Members of the Long Beach Greek Orthodox congregation are becoming accustomed to attending church in a former clothing store.
"They used to buy their jeans here," Father Michael Kouremetis said of his congregants, "but now they respect it as a church. Church is where the people are."
And indeed, they come, sometimes by the hundreds, on Sunday mornings.
Until recently, the building was a Miller's Outpost filled with clothing racks and changing booths. Located in Marina Pacifica Mall, the 10,500-square-foot facility is within sight of a sign advertising frozen yogurt and a shop selling chocolate chip cookies. In the same mall, a tanning salon is near a Nautilus exercise gym, and a Chinese restaurant faces a multi-screen movie theater. And directly next-door is Bogart's, a popular nightclub for young people.
But now, parishioners say, the place is God's house. Its try-on booths are used for storage and its clothing racks are replaced by religious icons. Sitting on folding chairs, the same people who once bought their jeans here now listen to prayers in Greek and watch the priest walk back and forth in front of the altar wafting incense.
"You can't beat the view," said Kouremetis, glancing through a picture window behind the altar at rows of yachts moored in the marina adjacent to the mall. "It's working out wonderfully."
The church was not always in a mall, of course.
For more than 40 years the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, which now serves a congregation of 286 families, was located at 17th Street and Pacific Avenue on the city's west side. There the congregation, founded by a group of Greek immigrants in 1937, participated in the rituals and observances of its religion which, although similar to Roman Catholicism, does not accept the infallibility of the Pope, allows its priests to marry and celebrates Greek rather than Latin culture.
Eventually, conditions at the old location began to change. As the congregation grew, its space became increasingly cramped. Church members began moving away from the old neighborhood to the city's more affluent east side. And as the old neighborhood deteriorated, muggings and vandalism became commonplace, spreading fear and consternation among residents.
"It wasn't a neighborhood church anymore," Kouremetis said during an interview in his office at the mall. "Our women were afraid to go down there. It was time to move."
Four years ago, the church purchased a 4.3-acre lot at Pacific Coast Highway and Colorado Avenue. Situated near Cal State Long Beach on the city's east side, the site is within six miles of the homes of 85% of the church's membership, according to Kouremetis.
But prospective neighbors, getting wind of the plan to build a church, raised strenuous objections, citing, among other things, potential problems involving parking and crime. Eventually an agreement was reached, and last year the City Council approved blueprints calling for construction of a $3-million, 10,264-square-foot sanctuary with a 60-foot dome, 10,000-square-foot Greek cultural center and 17,400-square-foot family center with classrooms, offices and a gymnasium.
To raise money for the complex, the congregation recently sold its Pacific Avenue facility to a condominium developer for $1.75 million. The rest of the money will be raised through contributions and loans.
Completion of the new buildings is still more than a year away, Kouremetis said. So he struck a deal with Marina Pacifica Mall, a financially troubled facility badly in need of tenants. For $3,200 a month, according to the agreement, the church can stay at the mall--located a few blocks from its future home--until the new buildings are completed.
At first, the priest said, he questioned whether a former clothing store could be made into a church. Then, during a week of concerted effort earlier this year, a group of determined volunteers moved the contents of the old church into the "new" one. And since early January, Kouremetis said, the congregation has been meeting there happily.
When worshipers enter the building from the mall parking lot, they pass under a weathered copper cross and confront an old stained-glass window hung by wire in the foyer. At the front of the sanctuary, where customers once perused shirts and pants, large pictures of Jesus and the saints now exude a holy glow. And in an adjacent room formerly used for fittings, portable closets now house choir robes, priestly vestments, religious books and scented candles.
In addition to the regular weekly services, the church has board and committee meetings, Sunday school classes, courses in Greek language and dance, youth and women's group activities, Bible study groups and Sunday social gatherings.
A few members, Kouremetis said, have grumbled about the arrangements, referring to the former clothing store jokingly as "Saint Miller's of the Outpost."
"It doesn't smell like a church," complained Gene Stavros, 16. "It smells like a hall."
But during a recent Sunday service there, most of the parishioners seemed to be adjusting to their new environment.
"It's comfortable," said Bobbie Soupos. "It feels right."
Said Dimitra Kapogianis, a Greek native who came to the United States in 1969: "It really doesn't matter where you hold church services. God is within you wherever you go."