Small-town Orthodoxy brings diverse group together

Dec 1, 2012

Columbia’s Orthodox Christian community is growing – at least, that’s what churchgoers say it feels like.

*Clarification: The audio version of this story contains misleading information about the church's connection to the Great Schism of 1054. The church was among five patriarchates dating from the third century, and the schism was a time of separation -- the Roman Church split from the other four -- not a time of origin.

The Metropolis of Chicago, one of the Greek Orthodox managing bodies in the United States, granted the small community of Orthodox Christians in the heart of Missouri parish status in 2002. The church was named St. Luke’s the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church.

And from day one, St. Luke’s has been growing, but it has never been just Greek.

“I consider it my home now,” Ina Cernusca said. Cernusca and her family immigrated to Columbia from Romania in 2001, and have been a part of St. Luke’s since it was established.

Worship at St. Luke’s is done in both Greek and English, but when the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer, the ethnic diversity of the congregation shows.

First, the prayer is recited in English, then in Greek. Next, anyone who is worshiping that day can add his or her own language to the mix. On any given Sunday, the prayer is recited in Russian, Romanian, Slavonic (the ancient language of the Orthodox church, similar to Latin in Roman Catholicism), Arabic, Tigrigna (spoken in Eritrea), Bulgarian, Serbian and Georgian, among other languages.

“It’s our faith that brings us all together,” Cernusca said. “We are different ethnic groups united by Orthodoxy.”

St. Luke’s also serves as a cultural institution for the community. It has a Greek school to teach children the language. In the past, Cernusca helped run a Romanian school that had the same purpose.

For those who come to the church as converts, like Scott Cairns, the multicultural environment gives them a taste of Orthodox flavors from around the world.

“I think it’s good that we aren’t nationalists,” Cairns said. “It’s a heresy [to associate your faith with your ethnicity]. It has a name: philism. I think most people are aware that associating Greek Orthodoxy with Greekness, and excluding non-Greeks, is wrong.”

Formally a Baptist, then a Presbyterian, Cairns joined a Greek Orthodox church in Virginia before moving to Columbia. He is a professor of English at MU.

Cairns also produces a podcast for Ancient Faith Radio, an Orthodox internet radio station.

“As a result, we have, I think, what some people call a pan-Orthodox – basically, an Orthodox – church, some of which is in Greek,” he said of St. Luke’s diverse congregation.

Cairns, who is also a chanter at St. Luke’s, said much of the church’s growth comes not only from an increasingly diverse student population, but converts like himself.

These changing demographics of smaller Orthodox communities are pushing against the faith’s traditional structure.

Historically, Orthodox communities in the United States have been defined largely by ethnicity. A 2010 study from the Hartford Institute found there to be 21 self-governing Orthodox churches in the United States – 18 of which list a specific ethnicity in their name.

St. Luke’s is part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Other churches include the Albanian Orthodox Diocese of AmericaUkrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church in the United States, to name a few.

Orthodoxy in America grew dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a “second wave” of immigration from eastern and southern Europe fueled growth in America’s urban core.

According to Father Michael Monos, the priest at St. Luke’s, Orthodox communities were established in the United States during this time – before the churches in the mother countries could figure out how to bring the faith to the “unique” place that America is and was: a nation without an endemic culture.

“Immigrants came over and formed their ghettos – Greek, Russian, [etc.],” Monos said. “And they brought their priests with them, too – to baptize them, marry them, burry them.”

As ethnic enclaves grew, churches grew out of them, and so began the ethnic-based churches, largely in cities.

American Orthodoxy still keeps its roots in urban America. According to the Hartford Institute, the Orthodox communities in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts alone make up 48 percent of all American Orthodox.

Missouri’s community of just under 7,000 is only four percent of the size of California’s.

But today, Monos and Cairns speculate, those classifications may soon be in name only.

“It’s very common for Orthodox people to congregate in their churches and to feel fairly comfortable in whatever expression of Orthodoxy that they find,” Monos said.

As Orthodoxy moves into other parts of the country, like Columbia, the faith is coming to a crossroads: Should American Orthodox institutions abandon the traditional, ethnic-based structure for an “American” alternative, done solely in English?

Until the answer to that question is found, small congregations like St. Luke’s are continuing to grow. The church owns a plot of land just outside Columbia, where its members plan to build a new church in a traditional, Orthodox style once the funds are raised.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. For more faith and values stories, go to columbiafaithandvalues.com. You can also "like" ColumbiaFAVS on Facebook and follow @ColumbiaFAVS on Twitter.