A passerby could easily miss the building, situated on a quiet side street in north Torrance.
Yet, the faithful find their way to St. Matthew Antiochian Orthodox Church, drawn not so much by the location as by the language. St. Matthew is the only Orthodox church in the South Bay--and one of a very few in the Los Angeles area--that performs its services entirely in English.
This distinction has a lot to do with the little church's success in recent years. A mission for 10 years and a parish since last November, St. Matthew is searching for a bigger home in the area. It has been in its building at 4102 Hickman Drive since 1987.
"We don't have the room we need," said Father Paul Doyle, glancing at the icons adorning the church walls and altar. "But our choices are limited. We can't make any additions to the building (because of zoning ordinances). And there aren't too many church spaces available. If we can't find a church, we'll have to build one."
Doyle estimates that the congregation has quadrupled in size the past seven years to about 129 members. Although church officials say that orthodoxy in general is slowly increasing membership--the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America numbers about 350,000 communicants--the growth of St. Matthew is exceptional.
Since 1054, when it split from the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of papal authority, the Eastern Orthodox Church has subdivided into smaller churches. Among these, the most significant in the United States are the Greek Orthodox, the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox. The churches operate under different administrations but share liturgies and customs.
Most orthodox churches still conduct at least part of their services in an ancestral tongue, usually Greek. St. Matthew is part of a trend to switch to English.
This has enabled the parish to carve out a separate identity from the only other Orthodox church in the South Bay, St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Redondo Beach, which conducts about a third of its liturgy in Greek.
"I think our church still has a larger percentage of recent immigrants," said Father Ted Dorrance, pastor of 400-member St. Katherine. "St. Matthew is representative of a different ethnic identity, people of assimilated ethnic backgrounds, such as second- and third-generation Greeks and Syrians. They're catering more toward English-speaking people."
George Shweiri, a civil engineer from Hermosa Beach who was part of the small group that started St. Matthew in 1984, says the congregation has changed over the years.
"We used to have mostly 'cradle orthodox,' people who had been this religion all their lives, but now we have a number of families who are converts to the Orthodox faith," he says. "It's kind of nice, a different mix from other Orthodox churches."
Doyle has followed a winding road to orthodoxy. Raised a Protestant, he became an agnostic while a student at UC Berkeley. Later, he was ordained as an Episcopal clergyman, but left that church in 1972 after growing concerned about the impending ordination of women and other issues.
"There was a real diversity of belief (in the Episcopal Church), and I had difficulty with the diversity of belief," he said. "I turned to religion to find the New Testament church Christ established. Orthodoxy, in fact, means 'correct worship' or 'correct belief.' "
Shweiri says the congregation would like to stay in Torrance, but acknowledges that there are few vacant church buildings.
Donna Richardson of the Torrance planning office says churches have increasingly been moving into industrial parks because of parking regulations. "Churches are required by law to have one parking space for every 35 square feet of assembly area." Few buildings outside industrial parks meet that rule, she said.
St. Matthew needs extra space for services and social events. Potluck parties often spill out onto a parking lot behind the church. Church leaders want to find a place so the activities can come back indoors. "We have a small youth group, and it's nice for kids and young adults to have a positive environment," Shweiri said.
They also want to make room for other worshipers who want their Orthodox liturgy in English--the church's reason for existing in the first place. "The founding fathers and mothers found it difficult to either go to St. Luke's in Garden Grove or St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles," Doyle said. "Either way, it would take 30 or 40 minutes. It would be much easier to go a few miles to church, especially when small children are involved."
This kind of generational passing of the torch is the key to orthodoxy's growth.
"Fifty years ago, most people in orthodoxy went to church as an expression of faith, yes, but also because they were part of an ethnic ghetto," Dorrance said. "So they didn't really feel comfortable mixing it up with other people who had been here for generations. But now Orthodox people feel more indigenously American, and they're comfortable telling others about their faith."