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VALUES / A centuries-old faith draws converts.

Solace for the Soul

Eastern Orthodox churches have seen membership swell. The faithful cite the age-old ritual.

April 07, 1999|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The morning she sat outside a Greek Orthodox monastery chapel at 3:30 a.m. because only Orthodox Christians were allowed inside for the service, Melinda Munoz got an inkling that she was on the road to a religious conversion.

A Baptist minister with cultural roots far from the eastern Mediterranean homeland of Orthodoxy, she was fascinated by the chanting, the incense and pale candlelight flowing from beneath the chapel door. Something told her this was what she had been looking for.

"I'm not disgruntled," Munoz says of her lifelong membership in the Baptist church, including six as clergy. She was, however, increasingly restless and unfulfilled. "I've always been a seeker," says Munoz, a rosy cheeked woman in her 40s whose enthusiasm bubbles over. For months before her trip to St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox monastery, outside Phoenix, she visited Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal congregations and was seriously considering membership in the Episcopal Church. "After the monastery, though," she says, "I didn't feel as settled [on it] as before.

"I called my two closest friends and said, 'You want to hear a really strange story? I think I could become Orthodox.' Both of them said, 'This sounds like the Lord.' "

That was last June. From that point, she started attending services at a Greek Orthodox church. Unlike the St. Anthony monastery, churches do allow nonmembers to attend services.

Last month Munoz was officially received into St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angeles during a ceremony called chrismation in which she was blessed with consecrated oil. When a large drop fell on her cheek the priest smiled and told her it was a good sign.

She took the name of a patron saint, Barbara, as her spiritual mentor, much the same as in a Christian confirmation ceremony, and for three weeks after that, she carried a candle to the altar during the Sunday liturgy, so the congregation would know she was a new convert.

Over the past eight months, 16 people have been received into St. Sophia's congregation, just as Munoz was this spring. Three years ago there were two. It is only one indication that Eastern Orthodox churches are among the fastest growing in America.

With roots in Greece, Turkey, Russia and points throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East, they have gained numbers with the increase in immigration since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While the churches do not keep formal count, officials estimate that most converts are American-born Protestants. This is remarkable, considering that most are joining churches at which they do not understand the language of the service, and they have little experience with icons, vestments, the veneration of saints, and a liturgy that dates back to the 1st century, which are at the heart of Orthodoxy.

Evangelical Christians account for perhaps the greatest number.

"People tell me they come to the Orthodox Church because of the historical continuity," says Father John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia's Cathedral. "We really haven't changed many things over the centuries. And the service is the same wherever you go in the world.

"I go back to the church in Albuquerque where I grew up and the liturgy is just as it was when I was an altar boy there. The Sunday liturgy in Los Angeles this week is the same as in Moscow."

Others tell him they have missed a sense of reverence that they find in Orthodoxy. "The church isn't built on the pastor," says Father Bakas. "If he runs off, things don't fall apart. And Sunday isn't a potluck party. For us, liturgy is a call to community prayer centered in Communion."

Several entire congregations have converted, with their pastors.

In San Dimas, Carpenter's Company, a Four Square church of 85 members, turned to Orthodox Christianity three years ago. Both the church's ministers were ordained Orthodox priests. The church is now called Saint Peter the Apostle Antiochian Orthodox Church.

The most dramatic reception, however, occurred in 1987 when 2,000 Evangelical Christians converted. They came from various denominations and represented 17 churches across the country.

Munoz was attracted for similar reasons. "I was looking for components I didn't have in my religious life," she says. Raised in a church that emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus, she was curious to know about the Blessed Mother, Mary, who is revered in Orthodox Christianity. Brought up on spontaneous prayers, she missed the formal approach to worship. Steeped in modern church music, she longed for the devotional sound of ancient chants.

But change did not come easily. Munoz spent the better part of a year grappling with the hardest decision she had ever made. In February she finally resolved to end her career as a Baptist clergywoman. "That was a very painful experience" she says. "It meant giving up part of my identity. Who was I if I was no longer a Baptist minister?

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