Albeir Mousa is a one man recruiting machine, repeatedly drawing people to his adopted community through the one thing it was missing until he came along: a historic Coptic Orthodox church with ties to Egypt, Northern Africa and the earliest days of Christianity.
“This is our church,” he said proudly, showcasing the stunning renovations during a recent tour of St. Mary and Archangel Gabriel Coptic Orthodox Church of West Virginia, located at the corner of Beauregard and Washington streets on Charleston’s East End.
It feels reverent.
“This is an altar, all marble, we got this from Egypt,” he said, then pointed to colored glass, elaborate artwork and a magnificent chandelier that was imported from Greece.
Nodding to a wooden screen he said, “We call this inconostasis, which is ‘carrier of the icons,’” and to an area separated from pews, he said, “This is what we call the holiest of the holies.”
The place looked nothing like this when they moved in. It had flooded several times, according to the previous owners.
“All of the wood was demolished, the ceiling was falling on us. The floor here and here was broken,” Mousa said.
“We’ve had to drywall everything on the side and we’ve painted it ourselves.”
Once home to the Kanawha Players, a local community theater group — and before that, to another church — it is still an unusual place for a new church built on beliefs steeped in ancient traditions and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
The Coptic Orthodox Christian Church was started in the middle of the first century by Saint Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt and authored one of the four gospels.
“We call ourselves ‘very orthodox,’” said Mousa. “What this means is, we don’t deviate from whatever was given to us from the apostles. ... So, it’s a very traditional, historical church.”
There were plenty of other Christian churches in the Charleston area when Mousa arrived with his family in 2009. He visited and found — as nice as they were — that none of them felt quite like what he needed spiritually.
A handful of other Coptic Orthodox Christians in the area felt the same way.
“There was around seven families when I came,” he said.
They began meeting in each others’ homes, sometimes inviting a visiting priest, often sharing a meal of traditional Egyptian food and the flavors of home.
Mousa knew their group would grow if they could reach Christians in the Middle Eastern region who were seeking refugee status to escape the persecutions that occur today, just as they did in the fourth and fifth centuries, and beyond. It’s complex, and a slow, bureaucratic process at best.
In the meantime, he thought about what had drawn him to Charleston: his job as a vascular surgeon, coupled with the opportunity for academic teaching. Perhaps, he reasoned, others from Egypt and the surrounding area would be attracted for their own professional reasons — and perhaps they would stay here once they found a community of like-minded Christians.
“People want a community, and we have that here,” said Mousa, “But jobs in West Virginia are not easy.”
“I’m recruiting a lot of people,” including a bus full of Coptic Christians living in New Jersey and New York that he brought in for a job fair here last year.
“We’re trying, we’re trying so hard,” he said.
Rewais Girgis arrived with his pregnant wife from Egypt on an immigrant visa about three months ago. A civil engineer by trade, he connected with Mousa through the Coptic Orthodox church in his native land.
“I reached him through the church, asking for more information about this West Virginia,” Girgis said.
“He helped me to get an idea about the community and the church and about job opportunities.”
Mousa estimates the close-knit group expands by one family roughly every month now.
“We’re up to 25 families,” he said. “And we will continue to grow.”
The success of his mission — essentially, to create the religious community he had missed — made it hard for the church members to gather in individual homes. But asking new immigrants, some of them still trying to find jobs that reflect their professional training and skills, to buy and financially support a physical building was hard.
When the former church-turned-theater came up for sale, “I pulled the trigger,” said Mousa. He said he bought the building in the name of his church in mid-July 2015.
He looked at the many problems. The crumbling infrastructure. The foundational work that needed to be done before anyone could even think about aesthetics.
And still he thought, “We’ll make this work.”
They cleaned. They demolished. They took down an old stage, leveled the flood and installed beautiful wooden planks leading to an altar.
“We slept in the church physically to keep the work going,” he said.
Today he looks with satisfaction at the church and the growing congregation with young families who would likely be somewhere else were it not for his efforts.
“I like the Bible verse which says, ‘This is the place where the Lord will have an altar,’” he said. Then, gesturing with his arms to a room that reflects both the recent efforts and the ancient traditions, he added, “This is the house of the Lord.”
St. Mary and Archangel Gabriel Coptic Orthodox Church of West Virginia is located at 309 Beauregard Street in Charleston. It is open to visitors. For more information, visit their Facebook page, the website at SMAGCC.COM or call 304-951-8849.