Ancient Traditions Offer a Haven for Contemporary Seekers at Whiteaker’s St. John Orthodox Church

St. John's

Sunday morning, the rhythmic tolling of bells welcomes 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 dressed in long skirts and headscarves, while children meander through the aisles.

Contrary to what its old world appearance might suggest, St. John’s is a relatively new addition to the neighborhood. In the early 90’s, David Lubliner and Stephen Dyer, both converts to Orthodoxy, moved to Eugene from Portland and founded the Parish. Initially, they conducted services from their home, eventually expanding to a storefront, and in 1997 moved to their current location.

The building that occupied the site had for many years housed Icky’s Teahouse, an anarchist haunt that was, at the time of the sale, facing repossession by the city for drug trafficking.  The city encouraged the sale of the property for use by the parish, and over the years St. John’s has expanded, absorbing some of the neighboring buildings and a sizeable backyard, divided into a children’s playground and vegetable plots.

The construction of St. John’s was carried out and financed in large part by volunteers from Eugene’s Orthodox community. The bells, which came from Russia, and bell tower, were the result of a massive fundraising effort in memory of the daughter of a member of the congregation. As Priest David Lubliner put it, “the project was completed with a combination of sweat, equity and Divine Grace.” Although St. John’s at first seems an unlikely sight in the Whiteaker neighborhood, residents and business owners have welcomed its presence there.

As a primarily convert church, St. John’s works with newcomers to the faith. Deacon Dyer expressed his hope that St. John’s will continue to be a strong resource for people who are interested in Orthodoxy, and stressed the need to keep the religion alive and fresh within its adherents. At the same time, he looks at St. Johns as part of a bigger picture.

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. 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 to the religion, is indicative of this 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 that are becoming Orthodox,” said Dyer.

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.”

Jeremy Mueller completed his conversion to Orthodoxy two years ago. Mueller, a Central California native who lives on the property and works as groundskeeper, grew up “more or less” Protestant. He described his conversion to Orthodoxy as the endpoint of an extended and all-encompassing search for direction in his life. “It came to a point where I really needed to find something, in every sense. I needed to find an occupation and a religion that made sense for me.” Mueller’s first encounter with Orthodox Christianity occurred abroad. After purchasing a one-way ticket to Bulgaria, he spent several months exploring the Balkans, eventually ending up in Serbia, where he was introduced to the religion. When he returned to the US, he lived in a small community in Oklahoma, where he began attending an Orthodox church in Tulsa. Mueller says that he and the other community members were attracted by the element of mysticism in the religion. Since his time in Oklahoma, half of his former community members have since converted.

The process of conversion is lengthy. After attending a few services, candidates for conversion usually enter into dialogue with the priest to learn more about the religion and its suitability for them. Those interested in converting then become catechumens, meaning that they are “officially inquiring” into the religion. For most converts, this stage lasts about a year. Most baptisms occur around Easter. In the Serbian tradition, new converts wear their baptismal gowns for a full forty days following conversion.

Victoria Hershiser was drawn to Orthodoxy in a different way. Her conversion was less the result of an extended period of spiritual searching, but rather arose from what she described somewhat sheepishly as a “religious experience.” While going through a difficult period in her personal life, she one day felt overwhelmingly and inexplicably drawn to attend confession. A close friend of hers had began attending a Greek Orthodox church in town, and Hershiser one day decided to come along. She was drawn to the religion for many reasons. She had never felt completely satisfied by the answers provided by her Protestant upbringing. “I had always felt that there were gaps in the picture,” she said.  At the same time, she was reassured by Orthodoxy’s similarities to the faith in which she was raised. “It’s the same God that I’ve always known as a Protestant.  I would never have come if it weren’t. The fact that it was and that he wanted me to come here was what started it.” Hershiser was reassured by the structure provided by Orthodoxy, the focus on forgiveness and on looking inward, “In the Orthodox Church there’s much more of a sense of ‘here’s something, here’s a place to start.”

Hershiser’s family was supportive of her decision to convert, despite the fact that both of her grandfathers were pastors in the Protestant Church. She believes that their open-mindedness came from the same source as her initial willingness to explore Orthodoxy—the sense that it was, after all, simply one facet of a complex faith to which she had always belonged, in one way or another.

A common theme emerges when converts discuss their experiences. Regardless of their religious background (or lack thereof) they seem drawn to Orthodoxy by its ancient character, mystical undertones, and the sense of structure that its rather traditional approach to religious observance provides. For many converts, the decision to become Orthodox emerged from a long and often circuitous struggle to find a faith that meshed with their understanding of spirituality and religious devotion. In stark contrast to some of the more polished super churches and their slick sales pitch quality of proselytizing, St. John’s offers its congregation the potential for a more personal, introspective approach to Christianity.

Orthodox bell ringing:
Bell ringing in the Orthodox tradition differs from bell ringing in Western churches. Bell ringing is employed in certain ways depending on the day of the week, the time of the service, and to denote special services and holidays. The bells, which produce a greater range of notes than Western church bells, are rung using clappers controlled by a complex system of ropes to produce an astonishing range of polyrhythmic sequences, in contrast to the melodies produced by Western bells. Bells are split into three groups, zazvonniy (soprano), podzvonniy (alto) and blagovestnik (bass). The zvonar, or bell ringer, is usually a member of the congregation, and is afforded an amount of flexibility in his technique. The bells themselves are considered sacred objects, and indeed are treated almost as living beings. They are christened at the time of consecration, and receive burial rites when they are retired.

Differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity:
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, emphasis is put on the personal experience of divine truth. The issue of sin and salvation is approached less through confession and forgiveness. Sin is instead regarded as something that clouds the sinner’s relationship with God, and its forgiveness is a means of reopening channels of communication with the divine. The origins of the split between the Western and Eastern Church can be traced back to the filioque controversy in 1054 A.D. The debate initially centered on a small change in the language used to describe the  Holy Trinity. Whereas in eastern Orthodoxy the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, in the western tradition it is described as proceeding from the Father and the Son. Orthodox theologians objected to this change because it was interpreted to mean that two sources of divinity existed within the Godhead, in contrast to their belief that all divinity issued from the Father.

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