Father Steve Mathewes serves the new Christ the Savior Greek Orthodox Church in Bluff City. Photo by Ned Jilton.
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Not too long ago, Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church in Johnson City had a priest, but no church building to call its own. In Bluff City, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church had a church building, but no priest.
So the Greek bishop and the Antiochian bishop put their heads together and came up with a plan to merge the two parishes under a new name — Christ the Savior Greek Orthodox Church — using Holy Trinity’s building and Holy Resurrection’s pastor, Father Stephen Mathewes.
“When the decision was made to merge the churches, the decision was made to merge them quickly,” Mathewes said. The news came as a surprise to parishioners from both churches as well as to Mathewes, who had headed Holy Resurrection since his graduation from seminary in May 2012.
“We had a very small congregation of between 25 and 30 people. We had a lot of long-term goals and plans, but we did not see this coming,” he said.
The merger that combined the two parishes from different Orthodox jurisdictions had never been done before, Mathewes said. What it has created is a church community that is decades old, yet brand new.
The Orthodox church is seen as ancient, with roots tracing back to the first century. And Mathewes says the Orthodox church is ancient; it has maintained the traditions, theology and worship of the earliest church. However, its faithful don’t see it as ancient — like an artifact — but timeless, living and proclaiming the truth to every time and culture to which it is introduced.
On June 23, the Great Feast of Pentecost, Christ the Savior held its first Divine Liturgy of the new, united Orthodox parish.
“The first Sunday was like a marriage — maybe like an arranged marriage. The first year is getting to know each other, learning our strengths and weaknesses and how we’re going to live with each other,” he said.
Orthodox Christianity is relatively unknown in America and especially in Northeast Tennessee, But, Mathewes said, there are 300 million believers worldwide.
“It’s been slowly coming into America in the last 100 years. The densest populations are found in Alaska, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, eastern Ohio, the Boston area and Los Angeles,” he said.
Both Asheville and Knoxville have Orthodox churches. Holy Trinity was the first Orthodox church in the Tri-Cities, founded in 1984. In 1997, Holy Resurrection was formed.
Orthodoxy, Mathewes said, is fully and completely an expression of the Christian faith. “We do believe and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Orthodoxy is the expression of the original Christian faith ... handed down from the earliest times. It’s a liturgical church. It centers around sacraments. We receive the Eucharist [Holy Communion] every Sunday.”
The word orthodoxy comes from the Greek “orthos” and “doxa,” meaning “correct glory,” or the right belief and right glory given to God, Mathewes said.
“The position of the Orthodox church is we fully embrace and celebrate the worship of Christ in other churches, but along with the belief that what we have here is the original practice established by the early church. It has everything that God wants the church to have. Other traditions have lost some of the elements, or added unnecessary elements,” he said.
Mathewes grew up in Baltimore attending an Episcopalian church. When his parents decided to find a different branch of Christianity, they found the Orthodox church. Mathewes was a music major in college, but because he grew up a “preacher’s kid,” he said, the ministry was always in the back of his mind. After marrying and starting a family, he enrolled at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Christ the Savior represents, in equal measure, the customs and traditions of each parish.
“There are cultural differences between Greek and Antiochian,” he said. “There are very minor differences and details about things that happen during the liturgy. They are just cultural differences. ... We’re all in communion with each other. We believe the same things.”
Membership at Christ the Savior is between 60 and 80 families, with members coming from Greeneville, Erwin, the Beech Mountain, N.C., area, Jonesborough, Abingdon, Gray and Kingsport. There are ethnic Greeks, Russians and Romanians, Mathewes said, “but the biggest slice of the pie is converts like myself.”
The church is led by a parish council with elected officers. There is an active service schedule, with multiple services during the week to provide a natural liturgical rhythm. There are internal ministries, including a church school program for the children and an inquirers class for non-Orthodox adults interested in learning more about Orthodoxy . A women’s group, called the Philoptochos (meaning “friend to the poor”) Society, engages in various outreach activities on local, national and international levels. The church hosts Feed His Flock, a ministry that bakes bread to be distributed at local food pantries. This summer, it hosted the Second Annual Tri-Cities Greek Fest, a festival meant partly as a fund-raiser for the church and its ministries, and partly as a way for the congregation to get to know the greater community, and vice versa.’
Mathewes invites the public to attend Christ the Savior and see what the church has to offer.
“Come and see. One of my biggest missions is to take the mysticism out of the Orthodox church,” he said.