A few months ago, a friend of mine took me to the most interesting place. I had no idea how moved I’d be to participate in this activity. What was a typical Friday night turned out to be an atypical Friday night that was inspirational and very informative. I joined her to assist and watch her church organization help serve meals to the homeless in the inner city of Kansas City.
The Philoptochos of Kansas City’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox church participates in a program, alternating with eight other Orthodox churches in the area for this Friday night meal for the homeless. They brought food that was prepared in their home church to the prep kitchen in the warehouse building of St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church at 31st Troost. 375 meals were served in two hours from 5-7 pm. While I’ve participated in something similar before, I learned much more during this evening. I watched as my friends handled so many hectic situations gracefully and with a genuine, humble spirit of outreach.
When the hectic and fulfilling two hours were over, my friend and I went on a tour led by Fr. Justin Matthews of the church above us on the third and fourth floors. I had never experienced a church atmosphere quite like this before and it lingered on my mind for a couple of months. I revisited St. Mary of Egypt church and interviewed Fr. Justin a couple of months later, taking my husband along with me to share with him the place I found so enriching. The arc of the interview took us on a journey of how this mission church and its programs work. From stories of conversion to the significance of Reconciliation Services program, Patrick and I learned so much. First, I asked Father Justin how he converted to Orthodoxy. I knew that he started off as a musician in Nashville. Being a “cradle” Greek Orthodox person, I am always curious how and why people convert. This is what he shared with me:
He was not raised in a traditionally religious home. His parents belonged to two different religions but were not regular churchgoers so he was not raised with much catechesis. High School was a painful time for him with family transitions. When his mother took him to the Episcopal church youth group, his heart opened up to the gospel and to his new youth pastor. The pastor had a passion for sharing the gospel with teens.
Ironically, Fr. Justin found out later that the youth pastor remembered Fr. Justin as being combative and argumentative as a teen when he debated the points of religion with him. In 1990, Fr. Justin became Christian in an evangelical context within an Episcopal youth group. During this time, he was also in a rock group. He attended SMU for awhile, and later, his time in a music program and internship with a rock band led him to doing folk rock and Christian music, touring churches, youth groups, bars and clubs. His faith grew and he got a record deal. He met his wife and moved to Nashville.
However, he found the music lifestyle very uninspiring and wanted something deeper . While he was studying business and audio engineering, and knowing nothing about Orthodoxy, he looked across the parking lot one day (not on his campus, but nearby) and saw a big icon of Christ. Being at a place of burnout and cynicism, he saw a lambatha candle and said, “what is that?!” He walked over to the building and saw a man with a long beard, rassa (robe), wearing a cassock (clerical clothing) and doing dishes. Pressing his face up against the window, he looked around and saw all these icons and books and asked, “What is this place?“
His wife told him the place looked closed and he answered, “I’m going to knock.” A man came to the door and invited him in. When Fr. Justin inquired, “what is this place?“, the man answered, “The Alektor Cafe and door to Paradise Books.“ Inside, he found books, lights, burning incense, a chapel, iconostasis….all right there in the heart of urban Nashville. (between Vandy and Belmont). He absolutely felt the Holy Spirit come over him. When I asked him what that feels like, he answered, “peace, coming home, goodness, beauty and truth all colliding into one.” “The whole point of being a Christian is being a disciple of Christ…..and more like Christ.” He remembers stating, “I don’t know what this is, but this is it!” Fr. Justin continued to go there to study, use the cafe, attend services in the chapel. It was the symbolism of the place that seemed to be the turning point. Being called the Alektor Cafe, was enlightening in itself. The word “alectryon” is an ancient Greek word for rooster with origins in mythology in which Alectryon, a youth, was chosen to stand guard for Ares and Aphrodite . When he failed at his task, and Helios caught Ares and Aphrodite together, Ares turned Alectryon into a rooster who would never forget to announce the arrival of the morning sun. …”When the cock crows” as the saying goes..
Another connection to this is the story of Peter who realized what he had done when the cock crowed three times. It was then that Peter knew who Christ was. What was symbolic about this is that it was on a Friday night at the eleventh hour that Fr. Justin walked into the chapel and his soul woke up. He realized at that moment how important this epiphany was so he was Chrismated and became Orthodox. Moving back to Kansas City in 2004, he went to St. Vladimir’s seminary in the OCA, moved to New York and worked at a homeless shelter and non profit arena. He became a priest in 2006 and was asked to help start FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) which is like a domestic IOCC. (International Orthodox Christian Charities)Eventually, he became involved with the St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in the inner city of Kansas City. The origin of this church and its programs is such a fascinating story, too. A brief summary of its origins is that an affluent white man, named David, was doing ministry work in the urban core, fell in love with a poor, African American woman twelve years his senior, named Thelma, who was raising her kids and grandchildren in poverty. They married and were disowned by their families. Racial tensions at this time in 1987 were high. It was out of the love and sacrifice of Thelma and David, that they sold their house and moved into the building which is now St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox mission church and Reconciliation Services. Thelma and David became Fr. Paisius and Matushka Michaila, a clergy couple who started this ministry. Later, when Matushka Michaila passed, Fr. Paisius became a monk at Mt. Athos. He received a blessing to return to Kansas City and established a Serbian Orthodox monastery called Holy Archangel Michael.
Years later, the Bishop asked Fr. Justin to transfer to this church and the board asked him to become executive director of its programs. Reconciliation Services is the program there that I was fortunate enough to participate in which led me to discovering the church on the third and fourth floors of this building. The goal of RS is to reveal the strength of everyone they’re serving as they build community. “Not to do for them but to walk with them.” The goal is to move from the Friday night meal to a full fledged cafe (described in the video below) in a fully remodeled building through funding. The parish is growing and the programs help over 3000 unduplicated individuals with Emergency Services annually and have provided over 115 employment opportunities this year alone. It has assisted over 250 women in the last few years with therapeutic services. The program employs 98 people and has programs like the Snap Program which is a mental health program for women after they’ve received emergency services. It focuses on healing the trauma beyond just giving them a job.
In this approximately 120 year old building, we entered a simple but awe inspiring church unlike bigger churches which are more familiar to us.The Bishop’s throne was found by a parishioner at a thrift store and happened to have an eagle on it. (The double headed eagle is an Orthodox emblem).
The candle table is inside the nave which is mostly without pews except for the pew on the side which had to be brought up in three pieces and assembled.I was intrigued by the basket of bells which are used for the children to ring while the Nicene Creed is being said during liturgy.
I had never seen iconography like this before with the African influence. How nice that the parishioners can relate to the icons. I was fascinated to see the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus painted in this likeness. (We are used to the Western image or the Byzantine style.)
Most moving to me was to see an icon “written” in permanent markers. The African saint is shown here with animals.
My husband was riveted, too. After seeing many cathedrals in our lifetime both domestic and abroad, it was humbling to see a church with such simplistic beauty. It reminded us of many similar churches in Greece.Fr. Justin explained a specific icon to us in which the patron saints of Archangel Michael and St. Paisius (below) are holding their building with St. Mary of Egypt above them, standing on Troost with the famous Signal Hill behind them. You can see the Troost mural pictured on the icon. (When Thelma and David became a clergy couple, they took the names Matushka Michaila and Fr. Paisius. Hence, these saints are depicted in this icon holding their beloved church building and the icon of St. Mary of Egypt is above them.)
Fr. Justin showed us another icon of St. Herman of Alaska who was one of first missionaries to spread Orthodoxy to America. He showed us a piece of an old wooden casket from the 1700’s that came to them through a monastic who was the spiritual father of Fr. Paisius, the founder of this St. Mary of Egypt church. Different people brought items from that area to add to this collection box. Deacon Turbo wrote an icon of St. John of Kronstadt who died in the Bolshevik Revolution. Kronstadt was a penal colony where vagrants were sent. St. John was a pastor who performed liturgies and miracles began to happen. He served and counseled the poor. In this icon, he is holding a building that represents a factory because he started the House of Industry. The latter was a felt hat company that employed the poorest people to make felt hats. Reconciliation Services was inspired by St. John of Kronstadt who died in 1914.Deacon Turbo Qualls .
Fr. Justin gave us pieces of frankincense sap from a tree in Ethiopia, Africa.
(When “white flight” happened in this area, churches moved from this area.) They currently are trying to build a shrine to African slaves and martyrs who were actually Christian. One of their clergy, Fr. Moses Barry, loaned the church these leg iron chains, actually worn by his great-grandfather who was a slave on the Boon Plantation in Springfield Missouri. Pictured here is Fr. Justin with my husband.
We held these and felt the weight of them. It was palpable and emotional for me, personally, to see and feel a slave’s chains up close. I learned that there was a Saint Moses who had been a gang leader and Ethiopian slave who was so unruly that his master let him go. When he went into Egypt, in the 3rd century, he marauded and raided a monastery. The monks inside said all they had to give to him was Christ. St. Moses left the gang and became a monk who converted many from his gang. He endured slavery and the life of the streets but later became a monk. Eventually, a Muslim group raided the monastery and beheaded him. (Depicted in this icon.) My youngest son was familiar with St. Moses the Black because he has seen an icon of him on our church’s altar where he is an altar server.
Other favorite icons and images around this church are:So many to display, that I’ll have to write another article….Look up this info: http://www.rs3101.org for information on Reconciliation Services and how to donate. Please consider subscribing to Venerate at the same website for updated information. This moving video explains so much about the program and its members and staff. It has fascinating Americana history in it. Please watch it. (When it loads, you may have to click on the arrow/button at 6 seconds into it to get it started.)
I have been so enriched to experience this part of St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, its clergy, its programs and the spirituality there which glorifies God. … It reminds me of Fr. Justin’s words above regarding the Holy Spirit. ...“peace, coming home, goodness, beauty and truth all colliding into one.”
photos and article by Gina Kingsley