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Different cultures unite in same faith
by Gina Kim - Tribune staff reporter
Source: Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2005

Peppered throughout the religious service were the same words murmured in different languages. Whether in Serbian, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Ukrainian or English, the approximately 600 Orthodox Christians gathered Sunday in a Palatine church were all saying, "Lord have mercy."

Celebrating the first Sunday of their Lent, members of 60 area parishes gathered at St. Nectarios Greek Orthodox Church in Palatine. It is one of the few times each year that the groups, separated by heritage, come together to observe their shared religion.

"We are one church even though we are ethnically divided," said Rev. Nicholas Dahdal of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero.

Billowing incense and singsong prayers were interspersed with a cappella choir music. The pinnacle of the service came when about 60 bishops, priests and deacons walked in a procession, each carrying a wood frame with a painted portrait of a saint.

Ancient ritual symbolism is central to Orthodox Christianity and Sunday's service, or the Sunday of Orthodoxy, celebrates the return of religious icons in the year 843 after an effort to suppress them. All of the attendees recited a proclamation, said only on this occasion each year, venerating icons.

That was the service's climax for Rev. Dennis Pavichevich of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. "The voices were united--that in itself is very powerful," he said.

Hearing the different groups saying the same words was a profound experience, said Jessica Maple, 23, who is converting to Orthodox Christianity.

"It was wonderful to hear people from all the different parishes say what we believe," said Maple, who is joining Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Chicago. "It gave me the goose bumps."

While sharing many of its central beliefs and practices with Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox church split in 1054 over political and theological differences. As Orthodox Christianity spread, independent churches were established in different countries and imbued with various cultures.

Immigrants brought their church traditions to the United States. But as subsequent generations have integrated into American society, many question the wisdom of remaining separate. Together, they could become one of the largest churches in the country with 7 million members, about 300,000 in the Chicago area, Dahdal said.

"We do waste many resources because we are divided," he said. "People see us as Serbians and Russians ... when we are Americans."

Sunday's service wasn't necessarily a step toward unification of the church's administration, but it does paint a picture of what an ethnically diverse congregation would look like.

"The most unique dynamic of the service is not the service itself but the fact that the Orthodox Christians from various jurisdictions come together," said Rev. Demetri Kantzavelos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago. "We have the whole Orthodox Christian family there."

Although the service was mainly in English, the 30 songs and responses were sung in more than seven languages demonstrating the vast reach of the Orthodox church, said Gordana Trbuhovich, who is founder of the Pan-Orthodox Choir of Greater Chicago.

"I personally love the gathering of all the Orthodox brothers and sisters for one common prayer," she said. "It makes you feel part of the greater picture."

Katherine Charnota, 75, a member of St. Michael's Orthodox Church in Niles, said that is the reason she attends the multi-ethnic service year after year. "It is so significant and uplifting when you see all the different nationalities and the different Orthodox branches join together and revere the icons," she said.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

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