When the Times comes to call

HolyCrossPascha2009The New York Times ran a very old story the other day, a story about a topic that has, in fact, been around for several decades. Still, it caught my attention for an obvious reason. It was a story about my own parish, my own priest and some of my closest friends. That isn't something that happens every day.

Actually it was a column by Samuel G. Freedman of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, part of his ongoing series entitled "On Religion." That also interests me, of course, since I have written a column with the same title for 21-plus years for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Freedman's column about our parish, Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md., is about two different subjects -- working on two different levels.

The first level is stated in the headline: "More Protestants Find a Home in the Orthodox Antioch Church." But that isn't really news, in light of the headlines that greeted the influx of evangelicals into the Orthodox faith back in 1987. I think I wrote my first column about that trend in 1989, a decade before my own conversion to Orthodoxy, meaning that I can't link to it since that precedes the online explosion called the World Wide Web (or widespread public use of the Internet). One way or another, that's a 30-year-old story.

On a deeper level, however, this is a column about why people convert from one church to another, or from one faith to another. That brings us to the opening anecdote, which focuses on the man who stands next to me in the Holy Cross choir week after week.

Cal Oren was threading his way through the Santa Cruz Mountains of California early one evening in 1993, driving his wife, brother and three tired children back from a day of hiking amid the redwoods. As their car neared the town of Ben Lomond, Mr. Oren said, his brother pointed to a church on the roadside and said: "I've been inside this. It's really neat."

So Mr. Oren pulled to a stop, and as the children stayed in the car, the grown-ups gingerly padded into the sanctuary of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church. A lifelong Presbyterian, Mr. Oren knew virtually nothing about the Antiochians or, for that matter, Orthodox Christianity in general. He had always associated Ben Lomond with hippies, geodesic domes and marijuana fields.

As he entered, a vespers service was under way. Maybe two dozen worshipers stood, chanting psalms and hymns. Incense filled the dark air. Icons of apostles and saints hung on the walls. The ancientness and austerity stood at a time-warp remove from the evangelical circles in which Mr. Oren traveled, so modern, extroverted and assertively relevant.

"This was a Christianity I had never encountered before," said Mr. Oren, 55, a marketing consultant in commercial construction. "I was frozen in my tracks. I felt like I was in the actual presence of God, almost as if I was in heaven. And I'm not the kind of person who gets all woo-hoo."

The ineffable disclosure of that evening, a 15-minute glimpse into Byzantium, rattled everything certain in Mr. Oren's spiritual life.

Freedman has the history of all of this in his column, beginning with the 1987 events. But it's clear that he is using our parish as a metaphor -- a snapshot of a phenomenon that stands for a much larger picture. As I said, the larger picture is the subject of conversion.

So don't let my familiarity with the specific -- the conversion era in Orthodoxy -- cause you to turn away from a nice column about this larger subject. Please, read the column for yourself. And you may want to check out this PBS feature about our parish, featuring one of the Oren children, who has grown up to become a breathtaking singer of Byzantine chant. What will the Oren family do for an elite-media encore?

Meanwhile, I would quibble about one or two facts in the Times piece. I would say that our parish is nearly 90 percent converts, although you get into the issue of how to count the children of the converts (and there are many, many youngsters in our parish). They are "cradle Orthodox," of course, but still part of the larger convert scene.

And what's up with that strange final anecdote about our priest, Father Gregory Mathewes-Green? Check it out:

The unexpected evolution of the Antiochian Church has had only one drawback, at least at Holy Cross. When Father Mathewes-Green was persuaded several years ago to raise money with a church supper, people flocked to Holy Cross, expecting the savory specialties of the Levant. What they got was the culinary outcome of the priest's former life as an Episcopalian from South Carolina: hot dogs and brownies.

The fund-raiser, all prayers and chants to the contrary, was a loser.

This has to be some kind of mistake. Anyone who knows our priest knows that he would have made barbecue under this circumstance -- pulled pork, as God intended from the beginning of time. Or maybe chili. But mere hot dogs?

Talk about unorthodox. Talk about having no sense of Tradition, with a large "T."

Photo: The faithful begin to re-enter the sanctuary after the great procession of the Divine Liturgy at Pascha, 2009. Yes, that large chandelier is swinging from the rafters, a symbol of the whole world turning upside down with the reality of the Resurrection. Used by permission of HolyCrossOnline.org

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