For the Orthodox faithful, church is `ark of salvation'

Congregation: The members at St. Matthew's, who will break ground for a new building in 2002, say they `don't compromise the faith.'

October 19, 2001|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ask the average Howard County resident what the Orthodox Church is all about, and chances are the response will be muddled. The Rev. Raymond Velencia, rector of Columbia's Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, is familiar with the misunderstandings."[People think] you have to be Greek to be Orthodox, you have to be Russian to be Orthodox, but no - the church is for everybody; she's the ark of salvation," he said.

"In Greece, in Russia, in Serbia, in Romania, in the Middle East, where the Orthodox Church predominates, people just call it `the church' ... because that's all there is."

Many Americans assume - incorrectly - that the Orthodox Church is a branch of Roman Catholicism, he said.

"We share over 1,000 years of one history [with Roman Catholicism]. ... We have much more in common than we have different ... but we do part company with them over some very significant issues."

Orthodox Christians trace their roots directly to the first church in Jerusalem. Most of the Christian sites there are owned by the Orthodox Church, Velencia said.

With that heritage, Christians at St. Matthew's have no doubts about who they are.

"Orthodoxy is simply the Christianity that was taught by Christ and handed down to his apostles, and therefore it's reality, it's the truth, it's what there is," said longtime parishioner Warren Gray of Bethesda.

"If you want to find it, it's here," said associate priest Duane Johnson, a former Lutheran who converted to the Orthodox faith.

"We don't compromise the faith by saying that we're just one of many denominations," Velencia said. "We are `The Church' with a capital T C."

The Orthodox Church of St. Matthew was founded as a mission outreach in 1988 by an Air Force chaplain, the Rev. Gregory Pelesh, who was stationed at Fort Meade. Within a year of its founding, Velencia became the priest. As the parish grew, it moved its worship services from Fort Meade to the neighborhood center in Long Reach, then to the Kings Contrivance Village Center and finally to its current location at Slayton House in the Wilde Lake Village Center.

St. Matthew's growth continues as it plans for its most significant move yet. The congregation jointly owns land, along with the Cornerstone Community Church of God, near Kings Contrivance Village Center.

The site, named Kings Contrivance Interfaith Campus, eventually will accommodate separate facilities for each congregation. Architectural drawings for the new St. Matthew's sanctuary are complete, and the church expects to break ground for the building in 2002.

Next to the interfaith property, St. Matthew's operates a home for 15 physically disabled adults. The $1.6 million St. Matthew House opened two years ago to provide an "accessible, affordable environment in which [these individuals] can continue to be independent and productive members of the community," Velencia said. It is, he said, the only facility of its kind in Maryland and a "pioneering kind of project."

But, St. Matthew's parishioners say, their church is more than buildings or a cherished set of traditions - it is a way of life and a community of believers.

Nearly 20 ethnic backgrounds are represented in the congregation, which numbers about 250 people. Half of the congregation members were not raised in the Orthodox faith, Velencia said. Because of this diversity, services at St. Matthew's, unlike many Orthodox congregations of one culture, are held entirely in English.

"I had been searching and going to different churches a long time," said Sharon Garber of Taneytown. "When I came here, it felt like home."

"It's about love," said Pauline Garrett of West Friendship, [and] "a relationship with God and his people."

Sunday services reflect the traditions of St. Matthew's and its commitment to a community. Elegant icons, lavish vestments, golden chalices, red candles, incense-filled censers and white-robed altar boys are prominent.

But wiggling children are welcomed to the Divine Liturgy, worshipers exchange a "kiss of peace" as part of the prayers, and tables of pastries, snacks and beverages encourage worshipers to stay and chat after the service.

"It's not a ... forbidding church," said Aisling Gray, who travels from Bethesda each Sunday with her husband, Warren; son Aidan, 5, and daughter, Zoe, 3. "It's a very supporting community."

The Orthodox Church of St. Matthew

Denomination: Orthodox Church in America

Leadership: The Rev. Raymond Velencia, rector; the Rev. Duane Johnson, associate priest

Size: 250 members

Location: Slayton House, Wilde Lake Village Center, Columbia

Date founded: 1988

Phone: 410-992-0608

Worship services: Divine Liturgy in English from 9:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Sundays, followed by refreshments and fellowship hour. Adult education weekday evenings: Call for information.

Children's program: Church School (age 3 through high school) is from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. Sundays. No nursery; children attend Divine Liturgy.

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