|891: St George, Brooklyn, New York, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda
The church: St George, Brooklyn, New York, USA.
Denomination: Coptic Orthodox.
The building: Located at the corner of 67th Street and 11th Avenue, in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood, this church is a rather plain red brick structure from the outside. Inside, however, one ascends a staircase to the church auditorium, which is painted white, with light oak paneling and pews, and is illuminated by brass and crystal chandeliers and wall sconces. Gilded icons abound. Over the sanctuary is an icon depicting the Last Supper, with all of the apostles facing Christ except for Judas, who faces away and does not wear a halo. Icons to the left of the sanctuary illustrate various scenes from the life of Christ; those to the right are of St George and other saints. The side walls bear large icons of the four evangelists. Red carpeting lines the floor, and the windows are of plain opaque glass. The sanctuary itself was shut off from view via oak doors.
The church: The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origin back to the evangelist St Mark. Mark traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, at some time between AD48 and 61, and established a church there. He journeyed briefly to Rome, where he remained until the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul in AD64, but not before ordaining a bishop, three priests, and seven deacons to look after his fledgling church while he was away. He returned to Alexandria and was martyred there in 68. The present Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III is the 117th successor of St Mark.
The neighbourhood: The Dyker Heights neighborhood is a narrow, rectangular, lower-middle-class strip made up of an eclectic mixture of Italian, Hispanic, Russian, and Asian families. The neighborhood features neat, well-kept row houses, apartment buildings, and private homes. It is famous for its holiday displays - residents go to every extreme to outdo each other with lawn decorations and lighting arrangements, not only at Christmas but also (and especially) at Halloween.
The cast: Rev. Mina K. Yanni, archpriest; Father Jeremiah (did not get his full name), assistant priest; and three cantors whose names were not given.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About 20 people were present; the church holds maybe 150. The congregation was divided equally between men and women. Men sat to the left and women to the right.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I arrived early to take photographs before people began to enter. I approached two gentlemen to inquire about the details of the service. Both were cordial once I approached them, but I had to make the first move. One (who spoke better English than the other) explained to me the general layout of the church auditorium, the meaning of the various icons, and the seating arrangements (men separate from women).
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. I was surprised to find both pews and kneelers, and both were comfortable. The congregation stood for the entire service, except that it sat during the sermon and knelt during the penitential prayers following the sermon. Some (including myself) sat when our feet could no longer take the strain.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen," chanted in Coptic.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. In the pews were the Coptic Liturgy of St Basil, in Coptic with parallel Arabic and English translations; an English hymnal (text only); and what appeared to be an Arabic psalter. I glanced through the hymnal and was amazed to see "What a friend we have in Jesus" and (alas) "Kumbaya," although I didn't recognize any of the other hymns. The service itself appeared to follow the order for Vespers which I had previously found on the web, and had brought with me. The cantors sang from a printed text, but the priests chanted the entire service from memory and the congregation did not appear to be referring to any printed matter.
What musical instruments were played?
Hand cymbals were used at the conclusion of the prayer of thanksgiving; otherwise none.
Did anything distract you?
No, but I must confess that during Father Yanni's sermon I began to distract myself by imagining English words that sounded like the Arabic words he was speaking.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff-upper-lip. The service began with the opening of the sanctuary doors and the parting of a red curtain that was concealed behind them, revealing a small marble altar on which rested two electric candelabra as well as two proper candles. Almost the entire service was chanted in Coptic, except for some passages in English (such as the prayer of thanksgiving). The chant was not at all like Gregorian or Anglican chant, but was engaging nonetheless. I detected distinct differences in the melodic style used for the opening prayers, psalms, gospel, and concluding prayers. Incense was used copiously throughout almost the entire service. The priests wore only their cassocks, pectoral crosses, and caps; the cantors did not vest.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I had not expected a sermon and so did not bring my watch, but I would estimate about 15 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Yanni spoke in Arabic. His delivery was intimate, engaging, and at times animated. He held a crucifix as he spoke, and often waved it about.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As explained to me later by Father Jeremiah, Father Yanni preached on the virtue of humility (Mark 9:33-35). The apostles were so worried about which of them Christ liked the most, and who would be first. Christ told them (and so is telling us) not to worry about the self, but to think first of others. Humility is the mother of all virtues, from which proceeds the virtue of love.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I especially liked the unfamiliar but pleasing heft to the chant, and the copious, sweet-smelling incense.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I wouldn't call this hellish, but I regretted not knowing Coptic or Arabic.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the sermon and the concluding penitential prayers and absolution, the service came to an abrupt end with the sudden closing of the red sanctuary curtain. The congregation then began to mingle and shake hands, but no one approached me with the exception of Father Jeremiah, who was most gracious. He even invited me to call him at any time during the week if I wanted to know more about the Coptic Church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I were an ethnic Egyptian, I would join this congregation. I live literally around the corner from St George's, and have often noticed that parishioners of all ages, especially young people, mill about the church on Sunday mornings as well as at other times. The church is clearly a dynamic, active community, of great importance in the lives of the people to whom it ministers. Both Father Yanni and Father Jeremiah appear to be very popular with their congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It made me realize that God is worshipped in many ways, some of which are as mysterious as the ways in which He is said to work.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The fact that both Father Yanni and Father Jeremiah chanted the entire service from memory.