St George the Great Martyr, Birmingham, AL

St George the Great Martyr, Birmingham, Alabama, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St George the Great Martyr
Location: Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 26 September 2015, 5:00pm

The building

The 1950s building appears to be a large rectangular prism with panels of solid colored stained glass. The interior is ablaze with colored icons. The iconostasis has panels in front including John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, St George, and others. Above that is another representation of the BVM with the Christ Child, Above the whole is an icon of Jesus surrounded by the four Evangelists and angels. The space was, to me, foreign and familiar at the same time.

The church

The community recently celebrated its Middle Eastern Festival with much food and dancing. The parish provides a meal for people through the Society of the Good Samaritan-Pathways Shelter on a regular basis. The liturgical and educational schedule includes othros and divine liturgy on Sundays, Saturday night vespers and divine liturgy, Wednesday vespers, and an adult study class.

The neighborhood

Birmingham is Alabama's largest city and was once known as the Pittsburgh of the South, in the days when both cities were giants of the steelmaking industry. Heavy industry dominated the city's economy until well into the 1960s. Today Birmingham is still an important manufacturing center, but banking, telecommunications, health services and other 21st century enterprises have grown to take pride of place. In the 1950s and 1960s Birmingham saw prominence in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail here. On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church, with the resulting explosion killing four young African-American girls. The event marked a major turning point in the struggle for civil rights and was a major impetus in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. St George's is located in a residential neighborhood near George Ward Park, which features open meadows, ancient trees, stone buildings dating from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's WPA (Works Progress Administration), great vistas, hiking trails and sporting grounds.

The cast

The Rt Revd Frank J. Milienewicz, pastor, was celebrant and preacher. Reader Joseph Pharo served as cantor.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Vespers and Divine Liturgy

How full was the building?

Not particularly full. As is common in Eastern Rite churches, people came and went throughout the worship time, so it was hard to count. I think 25 or 30 people were there for most of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Some smiles and looks throughout the course of the evening made me feel welcome, although I was not formally greeted.

Was your pew comfortable?

The standard wooden pew was comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was some sound or noise coming from behind the scene during the preparation. I don't know if it was thuribles clinking, acolytes shuffling or other liturgical goings-on or just general hubbub. I could hear the preparatory prayers being said in a loud voice, but I couldnt understand what was being said.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Liturgikon of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.

What musical instruments were played?

None, excepting the bells on the thurible chains.

Did anything distract you?

The sunlight came in, and shafts of sunlight and shadow made a dramatic clock as they moved up the eastern wall of the church. There was too much to see to be distracted. I did notice, however, the sporty sneakers of the acolytes under their damask vestments.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was joyfully formal. There were several processions with celebrant and torches. The liturgy itself was a feast of sight and sound and smell. I believe everything was sung except the sermon. I noticed that the creed did not include the Filioque.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

24 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The sermon was mostly the reading of a letter from Bishop Nicholas James Samra, with commentary from the pastor.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The letter encouraged the faithful to live the faith. The Church is to let down the nets into the culture or society around herself and to share the good news. The people were also reminded of the terrible persecution of the Church in Syria and were asked to welcome refugees from Syria and elsewhere into the Church in America. We were reminded of the two great commandments: love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music and the singing, very well led by Brother Joseph and pretty much sung by all the people there.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I found it difficult to find my place in the book. The music was written out, but I didnt find what was being sung until the canticle or prayer was nearly over. And the written music was an approximation (at best) of what was actually being sung. Worse to me was a particular quality of the incense. I really like incense, but the incense used had an odor reminiscent of a hotel deodorizer.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Not much. I got some smiles from the people leaving church; they seemed pleased that I was among them.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None was offered.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – This was a gorgeous place to visit and the liturgy was wonderfully rich. But I think a steady diet of a liturgy this rich would cloy.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Oh, yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The hotel incense.

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