Dushanbe and interested, it’s in English on Saturdays at 6 pm, at least it was in 2011 when I lived there!) I was asked by the same nuns to carry up the wine and bread. Again I demurred, how was I to know when that appointed time is? Would I mess it up? Maybe I’m not supposed to because I’m not Catholic… I felt the same horror, being asked to participate in a ritual on my first visit to as an outsider to this group. Or was I denying the calling of service to the Lord? I decided it was probably ok, but I wasn’t ready yet to play an active role. I recognized half the hymns we sang, and as the words rang out to the accompanying organ, I felt shivers. Perhaps others were there also mostly for the music. The small community consists of a wide variety of expats, who come depending on their schedules and varies constantly. The service is in Russian on Sundays, so perhaps the crowd is bigger then. The second time I attended mass, it was held by a more junior priest whose eerie similarity in speech, tone, and posture to Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite distracted me from his message about the raising of Lazarus. It took me at least 15 minutes to stop my mind from making this hilarious connection, which was about as long as his sermon. I felt some serious sympathy for the 5-year-old who kept shifting in his chair, looking around the chapel and generally struggling to focus, though in my case the pollution of the sacred by pop culture was to blame.

There’s something fitting about the church being named after St. Joseph. It simply wouldn’t fly in the misogynistic and patriarchal culture of Tajikistan that I experienced, to name a church there after a woman, despite the many options of females played important roles in the Bible. Christians in Central Asia have it hard enough as it is, and I would imagine they don’t want to cause any extra trouble. Of course, Joseph was also muy importante, after all the father (legal, biological, or otherwise—it’s complicated) of Jesus, and husband to Mary, the last patriarch you might say. He surely played a big role in the most important story of human history, but his role is not as clear cut as I had expected. I thought it was settled that he was the father of Jesus, and thus also the father of several of the disciples, who were also Jesus’s brothers. But again, it’s complicated. The Catholics and Orthodox don’t agree on any of the details (what did ‘betrothed’ actually mean, who fathered whom when, ya know, the Virgin Birth issue) and when examined closely, the two synoptic Gospels which do relate anything about Joseph, Matthew and Luke, relay two different genealogies from David on down! The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus was descended from David’s son Solomon. Luke relates that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan. There are many other important Joseph’s in the history of religion. The second most important I’d say, is the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oops, I mean, Joseph from the book of Genesis who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to get the best revenge ever by becoming viceroy, the most important man second only to Pharaoh himself. The third most important Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus Christ. More perhaps in a later post on the many Joseph’s and their interconnectivity.

For a short article from 2003 with a brief history of the church in Tajikistan see here. For the fascinating history of the Soviet deportations which made this church in Dushanbe possible, see here. For the Spanish-speakers, here’s an update about the first Tajik priest, ordained June 2016.

(this is an adaptation of a post to my now-offline travel blog in Tajikistan 2010-2011)

St. Joseph’s Dushanbe
Moonrise over Orthodox graveyard in northern Tajikistan

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