Growing up in the Washington, DC suburbs, hearing the Divine Liturgy meant driving for half-an-hour, depending on traffic. It was just what was necessary. Naturally, it came as something of a thrill when we took a short vacation to Albuquerque, NM and realized St. George Church was nestled a block from our (reportedly haunted) boutique hotel, the Parq Central. The only thing separating us from the church was a verdant, compact urban park. In fact – and this made my heart jump, too – we could hear the hymns after the Small Entrance of the Liturgy echoing through the thick canopy of trees.
A second first quickly came into view. The worship service was held outdoors, under a sturdy awning, just steps from the parking lot. The closest thing I ever got to an alfresco service was the few times I was part of a Protestant Easter sunrise worship. It was, admittedly, a bit disorienting. Breaking tradition requires an open mind.
Since this Sunday commemorated the repose of Saint John the Evangelist and Theologian, the Rev. Conan Gill, the priest, had much to say about the Apostle that Jesus loved.
“John 3:16 is seen in every (football) end zone,” the priest said before his mostly unmasked flock, a blue backdrop and makeshift altar to the rear. He was referring to the Gospel passage “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Scripture, he went on, “teaches us that communion with God only comes with his incarnate Son. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.” He asked this question: “What does the word “advocate” mean to us in English?” Christ, he explained, “is like a lawyer who will plead our case.”
Following the service, I sat down with Father Gill, a who has led the parish for 11 years. l wanted to learn more about him. He was born a Protestant, a member of the Church of Christ in his hometown of Lubbock, TX. On many Sunday mornings, he confessed, “I started playing hooky from church. I’d go and shoot pool next door. I met this midget.” As he grew older, he remarked that he embarked on a deeper exploration of other ways Christianity is expressed.
“I was looking for the truth,” he declared, offering his unvarnished reason for choosing Orthodoxy over other denominations. However, he assumed Lubbock didn’t have a Greek church he could visit to better inform his curiosity. When he was told by his mother that there was indeed an Orthodox congregation in town, he tried it out. First, though, he had to overcome his fear. “I went three weekends in a row. I sat outside in a park and drank Coca Cola. I didn’t know if I would fit in.”
Finally, he said, with the help of a friend, he went inside. When he saw the iconostasis before him, he hungered to learn more. “I had read about them,” he remembered.” His friend explained that “you don’t read them, you kiss them.” He was also struck by how much weight is given to the New Testament.
After finishing seminary, he was ordained. “My dad said I should put on my collar.” But he didn’t agree with him, arguing that Roman Catholics, which he assumed most of the people in attendance at the funeral he participated in believed he was, “had a hate” for Protestants.
Switching subjects, I asked him about Albuquerque, the heart of the desert southwest with a metro area population of nearly a million residents. “It’s a super interesting place,” he said. “It has the best weather. It’s got its high crime and poor schools. There is a drug problem, big time. But it’s also the friendliest place. People watch out for each other.”
Father Conan is rightly concerned about the relationship today’s young people have with Christianity. He ponders if they have ever gone to church in the first place, or, if they have, will it feed them through their lifetimes. “I was at the car wash. I had my collar on.” A young girl, he said, wondered aloud. She asked “why the funny shirt?’ I told her I lead a congregation.”
He escorted me into the main building, where he gave me a tour of the nave. Following through on his comment about the social ills of his city – not to mention so many other cities in America and beyond – he capped our visit with a flourish that is engraved in my mind. Opening the front doors, he extended his arms into the sun-kissed air, as if to put something in its proper place. “This is where we receive the body and blood of Christ,” he proclaimed, with the energy and vocalese of a fiery orator. “This is where we get our strength – out here.”