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Religion

Greek Orthodox Cathedral Is Reaching Beyond Ethnic Roots

Ecumenism: St. Sophia Church and its Latino neighbors are finding a unity of spirit that was long lacking.

September 21, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 50 years, the stunning edifice of L.A.'s other cathedral--St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church near downtown Los Angeles--has survived essentially unchanged. This "crown jewel" among Orthodox Christian churches still glitters with imported crystal chandeliers, dramatic religious icons and an interior awash in 24-carat gold leaf. It was designed, says Father John Bakas, to remind worshipers that "light comes from within."

The liturgy remains virtually identical to services offered centuries ago, since the days of the early church--albeit with more English these days than Greek.

But as the golden cathedral approaches its golden anniversary, dramatic changes are taking place inside. Once an insular Greek enclave in the largely poor, crime-ridden Latino neighborhood, the congregation has began to reach out in many directions.

"We can no longer be just an ethnic church," says Bakas, dean of the cathedral. "If you try to stay that way, you will become irrelevant in American society."

In recent years, St. Sophia has helped start a free summer camp for underprivileged youth, raised funds to help provide uniforms for a nearby public school and counseling, art and tutoring programs. After a three-decade hiatus, the church has restarted its annual Greek Festival, which fits its neighborhood by putting a Cuban show band alongside Greek dancing and dolmas up against a margarita booth and tacos with lamb and feta cheese.

Church leaders have spearheaded monthly town hall meetings to bring neighbors together, air concerns to local officials and help the area's immigrant population learn to demand services and participate in the democratic process.

When the meetings first started in 1996, some drew as few as five people. Many immigrants who fled corrupt Latin American regimes without legal papers were fearful of authority figures, church members say. Today, the meetings draw as many as 200 people to quiz representatives from law enforcement, education and government.

And St. Sophia has been a driving force in transforming the neighborhood from an embattled bus corridor between downtown and the Pico district into a bustling business district officially christened the "Byzantine-Latino Quarter." An associated nonprofit corporation, the members of which include St. Sophia, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, two Catholic schools and local merchants, has won more than $3 million in grants for neighborhood improvements such as street cleaning, tree planting, better lighting and art projects.

At the corner of Pico and Normandie, a once-nondescript office building now displays a huge mural of two angels and the quote, "We are each of us angels with one wing. We can only fly embracing each other."

"For the better part of 50 years, we were an island in a sea of Latinos,'' said Ted Pastras, president of the St. Sophia parish council board of directors. "But if you're really there to promote Christianity and do outreach, as Christ did, then you really have to reach out and embrace everyone."

Pastras and others say many of the changes have been sparked by Father Bakas, 56, an effusive, dynamic man who was born in Greece, raised in New Mexico and assigned to Los Angeles in 1995. An amalgamation of spiritual leader and tireless salesman, Bakas rolls out a passionate vision in which religious and civic forces are marshaled to unify neighbors and improve an area troubled by some of the highest crime, poverty levels and unemployment rates in the city.

As the tall, bearded Bakas strolled through the streets in his black clerical garb one day recently, he called out to merchants and passersby in a booming voice and fluent Spanish. At one corner, he pointed out a shopping mall that the absentee landlord was forced to bring up to code after community members alerted city officials to myriad violations.

At El Farolito restaurant, owner Yolanda Rodriguez motioned him inside. "Father, there are some people here who really want to meet you," she said. A group of men were downing burritos smothered with melted cheese and green tomatillo sauce, designated the "Father John Special" on the menu, and they wanted to know if such a man really existed.

"Before Father John came, everyone was isolated and only focused on themselves," said Rodriguez. "He is a blessing to the community because he's brought us all together and made us a community that helps each other out."

The Orthodox priest, who is married with four children, brings his Bible study class to Rodriguez's restaurant every week. He encourages his congregation to also patronize local businesses instead of rushing back to their own suburban neighborhoods after services. "Now I have so many Greek customers," Rodriguez said, a phenomenon that began only after Bakas arrived at St. Sophia.

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