The sign says Old Towne Square, giving things a Renaissance feel, but the smaller storefront signs point to a much more modern slice of life.
A hair salon. A coin collector’s shop. A neon-bathed bar.
But tucked into the far corner is a sign promising a window to a past much older than the land of strolling minstrels that somehow must have inspired the look of this red brick strip mall off Ninth Street: Saint Sophia Orthodox Christian Church.
There, made private by long white drapes lining what would normally be a traditional windowed storefront, is a vibe unlike any other in town: East-meets-West, old-meets-new, Lawrence-meets-Constantinople.
Inside the church, Suite A, is a small sitting area, bookstore and a separate chapel lined with icons and art. There are no pews in this chapel, just a handful of folding chairs spaced along the sunny yellow-painted walls. Halogen lamps and fluorescent overheads light the space while candlesticks point toward the heavens in front of a makeshift paschal iconostasis — a screen hiding the nave from the open sanctuary.
In services held many times per week, 20 to 50 people meet in this little space at 846 Ill. to take part in rituals little changed from the times when people thought the world was flat. There are no newfangled video screens, rock bands or spirituals written within any parishioner’s lifetime. Some of the women wear head scarves, everyone lines up to kiss the cross, and together they stand throughout the services, just like Orthodox Christians have done for a thousand years or so and about 200 million continue to do.
“You know there’s the changing the light bulb jokes?” asks lifelong Orthodox and current St. Sophia member, Christian Moulton. “There’s one that says, ‘How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer is, ‘Change?’’ A lot of Orthodox really relate to that, and that’s true because we change certain things but not the core.”
Attend a service in the small space, and it’s true you may feel like you’re stepping back in time: Incense, chanting, icons and a heavy rotation for feast days and fast days create a ritualistic atmosphere that echoes time a millennia ago, when the Orthodox Church split with the Roman Catholic Church during the Great Schism of 1054.
For those unsure of religious history, the schism was a long-brewing divide, theological in nature, that left the church with two separate arms: the Eastern Orthodox Church, which recognizes the patriarch of Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) as its leader, and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the pope. From the Eastern Orthodox church came the Orthodox Church of America, which now has about a million members, though there are millions of other Orthodox Christians in the United States practicing as part of the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Antiochian Orthodox Church or others.
Because they’re part of the same family tree, sometimes St. Sophia’s parish council president Joshua Anderson uses the Roman Catholic Church as a reference point when explaining his denomination.
“The quickest explanation is usually we’re a lot like Catholicism without the pope. And then I say, ‘Have you ever seen movies in Greece or Russia? And you’ve seen churches? That’s kind of what it is,’” he says. “There are lots of icons, the vestments are maybe a little bit more flamboyant, I guess, and then liturgically wise the biggest difference is the iconostasis, which is the wall of icons with the royal doors in the middle and the deacon doors on the side.”
But those other forms of orthodoxy and even just the word “orthodox” often creates confusion, says Erin Moulton. The daughter and daughter-in-law of Orthodox priests — the church allows married men to enter the priesthood — she’s spent the better part of her life trying to explain her faith.
“We always laugh about this. If you just say you’re Orthodox, I’ve gotten everything over the board in my life. ‘Oh, you’re Jewish.’ Very quickly people will often say, ‘Oh, you mean Greek Orthodox,’ ‘Oh, you mean Russian Orthodox,’” she says. “Generally people aren’t used to the notion of just American Orthodox or Orthodox Christian, because they more likely have heard it associated with some specific ethnic group.”
Fullness of faith
Despite the church’s ancient origins, it took until 2002 for it to officially have a presence in Lawrence. That’s when a group of interested folks created St. Sophia as a church plant from the Orthodox Church of America, first meeting in locations around town before finding a more permanent home at Old Towne Square.
From there, the church has grown to gain newcomers who are all looking for one thing, say many members: a history. Just like rock bands and video screens attract some parishioners to new styles of worship, St. Sophia’s resistance to change can be mighty attractive to the right people. Anderson himself became interested in it after being involved for years in evangelical Protestant churches.
“The best way to describe it is that orthodoxy was for us the fullness of the faith,” Anderson says. “Not just because it’s the historical church and the oldest church, although that has a lot to do with it, but just the tradition, the saints, the richness of the liturgy. It’s so substantial. It’s the most substantial Christian entity that we found.”
Despite the age of the faith, the congregation at St. Sophia is actually quite young as a whole. Member Angie Rathmel puts the average age at about 30. Possibly because of the average age, the way the church trumpets itself to new members is decidedly modern: the Internet. The church, which gets along without a full-time priest, has a Facebook page and a constantly updated blog, saintsophia.blogspot.com. Right there, commingling on the World Wide Web are directions for when to partake in the ritual of fast and a reminder for a parish health conference — old and new coming together in a wholly unexpected way.
Erin Moulton says she believes it’s precisely the new and old working together to create a rich sense of faith that’s bringing people to the little chapel in the strip mall. And, she says, it’s exactly what will keep bringing them in the church’s doors for another millennia or so.
“A full, orthodox Christian life is very all encompassing. It’s not just something that happens just on Sundays, it’s not something that happens just on Wednesdays ... and it’s not even something that happens when you go to bed at night and quickly whisper a prayer into your pillow,” she says. “I really love being involved and part of a faith that I feel like encompasses every part of my being and of my daily life.”