FARGO — On any given Sunday at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in south Fargo, you may hear utterances from the Ukraine, gasps from Greece, echoes from Eritrea, rumblings from Romania and even some scant Scandinavian sounds collecting and converging.
If you miss it in the liturgy itself, diversity will be unquestionable in the food shared at one of the community’s meals, such as at the recent potluck to help welcome the parish’s shepherd, Paul Gassios of Chicago.
The meal followed a vespers celebration with Divine Liturgy, part of a visit by Gassios to assess the needs here and hopefully make a new priest-match soon.
Among the edible offerings were Greek pastries and salad, a spicy chicken dish from Ethiopia with a side of “injera” bread and a Romanian potato dish.
“And wine,” noted Oliver Herbel, former priest of this community, now military chaplain. “You can’t have an Orthodox meal without some good wine to go with it.”
His wife, Lorie, said the local parish is something of a microcosm of the religion as a whole. “It’s such a melting pot — at least here. In Orthodoxy, if you’re new to the community, you go to the closest Orthodox Church you can find, and the next closest is either in Minot, Winnipeg or the Cities.”
An influx of refugees, she said, has only added to the hues. “We have a wonderful mix and it’s one of the things many of us love about our parish.”
A bishop’s visit
Religious imagery decorates the worship space of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Fargo. Michael Vosburg/ Forum Photo Editor
Gabriel Benton, who has a military background, said he’d been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Bishop Gassios, whom he thinks of as his “commanding general.””This is the first time we’ve had a visiting bishop here, at least since I became Orthodox two Easters, or Holy Pascha, ago,” he said. “There’s a joke within Orthodoxy that because so many of our clergy wear beards, they all look like Saint Nicholas. He definitely does, but I found him to be an affable man; a man concerned about his flock and his people.”
A former evangelical Christian who later became Anglican before discovering Orthodoxy, Benton said he was attracted to the ancient traditions that go back 2,000 years.
Now newly married and expecting his first child, Benton said the stability of an infallible church, comprising fallible human beings, seems more important than ever.
“We live in a world that is hectic, that is scattered. We’re running here and there,” he said. “Here we have this ancient faith, this rock that we can go to — a refuge when the rest of the world is crashing down around us.”
Wrapped up in that sanctuary, he said, is the Blessed Virgin Mary, or “Theotokos” as the Orthodox call Jesus’ mother.
To the prairie by train
Gassios, of Greek heritage, grew up in Detroit, and was ordained a bishop for the Orthodox Church of America in December 2014.
Intent on visiting as many as possible of the parishes he oversees — 77 in 11 states — Gassios said North Dakota was next on his list, and with a trip to Minot also in order, the train proved a more feasible travel mode.
He arrived in Fargo in the wee hours of Aug. 27, and took only a small breather before welcoming a day replete with introductions and celebrating with his faraway flock.
What he saw made a mark. At the conclusion of the Thursday evening service, Gassios told parishioners a new priest is being sought. “I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen in Fargo, and in each of you. Father Oliver built a good foundation, and now we need to continue to build upon that. It’s just taking a little time.”
At a local coffee shop earlier in the day, Gassios shared what he sees as current needs, not just in Fargo, but in Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole.
First, growth, but spiritually speaking more so than numbers. “We have a tradition in our church, that if you acquire the spirit of peace you will save thousands around you,” he said. “Our focus is on changing ourselves, and that’s how we change the world.”
And because faith is relational, he added, we are saved in community. “You’re an individual, but you’re more a person than an individual. Being a person relates you to someone else, whereas being an individual isolates you.”
Second, we need to develop a healthier understanding of stewardship. “Everything is a gift from God and with stewardship comes a sense of gratitude, and out of that, returning a portion of what is (God’s) to begin with,” a concept, he said, many have forgotten.
Third, as Christians we must realize, and rectify with, living in a world that now diametrically opposes us, including striving to be a more holistic witness in the world, and separating ourselves from political ideology.
It’s a tall order, he admitted, but not impossible, especially in connection with the Church. “You can’t separate Christ from his body,” Gassios said. “We’re saved in the Church, not outside of it … you can’t save yourself alone.”
Erik Hjelle, a member of the parish council who accompanied the bishop during his visit, said Gassios’ presence was “a physical manifestation of (our area’s) connection to every Orthodox Church” and that he was “an encouragement as we wait for that next step in our parish life — a new priest.”
“We’re doing a lot to keep the life of the parish going,” Hjelle said, “but … in a sense it is on hold because the spiritual leadership isn’t there directing the life of the parish.”
After the vespers service, Gassios encouraged those gathered to “pray with me for a new leader,” and promised that in time, God-willing, it would come to pass.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 5, 2015.]