Church: Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, 1205 San Antonio Creek Road
Service Attended: Sunday, 10 a.m.
Pastor: Reverend Father Simon Thomas
Congregation Size: 200
Special Offerings: Greek School, dance and music programs, bookstore, Bible study, missions, Greek Festival
Contact: 683-4492, saintbarbara.net
The picturesque foothills of Santa Barbara are a fitting setting for a traditional Greek Orthodox Church, whose Byzantine architecture, lush gardens, and running fountains give one a sense of being in the land which gave birth to this ancient religion. This feeling is augmented by the surrounding landscape of vineyards and rolling hills. As visiting pastor Fr. John-Stephen Hedges put it, “You know you are on land that has been blessed by the Creator.”
Indeed, the roots of the church trace directly back to Greek immigrants who founded Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in the 1930s. Although the church has since expanded to include parishioners of diverse backgrounds born and raised in the U.S. (a trend reflected in Orthodox Churches throughout the U.S.), the ties to Greece remain prominent, with services conducted partly in Greek and partly in English, Greek lessons and traditional Greek dance programs offered for church youth, and heavy involvement in Santa Barbara’s annual Greek Festival.
The Divine Liturgy on Sundays follows a prescribed format with some variations - such as which of the saints are honored on a particular day - in keeping with the Orthodox calendar. This universality or worship demonstrates that the church is one and honors the communal value of prayer. The many non-verbal symbols present throughout the service - incense burning in ornate golden censors, gilded portraits of saints, candles lit by parishioners as they entered the nave, the taking of Holy Communion - symbolize the Orthodox belief that direct communion with God takes place inside the church, and in turn, reflect the congregation’s offering of thanks to God for his presence among the people.
The pews were nearly filled with families and couples, both old and young, who participated actively in the 90-minute service by frequently rising and standing for extended periods, crossing themselves, and bowing to the pastor and the altar. The majority of the service was conducted as a sort of call and response song between the choir and the pastor, whose lovely voices filled the gilded dome ceiling above the altar.
The essence of Fr. John-Stephen’s homily - the only part of the service that was not chanted - was to impart the “two lessons that ought to get you up in the morning,” the first being that “the Lord Himself has planted us here with his own right hand,” and the second being that the Lord Himself comes to the land in which we live “to perfect it:.So if the Lord is working on you - pruning, snipping - don’t worry about it. He is doing it because He loves you.”