When a person decides to live abroad for a year, they anticipate a certain amount of cultural exchange. We certainly did, and that exchange has been funny, frustrating, and enlightening. However, I must admit that we have experienced new culture in some unexpected places. Perhaps the most unanticipated of those was in Christianity itself.
Where we have come from
Religion feels a bit “old hat” to us. Or perhaps it is better to call religion a “comfortable but unfashionable pair of old jeans.” We both have been aware of God as long as we have had awareness of ourselves. We grew up in churches. Daniel went to seminary after his undergraduate degree; I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree.
Our faith is a huge player in our lives and our love for God informs a lot of what we do. BUT. We – like many, many people before us – have grown critical of the Evangelical churches where we grew up. We still love them, but we see their flaws. The Evangelical church is to us like that crazy uncle who you dread talking to at holidays and certainly don’t want your friends to meet, but whom you still love. It’s just complicated.
So is the Evangelical church for us, both in American and in Moldova. We’ve half-heartedly attended different iterations of this church: the Moldovan “mega church”, the international non-denominational church, the fiery Pentecostal church where the preacher has been speaking exclusively on the book of Revelations for over a year.
All these churches feel painful for us in various ways, or they remind us characteristics we really dislike in American Evangelical churches.
And where we went with that
So what have we done? We’ve gone exploring, religiously speaking. Though not too far, because Moldova is not a diverse country. 90% or so of people are Eastern Orthodox. The rest are nonreligious, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim – though the numbers for each of these groups is quite small. (Seriously, I had no idea Moldova even had a mosque until I researched for this blog post. Apparently there is one in Chișinău!) So as far as our “exploring,” we are more like kids who sleep out in a tent in their own backyard and call it camping.
But despite how small and safe our religious travels have been, they have also been very uplifting. We have been able to experience God in different ways and to think more broadly about how faith intersects with culture.
The Catholic Church
Daniel and I talked for a while about wanting to visit the Catholic Church in Chișinău before we actually went. Every week they have services in Russian, Romanian, Polish, and English. The English service is Saturday evenings at 5 PM, and the first visit I went alone. Daniel was back in the U.S. for a work trip.
I remember running late and messaging my college roommate Amy (who grew up Catholic) to ask whether it was a major faux-pas to arrive late to a Catholic service. She assured me it was not, and I quickly realized just how right she was.
Off to an interesting (and sweaty) start
When I arrived, there was a man standing at the door and greeting people. I instantly became unreasonably awkward, asking hurriedly if I could enter the sanctuary or if I should wait. “I’m not Catholic,” I tried to explain to the man, who looked of Indian origin and for whom English was a second language. But he was very nice about it – even though I’m not sure he fully understood me – and he motioned for me to enter.
I was surprised to see only 3 or 4 people in the sanctuary when I sat down. (Amy was right…it’s definitely okay to run late). I closed my eyes and attempted to be peaceful when suddenly the same man from the door approached me again. He handed me a little pamphlet and then asked me to do the first reading. I totally fumbled: two different parts were at war within me. The people pleasing part said “YES of course!” and the realistic part said, “WTF – do I look like I have any clue what I’m doing??” I ultimately answered with some combination. “Um…yeah…sure….I can try, but I don’t really know how.” He was not abashed. “Why don’t you take the second reading then?”
I then started to nervous sweat and continued to do so as I mimicked the actions of the rest of the congregation (15 people by now) through the beginning of the service. When they stood, so did I; when they sat, I followed. Finally, the priest (turns out the man from the door was the priest) motioned me up to the pulpit with a wave of his hand. Although I was in mime mode and had seen other people bowing at the altar as they approached the pulpit, I decided to forgo that part, not knowing if it was a special thing only Catholics could do. So I stiffly walked up to the pulpit and did my reading, nervous sweating all the while.
I didn’t know what to expect, but not this
After the reading I finally returned to my seat and breathed easily for the first time. And believe it or not, I felt lovely. I came to that church with the assumption that Catholicisim is beautiful, rigid, and cold like marble. But the priest invited me to partake in the service without any question of my religious background…without any pretentiousness. I’m not going to say that the Catholic Church is the bastion of all hygge, but I was completely surprised by how inclusive this particular service felt. I didn’t feel like an outsider, reminded and chastised for not holding specific beliefs. And that is something I have increasingly felt in certain Evangelical churches.
Even though I bolted after that particular service, Daniel and I have been back multiple times and have met different priests and parishioners. Always we feel welcome and included. (And yes, we both continue to do readings from the pulpit when asked.) We haven’t met best friends there and we don’t plan to convert to Catholicism, but we are truly enjoying our time at the Catholic services. The international parishioners all bring their interesting histories, and everyone is gracious when any of the ESL speakers (the priest included) stumble over an English word.
We also savor the calm and holy atmosphere: the stained glass, the organ and choral music, the reliable liturgy.
I do think this Saturday evening Catholic service might be somewhat unique. A small, international, and yet diverse community practicing a minority religion in an oft-forgotten country? I’m not sure where we might find this again. But it has opened our eyes to a different religious tradition. And although we truly are just camping in our own backyard, the little kid in me is still thrilled nonetheless.
The Orthodox Church
Our next place of adventure was the Orthodox Church. Now, if you will recall, we have visited Orthodox churches before. But we have never been for an actual service. As with the Catholic Church, I think fear of the unknown (particularly fear of doing something wrong in a service we don’t understand) runs pretty deep. I felt this even more in regards to the Orthodox Church than the Catholic Church.
However, we received a direct invitation from Doamna Silvestru (CONNECT TO LINK AND TITLE) to visit the small Orthodox church located on the school property where she is director. And she gave us clear enough instructions to embolden us to actually go.
Here’s the thing: Orthodox church services run for hours…and there’s no place to sit. So it has always felt to us like too great of an investment for a simple exploratory visit. (On the flipside, the Catholic mass finishes in 45 minutes or less…so the time commitment is very manageable.)
Doamna Silvestru uttered the magic words by telling us that the church service starts at 9:30 AM and goes until 11:30 or so BUT “we really shouldn’t arrive until 10:30 or later.” Hooray! Another example of being acceptably tardy!
This time I really had no expectations
So that very Sunday – despite a sore throat and a fever the day before – we ventured out to the Orthodox Church. I wore my dress and a head covering, and Daniel, too, put on something a little more proper. As we approached the church building, we heard choral music wafting out to us from the windows high up on the walls and ceiling.
We walked up the stairs, pulled open the heavy doors, and instantly met a quasi-wall of humans and heat. The church was one circular room in which 1/3 was a holy place for the priest that was partitioned off from the rest of the room; 1/3 was empty space for the priest to move around and invite parishioners forward for various activities, and the final 1/3 was standing room for said parishioners. I couldn’t see the choir anywhere, though I did see a set of stairs leading up to a balcony behind me and I assume they were there.
Daniel and I squished ourselves directly in front of one of the double doors we had just entered. Our entire time there I shuffled to and for as people opened the doors to enter or exit the church.
My general impressions of this church
Which brings me to one of my most interesting observations. Unlike in American churches, there is no sense of a set program, of giving all your attention and respect to a speaker for a certain amount of time. In the Orthodox Church there is constant movement. Of course, the Priest is perpetually moving and blessing and chanting and whatnot. But while he is doing his priestly thing, the congregation is just as active. People are entering and exiting: buying candles from a table in the back corner and then leaving to place and light them outside.
There are small children who start fussing, and bigger children coloring in whatever small piece of space they can find. And we were not the only visitors to stay just a short amount of time. In fact, a couple with a small child arrived after us and left when we did.
In some ways the service seemed more legalistic in that parishioners came to complete certain important activities. For example, children were blessed and fed something by the priest. This seemed like a big deal to parents. Or perhaps the important part was the buying and lighting of the aforementioned candle. Either way, I can see how a religion could become oppressive if it is defined in large part by prescribed actions that MUST be completed.
But on the other hand, I myself felt a bit of freedom in the Orthodox church. Of course that freedom was diminished in this first visit by my trepidation of the unknown. But in general, I felt free to find and experience God as I pleased. I could listen to the choral music, admire the many Biblical paintings, feel empathy for the hot mess of humans gathered together in that small space in this poor, forgotten country. Or I could simply pray.
For us the Orthodox Church was a bit more mysterious than the Catholic Church. But still, I think, an adventure of camping in our own backyard.
Some Final Thoughts
I don’t know that I have given you, the reader, an adequate sense of the how and what and why we have enjoyed in this religious “exploration.” But believe me when I say that we have. This year has been a time of growth for us in many ways, and one major area has been our faith.
It has been refreshing when we are frustrated with Evangelical Christians here and back home in the U.S., to find other church communities that cause us to pause and consider how God might look in different settings.
But there is an important caveat to remember in all of this exploration. And that is that it is OUR exploration. For another person the story could have gone the opposite way.
For example, consider two theoretical Carolyns: the one writing this post and another in an alternate universe we shall call The UpsideDown (this is becoming Religions 101 for Stranger Things fans). The Carolyn living in the UpsideDown grew up Catholic and for her that church is the crazy uncle. She feels oppressed after a lifetime in the Catholic Church. For her, an Evangelical church is actually the breath of fresh air that opens up new doors to experience God.
I guess the point is that I don’t really care what the door is, I just want both me and my UpsideDown self to be experiencing God in new and liberating ways. All of these religious institutions without exception harbor dark pasts and make excuses for histories of all kinds of abuse. But somewhere in each of these institutions God is still present and what a fun adventure to find Him there.