Saint Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church
Cultivating the Ancient Faith in the Heart of Louisiana
8775 Jefferson Hwy, Suite E / Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70809
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The Orthodox Way

The Orthodox Way

St. Matthew flock meets to worship in mini-mall shop

By Mark H. Hunter

Special to The Advocate

Published: Oct. 23, 2010

 

Except for the intermittent hum of passing traffic, the Country Club Shadows mini-mall along Jefferson Highway is a quiet place on Sunday morning.

Then someone enters Suite E to attend Divine Liturgy at St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church and lets the music out.

For a few seconds — the time it takes for the door to open and close again — the heavenly sound of a choir singing “Lord have mercy” in four-part harmony wafts into the wider world.

“I feel sometimes like I’m surrounded by angels and archangels,” said the Rev. Mark Christian, pastor of the small Eastern Orthodox congregation, a big smile cracking his bearded face.

On any other day of the week a passerby would hardly notice the tiny church and bookstore, tucked between a tennis store and sandwich shop.

But on Sunday, with about two dozen congregants coming and going, the storefront church becomes a warm, candle-lit comfort zone of worship.

Established in the hectic months following Hurricane Katrina, the church was founded in a storefront, one on Hewwood Avenue near O’Neal Lane before moving in 2008 to its present location of 8775 Jefferson Highway.

The 1,300-square-foot suite is zoned as a bookstore, and the front of the one-room facility includes a corner bookshelf and table filled with books and pamphlets describing the Eastern Orthodox church and its ancient theology.

Eastern Orthodox churches, like Roman Catholics, trace their origins to the earliest days of Christianity. The Eastern and Roman churches were originally united but disputes over papal authority and other issues led to the Great Schism in 1054. Orthodox churches teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father, while Roman Catholics teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

The walls of St. Matthew are covered with dozens of colorful and ornate portraits of saints, called icons. Just inside the front door, burning candles glow under the large icons of the Christ and the Virgin Mary, also called the Theotokos, or Mother of God, in Greek.

At times the room is cloudy with sweet-smelling incense, distributed by the gold-robed priest swinging a brass censer hanging from a chain.

St. Matthew began with Christian, his wife, their three children and three others. It has grown to an average weekly attendance of between 25 and 35, he said, and if everyone who attends showed up at one time, there would be nearly 100 members.

“It’s a pretty diverse group of students, single folks and families,” Christian said.

While the services are conducted in English, this local Eastern Orthodox church has Russian Orthodox roots. Orthodox missionary-priests, who in the 1790s were ministering to Russian fur trappers in Alaska, began establishing churches, and now Alaska is considered American Orthodoxy’s “heartland.”

The St. Matthew congregation includes some Russian LSU students as well as local residents who hail from Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and several Middle Eastern countries.

“One day after Divine Liturgy, while we were having coffee hour, one of the Russians was talking to a Lebanese member in French,” Christian said with a chuckle.

Most of the service is sung while the congregation stands. The 43-year-old priest sings a prayer and then the congregation responds in a cappella harmony. The nearly two-hour-long worship service seems a more physical experience than some other denominations’ services where congregants mostly sit and listen.

Dozens of times the congregants perform the sign of the cross, in opposite direction from the traditional Catholic manner. They also often make a “metania,” by signing themselves then bowing to touch the floor with the right hand, at particular times of the service. A 100 page, 4-by 6-inch, spiral-bound booklet of prayers and Scripture lessons is the guide to the service.

The priest often goes into a small room, called the sanctuary, in the front of the main room, called the nave, and performs rites, sometimes out of sight of the congregation, at the altar table. Twice he re-enters the nave, once, in the “Little Entrance,” carrying a large red book, the “Gospel Book,” which he reads from, and again, in the Great Entrance, carrying the chalice, or cup of wine, and the paten, or plate with bread. As he walks, a server, or male helper, symbolically lights the way carrying a candlestick or censer.

As members go forward to receive the Eucharist, they first bow before an iconostasis, or icon stand holding an icon of St. Matthew and kiss the icon. They then are served by the priest a spoonful of wine, with the bread already mixed into it.

Orthodox Christians, like Catholics, teach that the wine and bread miraculously become the blood and body of Christ.

An unorthodox journey

Christian’s personal spiritual journey is almost as complicated as the liturgy of the church he serves.

“I’m reminded of the saying that ‘God draws straight with broken lines,’” Christian said.

The only child of a U.S. Navy officer, he was baptized as an infant and grew up in the Methodist Church but also attended interdenominational and Baptist churches as his father was transferred around to outposts on the East Coast and  in the Caribbean.

“There wasn’t a time when I didn’t understand myself to be a Christian,” he said, though as a youth he experienced what he describes as “adolescent wandering.”

With the encouragement of a Wofford College professor, Christian said he ‘reclaimed the faith of my baptism,’” a phrase the priest borrows from author and apologist C.S. Lewis.

The professor encouraged Christian to more deeply explore the roots of his faith by inviting the young man to experience the liturgical worship at an Episcopal church.

“For the first time in my life I had seen people investing themselves physically in the worship of God — making the sign of the cross — kneeling, going forward to receive the Holy Eucharist,” Christian said,

“It was a catalyst that reignited my faith,” Christian said, saying the experience led him to study at Duke University’s Divinity School and spend 12 years as a Protestant minister.

“During this time I began reading the saints of the early church and a number of 20th-century Orthodox writers, including Fr. Georges Florovsky and Fr. Alexander Schmemann,” Christian said. “I found the Orthodox witness to the Christian faith to have a coherence, beauty, trustworthiness, and fullness that was lacking in contemporary Protestant accounts and became committed to using Orthodoxy as a tool for mainline Protestant renewal.”

He was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 1993, did a hospital chaplaincy residency at UNC-Chapel Hill, and later served as an associate pastor at a large suburban Methodist Church in Greenville, S.C., where he met his wife, Mary Elizabeth. In 1995 they were married, and a year later set out for Alaska, where he served as a missionary-pastor in Anchorage and Trapper Creek, a tiny village along the Denali Highway. Mary Elizabeth, who is a doctor, worked for the Native Health Service in Anchorage.

They began worshipping in an Episcopal church, after their first child, Sarah, now 13, was born. They have two other daughters, Grace, 10 and Anna, 9 years old.

“I came to understand Methodism in its historical relation to Anglicanism and didn’t see much theological difference,” Christian said.

The Episcopal bishop of Alaska needed assistance teaching some diocesan classes and, as Christian explained, “one thing led to another, and I was received into the Episcopal Church and given priests’ orders. In addition to my work as a tutor, I served as pastor of a mission in Anchorage, later accepting calls to Episcopal parishes in South Carolina and Louisiana.”

As theological and moral controversies infiltrated the Episcopal church in the early 2000s, Christian said, he began to question his allegiance to the denomination.

“I was profoundly frustrated by the inability — or unwillingness — of either side to articulate and envision their understanding of the issues in light of the great tradition of the church,” he said. “I came to the painful realization that that great tradition of the church was something that for Anglicans — and Protestants in general — had become fragmentary and distorted to the point that broken pieces could be taken up and used as weapons to virtually any end.”

By 2004, Christian and Mary Elizabeth decided they could no longer be Protestants, and they began a new spiritual journey into Orthodoxy. He compared the change to the biblical accounts of the farmer finding a treasure buried in a field or the merchant who sold everything to purchase the pearl of great price. He surrendered his orders as an Episcopal priest.

“I came to see that the Orthodox faith was not a tool for reforming Protestantism, but rather a life of repentance to be lived to the glory of God — a life that was inseparable from the Orthodox Church,” he said.

The family was received into the Orthodox church by anointing with blessed oil in 2005.

Soon after, the Christians began organizing St. Matthew church, and he was ordained as an Orthodox priest in 2009.

Congregants find a home

After a recent service, members of the congregation mingled around a table spread with snacks, fruit drinks and coffee.

 “I think this is the fullest expression of Christianity,” said Graham Waddill, 25, who grew up a Baptist.

Waddill teaches Latin at Catholic High School, sings in the choir of St. Matthew and is taking catechism classes to become a member.

Dr. Safi Madain and his wife, Dr. Amy Madain, and their two daughters, Anjali, 4, and Juliet, 16 months, have been attending since 2008. Safi Madain explained how his parents fled Jordan before he was born and he grew up in California attending a Greek Orthodox church.

Nataliya Cooley, who grew up in the Ukraine and is fluent in Russian, has been attending St. Matthew for four or five years. After arriving in America “many years ago,” she said, “I tried many different churches with my husband who was a Methodist. When I came here I felt comfortable and in the right place.”

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8775 Jefferson Hwy, Suite E; Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70809
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