Sunday morning, the rhythmic tolling of bells welcomed the faithful to services at Saint John the Wonderworker’s Serbian Orthodox Church in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. Wedged between Last Stand Coffee Company and the Jesco Club on 3rd and Blair, the church, with its pale stucco exterior and blue and golden cupolas, appears at first incongruous with its surroundings. Indeed, it looks like a piece of the Old Country transplanted to foreign soil. Inside, oil lamps and candles light the church, and the walls are lined with the heavy-lidded faces of Orthodox saints. The congregation is mostly standing, women in headscarves and long skirts, while prayers sound out in a droning, Hebraic chant.
Christian Orthodoxy has seen a surge in adherents over the course of the last decade. In the United States, membership has historically consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants and their descendants. But recently, the appeal seems to have widened. Today, a reported one third of Orthodox priests in the U.S. today are converts, and over the course of the last decade, the number of Orthodox parishes has grown by 16 percent. The congregation at St. John’s, which consists overwhelmingly of converts, is indicative of this trend.
Stephen Dyer has been a church deacon at St. John’s for 14 years. His own initiation into Orthodoxy represented the culmination of a lengthy struggle with faith. Dyer was raised in the Unitarian Church by atheist parents, and turned to Christianity at the age of 19, seeking something deeper than what he felt his secular upbringing provided. He spent 17 years as a member of a religious brotherhood founded in the 1960’s in Boston, and his conversion was initially spurred by the group’s growing interest in Orthodox Christianity. As Dyer describes it, after the immense spiritual fomentation of the 1960’s, the group’s impetus had, by the 1980’s, began to fizzle out. Orthodoxy provided a wholly different approach to Christianity, one deeply rooted in mysticism, tradition, and what Dyer characterizes as a more Eastern mentality. “We were seeking something more Christian and completely deep and we stumbled upon Orthodox Christianity. And we found it. To our surprise, we found it.”
In 1988, Dyer was baptized within the Orthodox Church, and just a few years later moved to Eugene, where he and Pastor David Lubliner, a convert from Judaism, founded St. John’s. In 1992, they moved to their current location in Whiteaker. The building that occupied the site had for many years been occupied by Icky’s Teahouse, an anarchist haunt that was, at the time of the sale, facing repossession by the city for drug trafficking. For up to a year after the move, people from across the country would show up in search of Icky’s, only to find St. John’s. Residents and business owners in Whiteaker welcomed the change. “When a church comes into a blighted neighborhood, it really lifts it up,” remarked Dyer.
As a primarily convert church, St. John’s works with newcomers to the faith. Dyer hopes that St. John’s will continue to be a strong resource for people who are interested in Orthodoxy, and stresses the need to keep the religion alive and fresh within its adherents. At the same time, he looks at St. Johns as indicative of a larger trend. “It’s much bigger than our little church. People are finding it more and more. There are Americans, there are whole congregations, whole groups of churches becoming Orthodox.”