I had a good suggestion offered to me in light of my restlessness and desire to travel and see the world: Seek out a new culture, but locally.
Boulder may be all gung-ho about diversity and tolerance and acceptance, but it’s rather pathetic in the way of diversity. Except maybe that we’ve got a Buddhist university. Boulder’s mostly lots of white, upper-middle-class hippy liberals who love cycling.
And by the outward American definitions of diversity, I’m not that diverse either. (Though my last name is German, I refuse to label myself as such. The most German thing my family does is drink beer. And if I went to Germany, there’s no way they’d accept me as one of them – nor should they, in my opinion. I like hot dogs, rock’n’roll, and sometimes watch football – I’m American.)
But back to cultural opportunities…
After only a quick bit of thought, my mind turned to a local eastern orthodox church that I’ve driven by on many occasions. Go to a Greek church? That would definitely be a cultural experience. Really, all I know about Greek culture is courtesy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
In other words, nada.
My biggest concern: what to wear. I’ve grown up in Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist churches. I knew that conservative would be the way to go, and probably a skirt. It was weird to be concerned again with a dress code for church, after months of attending the head-banging rock concert that is Flatirons. (I love me some Flatirons.)
I timed my arrival so I got there exactly five minutes before the service started. Nothing like walking in late or having awkward time to kill.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the door was heavenly music. All vocal. Chanting like they did in some of the Lutheran services I’ve seen. I feel like there must be some kind of word for it, but I don’t know my traditional religious terminology that well. Anyway, it was so beautiful that I thought there must be angels in the sanctuary.
Then I saw the people in front of me in the tiny foyer lighting candles, placing them in sand, crossing themselves, and kissing an image of some saint before they entered the sanctuary. I didn’t look too close at they picture they were kissing to see who it was because a bit of panic set in the back of my mind. What were they doing? What did it mean? Was I expected to do this, too? I quickly decided against doing it. Primarily and most importantly, I didn’t know what it meant. Second, I know that some churches are very much against people who aren’t member of their denomination participating in some rituals or sacraments. Third, I was afraid I’d do it wrong and look stupid in front of the cute little ol’ granny behind me. So I tentatively side-stepped, took a program from the door attendant – who, thankfully, didn’t look at me like I was a heathen – and walked into the sanctuary.
It was smallish, but lovely. Rich images of saints in bright colors and gold everywhere. A large wooden wall of some sort stood at the front of the stage adorned with lovely portraits of people with big gold halos. You could see the priest through the doors, beyond by the altar. It kind of made me think of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle.
I found a spot near the middle of the church and turned my attention back to the music, which was louder in here. The whole congregation was singing! Seriously, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
I figured that the singing was some sort of introduction, call to worship, that kind of thing. Then five minutes went by. Then ten. I don’t know how long they sang and did responses, but it was quite a while. Most of the people in the pews had books open and appeared to be singing from it. I scoured my program to see if it said a page number I was supposed to be on, but no. And the gentleman in front of me was singing by heart so I couldn’t look over his shoulder. In the quiet reverence, I was too shy to turn to the lady behind me and ask. So I just listened to their gorgeous voices. No instruments, everything a cappella, part in English part in Greek.
After a few minutes, I noticed something. I had been right to wear a skirt, but all the women I could see were wearing also wearing long sleeves. My short-sleeved blouse seemed to stand out like one of those orange traffic cones. I cringed for not bringing even a jacket. I had considered my jacket, but it’s red and I didn’t know if loud colors might be frowned upon. I felt like all the eyes in the church were on me, thinking, “Look at her! How immodest! Doesn’t she know how to dress in church?” I was thankful when the singing ended and I could sit down and hide my bare elbows against the pew.
The service was pretty much a lot of priest/congregation response singing. There was a brief homily (oh, I do know one term!) on purity – the purity of Christ and how we are called to be pure and set apart from the world (James 1:27).
After the message, they stood up to sing again. A lady who came in after me had sat down a few feet away from me in my row, and I watched out of the corner of my eye as she found her page in the book. The page numbers were SO TINY, but I managed to end up on the right page. Now I could sing along with these Greek angels. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to sing the Greek parts but – God bless them! – there was phonetic pronunciation underneath, along with English translation so you knew you weren’t saying something like, “Thanks be to God who birthed the world on the back of a turtle.” Well, I guess you could have been singing that, and that would have been very sneaky of the people that wrote the translation in the book.
They also said the Nicene creed and the Lord’s prayer. The cool thing about the latter was that they said it in Greek, Arabic, Romanian, Slavic, and English. (I only know that because it was all pasted into the book.) You heard different people speak up as they said each language in turn. How awesome. Here I was in a church that I thought would be almost wholly Greek, and even there they had a diverse congregation. I loved it.
Communion came. Sigh. I should have remembered that many traditional churches do communion every week. Why didn’t I Google beforehand to see if eastern orthodox is okay with outsiders participating in their communion? I knew Jesus didn’t care if I was part of their church or not, but I wanted to be respectful of their traditions. I decided to do the same as with the candles and pretend to be invisible.
I was kind of glad I stayed in my seat. They had a communal chalice, except instead of drinking out of it the priest gave everyone a spoonful of wine from the same spoon. I couldn’t help but think of a college student who died of bacterial meningitis a few weeks ago, and how one of the health department’s concerns was that he had participated in communion on Easter. I’m definitely not as hyper sensitive about germs as some, but this event was fresh in my mind.
My allergies started acting up and I sneezed several times. Oh well. Maybe people will think I didn’t take communion because I didn’t want to share my germs. Nah, who’m I kidding? It was a small church. They knew I was new.
The other thing about their communion: huge chunks of bread! Like, muffin-sized. And some people took two. Two guys in robes had the bread piled in those enormous mixing bowls you see in industrial kitchens. I chuckled, thinking how Flatirons may quickly go into debt if they had to feed people that much bread.
As I watched the people filing up to communion – even little babies got a spoonful of wine – I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Standing in line were several women with short-sleeves. They must have been sitting behind me where I couldn’t see them. No one would be judging me my bare arms.
Everyone came back to their seats munching bread, and sang a few songs I couldn’t find in the book. Then a prayer, offering baskets passed, and it was over.
As people filed out, I noticed everyone went to the front of the church instead of the back. The priest was there with the rest of the bread, and people were taking another piece or two (or three) and kissing his hand. I cringed back again. It seemed impossible for me to sneak out the back for this part. The lady who had been behind me all service must have noticed that I was panicking because she smiled and said kindly, “It’s okay. You can go up, too.” It was weird kissing the priest’s hand, but the bread was good. I should have taken two pieces.
Overall, I loved the experience of being out of my element. Even if it was awkward sometimes. What was the worst people would do – frown at me?
But what I kept thinking of throughout was this must be how people feel when they go to church for the first time. Or why the don’t go to church in the first place. “What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What does that mean? Should I do it, too? What does it mean if I don’t? What if I do it but do it wrong?” Flatirons is so off-the-wall and attracts so many seekers that they explain everything; it’s the traditionalists who look weird there. I’ve joked that Flatirons has made such an identity for itself in being a home for the black sheep that the white sheep stand out like orange traffic cones.
Beyond church, though, how must people feel in a new culture? Or even a new environment or new experience? Even in my extreme shyness, I kind of wished that one of the people next to me had helped me find my page number. I left feeling resolved to try to pay more attention to the people around me who might be “looking for page numbers” – whether in church or in life situations.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to the Greek church, not because I didn’t like it. Actually, I’m kind of playing with the idea of visiting a synagogue next week…
Photos from their web site.