Source: The Daily Record
Next year. Or by Christmas. Or by Easter, churchgoers say. That’s when they’ll be able to move into their church.
Dan Beck, a member of the Prophet Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission, has been helping build the new Ellensburg church for a few years, said he’s heard “next year” a few times.
“We’re doing it literally one step at a time,” he said.
They build, in what used to be a church member’s garage, as they get money.
The church’s priest, the Rev. Paul Jaroslaw, is more cautious with his estimate.
They’ll move in, he said, “as the Lord provides.”
Hanging drywall, wiring lights, readying the church iconostasis to one day hold the elaborate illustrated panels common to Eastern Orthodox churches — it’s become a step-by-step process.
Beck said they plan ahead and build to those plans.
“We’re on a budget, so we have to do it as we can,” he said.
Currently, the church has about 75 members, Jaroslaw said.
Until the church is finished, they’ve been meeting in a church member’s living room.
There was a quick flurry of work in the last few weeks — finishing the basic frame of the iconostasis in front of the altar and sanctuary, hanging icons and cleaning out the church — for a visit from Metropolitan Joseph. The metropolitan leads the Antiochian Archdiocese of North American and, when he was bishop of the West, first gave the Kittitas County mission church blessings to begin.
The current mission, as it is, began with former state Rep. Bill Hinkle and his wife and some other families, who had been making the trek to Yakima for church.
“My wife and I, we drove to Yakima every Sunday for five years,” Hinkle said.
Together, they worked to start an Orthodox Christian mission in Cle Elum in 2004, then, in 2006, the group moved the mission Ellensburg, and in 2010, to church member George Blaisdell’s house.
“We were renting down at Fifth and Water there, at the white house there, and this thing kind of came up. We’d been looking for a place to move to,” Blaisdell said.
They even looked at the old Elks building. Then, Blaisdell found what would be his house and the church, at Dennis Street and First Avenue near Rotary Park, along Reecer Creek.
“As soon as we came on it, it was like, ‘This is it,’” he said. “It was a done deal as we crossed the threshold to the property.”
Blaisdell’s former living room is where church services are held, until the new church is finished in the garage. The longterm plan for the church is to buy the property from Blaisdell.
The living-room church has a small iconostasis and sanctuary for an altar, small icons adorn the room and there are usually enough chairs for everyone.
“There have been days when we’ve just been spilling outside,” Beck said.
Building a mission
Jaroslaw came to Ellensburg from Alaska to serve as the mission’s priest in 2011.
He grew up Jewish in Astoria, New York, and said he was an atheist into his 20s. Around then he moved to Alaska and became an evangelical Christian, and, after a years-long journey starting with long nights with friends reading old Christian texts, he came into the Orthodox church and priesthood.
He was an assistant pastor for an Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River, outside Anchorage. In 1996 his and another family, along with 20 college-age people, went to Homer to build a mission there.
“We just had a sense — it seemed like the will of God to go start a mission in Homer,” he said. There, as it was years before in Eagle River, the process of building a church — the structure and otherwise — was gradual.
They worked over years, building each other’s homes and milling their own lumber from nearby stands of spruce snags, killed by spruce bark beetles, and the congregation slowly grew.
Part of the draw of mission life is the challenge of faith, he said.
“To do this kind of work, you really have to trust that there really is a living God, and that God really does act in your life, and that he comes through; that God provides, that God is good and takes care of us.”
“It’s one thing preaching it when you’re getting a halfway decent salary, you have a nice house, right? It’s a whole other experience actually going to nowhere, the end of the world, because Homer is the end of the world, with no promise of support, and trusting that somehow God really will take care of you.”
Making it their own
Beck was one of the young people with Jaroslaw in Alaska.
Mission work and building churches from scratch isn’t necessarily a unique or specific characteristic of the Orthodox church, he said.
Still, he said, “If you want a place to meet, to worship, you’re going to have to pitch in.”
Beck works in construction in Yakima. Hinkle, who was ordained as a deacon in the church last weekend, knows masonry. Others have helped with the church website, organized music and other do work around the building. Everyone has skills to bring to the table, Beck said.
They’re pretty far along, Beck said. Much of the framing on the church is finished or close, as are the doors, lights and windows. The only part of the building they hired a contractor for was the insulation, he said. A couple of the bigger projects on the horizon are floor tiles and a heat pump.
The way he sees it, the least he can do is offer his time.
“If you really believe that there is some sort of value in your faith, you’re going to want to do everything you can to help promote that,” he said. “It’s not just about me going to church every Sunday, it’s about me playing that very small role in helping to kind of promote the Orthodox church, and helping to grow the Orthodox church in Ellensburg right now.”
Providing the experience of the church services, the ancient and otherworldly feel they can have, is a large part of that, he said. But it helps to have a building.
“The beauty of the service, the beauty of the icons, the beauty of, just, the total sensual experience that you’re having, that’s affecting all of your senses.
“The incense, and the candles, and the icons and the music — I think it’d be a lot easier to help new people experience the fullness of Orthodoxy coming for the first time into a space like this.”
Starting from scratch with a handful of people in someone’s house has its advantages, Jaroslaw said, in that it helps instill a sense of ownership among the congregation.
“There’s nothing wrong with, in big cities, when you go and there’s a Greek Orthodox church, an Antiochian Orthodox church, Russian church, that’s been there for 200 years. It has as much efficacy, as much grace,” he said.
“It’s a whole other experience when you rolled up your sleeves and put in your time, and your energy, and your sweat equity and things like that, and labored for something that you love, because you love it.”
It’s especially meaningful for young church members, he said. It’s not just your parents’ church when you’re involved at this level.
“We have lots of young people,” he said. “Most of our singers are young, they’re 15, 16, 17-year-olds who are learning ancient Byzantine music, who are doing the work building the building, things like that. It connects them.”
Metropolitan Joseph OK’d establishing the missions in Cle Elum and Ellensburg, and called Jaroslaw to Ellensburg from Alaska.
In the Orthodox tradition, a metropolitan functions as an archbishop would in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy; he normally heads the principal archdiocese within a nation. Working with him are other archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons.
For his visit Sunday, he joined in church services, and the mission had Lenten dinner with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.
Metropolitan Joseph said he knew many of the churchgoers as children from past visits, and said he was happy to see all the progress.
“I am proud of them for the work and the improvements, of not only the building, but the quality of people, and of the believers,” said the metropolitan, who was born in Syria and speaks multiple languages.
But metropolitans and priests and deacons don’t make a church, he said. It’s people.
“The whole gathering, the laity and the clergy, this is the church, this is the holy body of Christ,” he said.
Having that community of people means they aren’t thinking about themselves or money or budgets, he said.
“We are thinking of how to prepare a big portion of people to be in the kingdom of God, and we are fixing the entire society by having a healthy community here or there or there or there.”
“The church, we prefer people to be peace makers, to be loving, to be forgiving, to be nice to each other, friendly to each other,” he said. “So we are fixing the society as well, not only worshiping God.”
He said one of the first English phrases he heard coming to the United States was “best kept secret,” in reference to the Orthodox church in America.
“To me, it means nothing,” he said. “Like a shame, to keep using that.”
There are an estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians, according to the church patriarch’s website. Jaroslaw said a recent count found there are maybe 800,000 somewhat-regular churchgoers in the United States, and maybe 2,000 total churches.
Metropolitan Joseph said as more people — he motioned to Jaroslaw and Hinkle — with eloquence and zeal come into the church, more will listen and learn about it.
“We need Orthodoxy to be known by the rest of the nation,” he said.
Sometimes, people mistake him for a Catholic priest, and sometimes he’ll have to recount half the history of Christianity to explain what he does, even to other Christians.
He said the conversation comes back to his archdiocese’s name, from the city of Antioch.
He’ll ask, “Remember the city of Antioch and the time of Jesus’ apostles?”
“‘Oh yeah, yeah, that is the most ancient church,’” he said.
“This is us.”
“‘Wow,’” he said, recalling the dialogues he’s had. “‘You’ve been practicing the faith for 2,000 years?’”
“Yes indeed,” he said. “And we are not tired yet.”
Correction: This article originally misspelled George Blaisdell's name and mistakenly said his first name was Bill.