by Paul Kirby
During the floods of October 2015, several areas of southern Lexington County were hit hard by rising waters from torrential rains. Emergency officials responded with the resources that they had, but were often overwhelmed by the number of calls for assistance. During this time, I personally began receiving calls and messages asking me if I knew anyone who could do anything for the people who lived here and felt their needs weren’t being met. With little more than a smart phone in hand and my young children in tow, I set out in the old black Ford Explorer my children had taken to jokingly referring to as “The Ledger’s News Hound” to see what we could do to help. We covered many miles and answered as many calls for help as we could. The News Hound banged down more rained washed, deeply rutted roads than I care to recall in some of the most remote areas of Lexington County.
Although I had served many years as a career firefighter with Lexington County, and knew most of the backroads like I know my own wife of 23 plus years, I still learned something new on every road we touched. We saw fallen trees in Batesburg-Leesville, homes underwater completely on Ben Franklin Road, and heavy, cast-iron manhole covers that seemed to be levitating as flood waters pushed them up from underneath in Cayce and West Columbia. In Pelion we met families whose homes were surrounded by hip-deep water, wading to high ground with their small dogs in tow on inner tubes, just so the animals could relieve themselves. We saw what I expected, given the amount of rain that had fallen in a short time, but we also saw some things I never, ever expected to run up on or knew existed in the communities I thought I knew so well.
One thing that really took me by surprise was a small, concrete block church at the intersection of Clay Hill and Cherry Blossom Roads just southeast of Pelion. This church had a sign out front that identified it as Saint Katherine’s American Orthodox Church. The sign also had a curious style cross emblazoned on it that had more parts to it than I was used to seeing at the area’s Pentecostal, Baptist, and Methodist churches that seemed to inhabit every corner of our community.
This little church sits on a small patch of ground that’s hewn out of a broom straw field literally in the middle of nowhere. All roads leading to it are covered in washboard ripples that shake your car and entire body as you approach. In the rain, the roads are covered with puddles that threaten to make your vehicle to slide out of control and into the surrounding fields. Here, in this remote spot, a small gathering of parishioners practice the ancient Christian faith of orthodoxy.
Several months after the floods, I had the pleasure of corresponding with the rector, or pastor, of that church through Facebook and then later by e-mail. As I am a curious type of fellow, I asked him about the strangely shaped cross, and exactly what an orthodox church was. As I had heard of the Russian and the Greek Orthodox Church, I wasn’t entirely in the dark about the existence of this religion, but when I thought of those faiths, I pictured great cathedrals with large golden onion shaped domes, not the little block building I had encountered.
During the Christmas holidays of 2015, I saw on Facebook that the bishop of the American Orthodox Church was visiting Saint Katherine’s on Christmas day. This bishop is based out of New York City and the fact that he was spending Christmas in Pelion, pushed me over the edge. I had to know more about the little block church and why this most important church leader was coming to “the sticks” on Christmas day. Through Facebook, I once again contacted Father Tony Bryant and made arrangements to meet him at Saint Katherine’s between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
On the evening of our meeting, the roads did nothing to welcome me to Saint Katherine’s. It had been raining on and off for several days and The News Hound banged across the ruts and slid precariously in the mud as if the road seemed determined to prevent the encounter. When I pulled up, there was no paved parking area, just a small patch of short grass where two small cars were already stopped. The few steps to the front door were worn and the doors were welcoming certainly, but nothing fancy I assure you. There was that funny cross again; three crossbars, one tilted at an odd angle, while the others were perfectly horizontal. Nothing on the outside led me to believe that there would be anything different on the inside from the hundreds of small, backwoods churches I’ve visited.
Once I opened the doors and proceeded in, my senses were assailed with a beautiful smell; I got cinnamon and other sweet fragrances that were present, but not overpowering. I entered into the narthex, a small entry room set apart from the rest of the sanctuary by a set of doors that led into the main sanctuary. Through those doors, the lights of many small candles beckoned me forward to the larger room in the building where Father Tony and the church’s board chairman, Sam Sebring, met me with hearty handshakes and kind words that made me feel right at home.
As soon as you enter the sanctuary, there is beautiful art that abounds. Paintings of saints and other religious figures that include Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, heavy with golds, blues, and deep reds, are positioned strategically around the room. Just inside the doors, two small bowls of holy water are available so that the faithful can dip their fingers and make the sign of the cross on the chest and foreheads as do Catholics and members of other more formal religions. There’s a sand pit that sits atop a stand just inside the doors where members can light a candle in honor of the saints and leave them standing there to burn down to nothing safely. There are just a few folding seats in the sanctuary, and on one side are the remnants of the former pews that have been fashioned into a baptismal pool, complete with painted livestock watering tank, for immersion baptisms.
As I wandered around the room, I had a thousand questions about the unfamiliar things I saw. Father Tony and Sam did their best to answer my question as thoroughly as possible. The two explained that all the art are called icons, and each told a story of the ancient eastern faith right out of the Christian Bible. These were stories I knew; stories like the account of John the Baptist, baptizing Jesus in the river. They were stories that I had learned in my upbringing in the Lutheran Churches of the Chapin area of the county. These stories had been cemented in my mind in many of the little Pentecostal churches I’ve attended as well.
I learned that the strange extra legs of the cross I had wondered about symbolized the sign that hung over the head of Christ as he hung on the cross and a rest where his feet would have been nailed. In the orthodox cross, the foot piece is skewed at an angle to represent the salvation the thief that hung beside Christ received at the end through Jesus’ love and kindness.
Some of the icons had small olive oil lamps alight in front of them, signifying that these were Saints that had performed great miracles. Near the altar, there’s a handmade tree of sorts, much like an ornate coat rack for lack of a better term that had a small incense pot hanging from it that’s used during the services. To one side, a bell is mounted on the wall that is rung to assemble the congregants and to call to order the services. In a corner behind the altar is the Holy of Holies, a special place for some of the church’s most prized icons and symbols used by the congregation. This is very much like the great temples of Jesus’ time.
Father Tony and Sam explained that in the orthodox faith, there are no modern interpretations of the Bible. In this case, I’m not necessarily speaking of the differing languages and versions in regard to ones like the King James or the New American Interpretation; rather I am referring to the doctrine of the Bible. In their faith, the only interpretation of the Bible that is taught are the interpretations of the Bible made by the Apostles who were taught by Jesus and were tasked with spreading the church, and it’s teaching and word, after his death. Basically, if it’s not in the Bible in a literal sense, it’s not taught. People of the orthodox faith believe the Bible should transform the world rather than the world transforming the Bible.
The Orthodox American Church observes many of the celebrations and ceremonies that other churches do, although they might be called something else. The service or meeting is called the Liturgy, the Eucharist is what’s more commonly known as communion or the Lord’s Supper in other churches, and catechism is a period of time where the young and new converts learn about the church before joining and being baptized.
Prior to each service, congregants are urged to give the Pastor a note with specific prayer requests written on them. At the appointed time, the Pastor lifts those requests up to God so that he might hear the prayers and answer in his own way.
During the Liturgy, the Psalms are read from the Bible depending on the season of the church and the day of the season. Later, the Epistle, a reading from the books of the Bible, is also given. These are also done by the week of the church’s season.
During the Liturgy, there are a lot of responsive readings, a portion of service that’s common in more formal churches like the Catholic and Lutheran Church. During these times, the pastor, or leader of the service, reads a specific portion of the service and then the congregation, or laity, answers with a specific response. In some cases, the women respond to one portion of the reading while the men respond to another. The sermon, or main lesson, actually takes a very short period of time, usually lasting about 15 minutes. During other times of the service, the deacons take an active part in the leading of the congregation.
During the actual services, there are hymns sung like most of the churches I’ve attended before. At Saint Katherine’s, hymns lean toward the more formal or traditional type. During the Christmas season, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a very old and traditional hymn of the season that’s was well known to me was sung. There is also a time provided where congregants can confess their sins to the pastor and seeks God’s forgiveness from their sins. It’s important to note that the forgiveness comes from God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and not from the father or formal leader of the church.
With all of this ancient eastern culture, art, and beauty present, I had to ask Father Tony what kind of people attend Saint Katherine’s. With a wide grin on his face he answered,
“They’re not Greek Orthodox and they’re not Russian Orthodox, they’re Southern, pea-pickin’, American Orthodox Christians.”
He pointed out that even though he often wears a clerical collar like some other religious leaders in our part of the world, and he usually wears long black robes during the services at Saint Katherine’s, many of the congregants are just like you and me. As proof of this, he offered the following example. In planning for the recent Christmas visit of the bishop, one of the faithful made it clear that even a visit from the most powerful and influential leader of the church would not take precedence over the end of South Carolina’s whitetail deer season. Many of Saint Katherine’s members are blue jean wearing, blue collar folks who have more camo shirts than neckties in their closets.
Several times during this writing, I have referenced eastern culture and the churches of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. By eastern, I don’t in any way mean Myrtle Beach, Charleston, or the other beach enclaves of the coastal regions of South Carolina or America’s other Atlantic states. By eastern, I mean the eastern European countries like Russia, and the Greek Isles, along with parts of Africa, and the Orient. What makes the American Orthodox Church different from these other religions is that the American Orthodox Church conforms to the American calendar and its observances like the Fourth of July, Memorial and Labor Days, and Christmas on December 25th. The orthodox congregation in a field near Pelion has absolutely no affiliation to the Russia of Vladimir Putin, America’s cold war adversary of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and into the 80s that often had us wondering if we might someday come under attack from the commies. In fact, this ancient, eastern religion is all about tradition, grace, peace, beauty, and the teaching of the men who walked beside Christ during his time on earth.
Each of us as human beings have common needs and desires. We long for food, shelter, and safety from the cold. We want comfort and companionship, someone who will love us, and someone who will grow with us as we get older. At various points in our lives, we need to believe in a higher power. We need to believe that miraculous healing is still possible when someone we know is very sick. We want to believe that someone, a powerful being, is in control of our lives when we seem as if we can’t control our lives ourselves.
In the toughest times of our lives, we really want to know that we can turn to someone through prayer and meditation to help us solve un-solvable problems. To find these comforts, we often turn to organized religion. Some of us like the less formal, less scripted, more charismatic religions that are readily available in our communities; the holy-roly, run the aisle, slain in the faith types of religion you might find in the modern day Pentecostal or Assembly of God churches. Some long for the entertaining, rock show religion you can find at modern day mega-churches that many larger cities have nowadays. Other might respond more openly to a church whose customs are born from thousands of years of tradition, ones who use ancient icons for teaching, and those that cherish beautiful relics as a part of their everyday lives. If the latter appeals to you, Saint Katherine’s is an option you should explore.
In truth, I found St Katherine’s to be interesting, intriguing, and welcoming. Its atmosphere is both beautiful and consuming. It totally immerses your body and senses in a peaceful, relaxed state; a state where one can draw closer to God.
Father Tony is a large, jovial man with a reddish beard, and a permanent smile on his face. Sam is a slight man that appears excited and extremely well versed when he talks about his church. They both worked patiently with me and didn’t ever appear as if I were inconveniencing them with one more question.
Father Tony has a strong desire to be a part of the Pelion community and wants to know the great people that abound here personally. As most small, mission church pastors, Father Tony is bi-vocational, and works full time at Blue Cross – Blue Shield in northeast Richland County. He has a young family and hailed from the Memphis area of Tennessee prior to venturing here following work. I found him and Sam to be extremely likable, the kind of fellows I’d enjoy watching a football game with, or hanging around a pit or fire barrel while a hog roasts slowly over open coals. In short, these guys are just like most of us.
If you are interested in the traditions, pageantry, art, and beauty of the American Orthodox Church, the congregation of Saint Katherine’s welcomes your visit and questions. I think everyone should go once, if for no other reason than to broaden their horizons. The church is located at 1050 Clay Hill Road in Pelion. The congregation meets each Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. You can also learn more about the church by going to their website at www.saintkatherineorthodoxchurch.org.