When I first came to Southbridge, I listen to the stories that the parishioners told me about the founding and building of this church. The history of a parish is more about the people and the mission than about buildings and grounds and it is good to listen to their stories. I learned many things about this place that I have called home for almost nine years now, it started small, the first church was built almost by hand by the parishioners themselves, and they struggled to keep the doors open for almost 90 years. But the story that sticks in my mind the most is the one that almost all of them told, they believe that God made it possible for them to purchase the land the Church now sits on.
In 1923, Macedonian/Romanian immigrants decided that they wanted their own Church. They had been here in Southbridge for more than a decade and had been worshipping in people’s homes and other places and it was time to put down permanent roots. They looked for property close to where they all lived and worked and this 5 acres of land became available. They raised funds and purchased this land, made possible, they believe, by prayer.
This little Church has done some wonderful work all of these years not only for the parishioners but for the community at large. Our newest ministry is the Community Meal program that we began almost 4 years ago. Last year we served more than 1700 meals from our Parish Hall to our friends and neighbors. We are striving to be the hands and feet of Christ in our Community.
But Southbridge has its problems and the Church is located in a neighborhood tucked behind houses on a dead end street. We have no “drive by” appeal and for the most part, the people in this Town do not even know we exist. Oh sure they have heard about us, but do they really know us. Someone said that the way you know if you have had an impact on the Community would be if your doors were to close tomorrow, would any know you were gone? These are all important issues to think about, or are they?
Orthodox Christians believe that we are the Church of Jesus Christ. Our theology is the same as that that was handed on by the Apostles in an unbroken tradition or worship and prayer. Our theology has been tested by the Communists and others who wished to exterminate the Church from the face of the earth and survived. We are different than any other Church, we have a difficult time assimilating into new cultures, but there are not many places where the Orthodox Church is not.
We do not go out on the street and shout at the top of our lungs that the end is near, we do not hold tent meetings on the Town Common, not that these are wrong, they are just not what we do. We evangelize the world by how we live, Orthodox is not a religion, a set of morals, or a denomination, Orthodoxy is a life style, we are Orthodox 24/7. The light that comes from us is our Evangelical witness and simply say to people who inquire about Orthodoxy, come and see.
Churches, like mine here, who have been given a place to minister by God should not simply abandon that place. Yes the neighborhood around us has changed. When the Church was first built on this spot, the houses around it were owned, for the most part, by parishioners. They have moved and new people have moved in. New immigrants looking for a new life, have purchased those homes and now call the “Holy Hill” home. But this is where God placed this Church to minister.
I am familiar with all of literature on where you should build a church. I know all about the “windshield survey” of the neighborhood when church planters come to town. Every few months a new “storefront” church will open in Southbridge and within a few months they are gone, but Orthodoxy has been in this Town for more than 100 years! Why, I believe, it is because we have not abandoned our mission.
Yes our church is located on a back street tucked away behind houses of a neighborhood that has long forgotten about us, but this is where God has placed us, this is our promised land and how can we simply walk away from it? When is the last time someone came to a church because they were driving by and thought, “hmmmm let’s go there on Sunday?” It has never happened since I have been here.
People come to Holy Orthodoxy not because they saw the Church, they come to Holy Orthodoxy because God has sent them, they were invited by someone they know, or they saw the work of the Church in the Community. We are not a supermarket or strip mall, we do not need “drive by” appeal to bring people to the Church. We need holiness and fidelity to the mission and spirituality of the Church. We need to pray for those who God has already chosen to come here and we need to live our lives in a way that people will want to know more about this Church that we belong too.
I told my parishioners in my sermon at the Vigil Service on Great and Holy Pascha that we are the light that has come into the darkened world. We are the ones that need to be that light in the midst of the storm, the light that is not fazed by this or that popular theology. We need to be like the lighthouse, standing tall in the storm guiding the way home. If we do all of that, and we are faithful to our mission, then God will continue to send people to this place that God granted to us so many years ago.
Bloom where you are planted because it is where God placed you!