Like all Orthodox churches, worship at St. Matthew the Apostle is a visual experience, with icons, vestments and candles. For 10 of its 13 years of existence, though, there was an incongruous presence in the Divine Liturgy — a refrigerator.
The church’s small rented space on Jefferson Highway didn’t allow it to be anywhere else. That, however, is no longer the case.
Since November, the church has worshipped in a larger building at 13333 Coursey Blvd., a move that has coincided with growth in the small congregation. The church has converted both sections of a stand-alone commercial duplex, with one side devoted to worship, the rest to its other activities.
“The energy changed a lot from that space to this space,” said St. Matthews member Megan Vining, 25. “That (old) space was great. You still felt God, but you were in a storefront and you felt it.
“Here, there is this separation, and the room stays dark during the service, and everybody kind of crowds in together, and it feels more like a church. It’s still quite different than an actual church, but it has that feeling.”
Adherents to Christendom’s most ancient days, Orthodox churches use sanctuaries to remind congregants that they are joining heavenly brethren in worship that is expressed through sight, sound, smell and movement.
“The Orthodox faith is very tactile,” said the Rev. Joshua Trant, who became St. Matthew’s priest in August 2016 and soon encouraged the church to relocate. “It matters what things look like. It matters how things are arranged. These all have something to teach us, and we can’t learn all the lessons we needed to learn here, but we definitely couldn’t learn it in that room.
“It was serving a purpose, and the people who were here were dedicated and kept the church going, but we needed to start pushing ourselves a little bit. So, we’re here.”
Orthodox worship uses icons that serve as reminders of Christ, the saints and Jesus’ mother, Mary (referred to as the Theokotos). Although pews are provided next to walls for those who need to sit, worshippers typically stand, kneel and bow, sometimes touching the floor with their fingertips. Chants, songs and incense fill the room with sound and scent.
These ancient rituals are foreign to many other denominations, which have evolved considerably since the Great Schism of 1054, when the church divided geographically — Orthodox in the east, centered in Constantinople; Catholics in the west, centered in Rome. In the United States, where more immigrants came from the latter than the former, Orthodox churches have historically been ethnic enclaves.
At St. Matthew, however, 80% of the 35 regular attenders are converts.
“Young people my age, especially that are starting to have kids, we want something that’s rooted in tradition and we want something that has a history,” Vining said. “You have the Catholic Church and you have higher Protestant churches, but nothing else really has so much history, so much reverence.
“I’ve spoken to so many friends and everyone says, ‘My church doesn’t have anything reverent about it.’ You want reverence, this is where it is. You can’t walk into that space without feeling something holy. … We want something that is more than coffee hour and fun groups. We want something more than just being entertained.”
When the Divine Liturgy ends, the congregants move into the adjacent room for a coffee hour whose purpose is more than just food and relaxation. Members consider it a part of their spiritual discipline, the opportunity to love one another the way they were taught just minutes earlier, said member Maurice Velasquez.
“The two tables can never be separated — the holy table where we celebrate the divine services and receive the body and the blood and, also, the table where we sit down in fellowship,” Trant said. “If the two aren’t linked, then neither one is really going to matter.
“That table of fellowship, that was so big in the early church. You had slave and free, rich and poor actually sitting down together. All the divisions we make out there that are so important to us as people, they have to dissolve in here. Otherwise, we’re just playing, acting.”
In that respect, the new location facilitates the living out of what is taught in church, said member Bud Snowden.
“I am probably the biggest failure in this church as far as the asceticism, the discipline, the devotion that is all part of what it means to be Orthodox,” Snowden said. “I struggle with those things. What I do not struggle with is that I know with all assurance that when I participate in the Eucharist, I am united with Christ, and that presence is real to me.
“This is where I see Jesus. My mother always told me, ‘Keep your eyes on Jesus and you’ll always find your way home.’ This is where I see Jesus.”