Coptic Nashville

by Lydia Yousief

I sat down with one of the older priests of Nashville after waiting for him to finish with one of his congregant members who was leading the renovation of a section of the church. The church, the oldest in Nashville, Saint Mina, sits in leisurely expand on a campus that holds many apartments (for newcomers from Egypt), a private school named after Saint Clement of Alexandria, and a gym. Every time I visit something is being remodeled, built, or expanded; children run around the playground, despite the heat, and the sounds of a close basketball game come from the gym. The church is never empty in the afternoons, particularly summers.

In Nashville, the Copts estimate themselves to be 10,000-20,000 strong; there has been no official census whether by the Diocese or the Nashville churches, nor by the state or federal powers. Instead, these estimates come from the priests themselves who calculate based on their own services: today, Nashville has ten churches, each roughly ten minutes within each other, and Sunday attendance boasting over a thousand attendants between two liturgies in some churches.

Beyond church space and raised steeples, Coptic presence can be felt. In Opry Land, a cultural resort, hotel and mall, Copts make up the majority of the serving staff, and so management at Opry Land added a training program for new non-Egyptian employees on Egyptian cultures and behaviors and language. Job openings in Nashville hotels are advertised in Arabic; advocacy non-profits too translate their flyers into Spanish and Arabic now. A local elementary school, with a little less than half of its student population being Coptic, partnered with the nearest Coptic church for volunteers and training sessions.

Copts are not the only Arabic speakers. Several Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians and Lebanese peoples also interact, work and live among Copts, but their numbers do not come close. With many of those Arabic speakers being Muslim, the fact that Copts constitute a solid, greater majority provides grounds for interesting dynamics in space, in language, in belonging—one that Copts do not hold in many other places, outside of some neighborhoods and villages in Egypt.

This is not to diminish the great diversity within the very Coptic community of Nashville, as many hail from the south of Egypt and, therefore, have their own dialect and vocabulary—the most important example to illustrate this is the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, in Egypt. Rather, I wish to argue that this population shift—of becoming a solid majority[1]—reveals new grounds of examining Coptic-Muslim relations outside of a context of persecution.

The population shift is visual: Coptic stores, under the banner of a saint, dot Murfreesboro Road, a road that leads from downtown Nashville to downtown Murfreesboro, two large Tennessee cities. (The Copts mostly live in the space between those cities, as both are heavily gentrified.) Such stores have kept larger companies like Walmart and Kroger to monopolize immigrant neighborhoods, and they are supported by more than Copts. The Coptic-owned stores sell halal meat, advertise Ramadan specials, and Eastern European chocolates, and they sell fresh produce, often from local farmers. Copts do not only own and manage grocery stores, but also immigration firms, entertainment businesses, salons and barber shops, hookah bars and liquor stores, gas stations, clinics for the underprivileged, and restaurants—from pizza to gyros. Arabic can be seen spiraled across Murfreesboro alongside visual icons indicating a store or clinic. The visual representation and interactive connections of these stores as non-exclusively Coptic and inclusive spaces highlight a working class, immigrant community that is thriving with little government incentive or support, with a diverse customer-base.

This kind of research in Nashville, of Coptic Orthodox communities outside of church space and religious connections, has profound effects. First, it destabilizes stereotypes of immigrant communities as isolated and non-assimilatory. Nashville provides an example of a community that is assimilating—just not into dominant(ing), mainstream culture. Instead of English, storeowners learn English, for insistence, to cooperate with farming agencies. Salon owners provide secure sections of their store for Muslim clients who are veiled. Ethiopian coffee shops are better sites for connection than a Starbucks for some Copts. Immigrants, like anyone, do not exist on islands.

Secondly, this kind of localized ethnography destabilizes other stereotypes, particularly ones centered on Copts as persecuted and victims. Instead, zooming in on the local reveals complicated individuals. Instead, Copts are entrepreneurs, farmers, factory workers. And they are also mothers, non-English speakers, haters of Nashville’s public transportation system, tax evaders, undocumented, renters without rights. While persecution and its memory can still be in the frame of the picture, it’s not the only element of an individual—of a community—to which we should constantly be referring. There’s nuance in the gray.

Thirdly, localized ethnography brings voices to the foreground that imagine. Many Copts in Nashville imagine themselves as a majority compared to Muslim populations—pride themselves as such—and while the statement isn’t true statistically, the imagining is truer in a deeper sense of how identity is made. A sense of a solid majority is a rebuttal against memories in Egypt, as minority and marginalized, but also an internal ambition of tomorrow.

It’s in the local that we begin to see the imaginations and ambitions and collaborations of communities, of individuals. It’s in Nashville, Tennessee that we begin to see new emerging Coptic voices that are shifting the mainstream discourse from persecution to racism, Christianity to Orthodoxy specifically, indigeneity to foreigner—all while identifying, still, as a Copt.

[1] There are more Muslims in Nashville than there are Copts. What I mean by “solid majority” is that the Copts, unlike the Muslims, do not separate according to nation or color or creed. For insistence, in Nashville, there is a Black (Sunni) mosque serving Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Caribbean Muslims, while fifteen minutes away, there is an “Arab” (Sunni) mosque serving Syrian, Iraqis, Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims; close by, there is a Shite mosque. Therefore, Copts, while numerically the minority, are communally and socially the majority.

Lydia Yousief is a second year master’s student at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She studies marginalized identities, particularly the lives of Copts and Palestinians.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.