"I believe the [Greek Orthodox Church] is the true church, but I'm not going to rub it in anyone's face," said Nazo Zakkak, an altar boy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Greek Orthodox Church. Zakkak said he believes this because the roots of the faith go back to the formation of the Christian church and the traditions remain unchanged.
"The Greek Orthodox tradition by our own view is the truest expression and most consistent expression of Christianity," said Reverend Father Demetri Tsigas. The Greek Orthodox Church traces its roots to the day of Pentecost, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles to begin the mission of the Church to the world. In 1054, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church split into two.
"The Catholics' view is that we broke away from them," said Father Tsigas. "Our view is they broke away from us. Before the split, the churches were collegial. It was when the Pope decided his authority superseded any council or other authority that we had to part ways. At the time, there were five centers of the church; Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Four of the five decided to part with Rome."
"The Pope has had an amazingly powerful ministry in his life," said Tsigas when asked about his view of the current Pope. "Our church doesn't believe someone should stay king until they're dead. It's unfortunate that he hasn't stepped down to let someone take on his ministry."
I asked Tsigas his view on the Reformation and Protestant church. "The Reformation was an important reality in light of the clear abuses in the Catholic Church," said Tsigas. "At the time, we were a church enslaved to the Ottoman rule. I believe the Reformation threw away the baby with the bath water. They threw away a lot of the liturgical aspects of the church. Today, there are very few Protestants who hold to Reformation ideals of Calvin and Luther. There are very few Calvinists in the Protestant Church; they really are the minority.
"The Protestant church has a problem when they say their authority is Scripture alone. This really becomes, 'the authority is in my interpretation of Scripture,'" said Tsigas. "Traditions are a divine manifestation of God. How do Protestants accept the Canon of Scripture without accepting the council's decisions on other issues? The Protestant churches need to be humble and recognize they are not God's gift to man individually. We are all collectively the church. There are no Lone Ranger Christians, we need to work together."
St. Gregory of Nyssa was founded 12 years ago when people asked to have a Greek Orthodox presence in the East County. The church meets in the New Jerusalem Forum, a bookstore and coffee shop. Icons, images of Jesus, and other saints hang on the store walls. A large image of Jesus and an image of Mary holding a baby-sized Jesus with adult features are placed on either side of a communion table.
The service included responsive readings and a cappella singing led by Father Tsigas and four singers. Readings were in English and Greek. Tsigas, whose back was to the congregation for most of the service, wore a white robe with a yellow cross stitched onto the back.
Father Tsigas's sermon was entitled "Begin with the End in Mind." The message was created from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, written by Steven Covey. Tsigas asked the congregation to visualize their own funeral. "What would you want people to say about your life," asked Tsigas. After the funeral, we were told to visualize going to heaven and standing before God. "What sins have you not confessed? What do you need to repent of?" After the visualization, Tsigas recommended everyone live in response to our eventual death. "Each of us has a calling from God and a very specific purpose for living," said Tsigas. After service, people gathered around donuts and coffee outside the store. Nelson Chase recently converted to Greek Orthodox from his Episcopalian upbringing. Chase said the conversion came after a trip to Jerusalem, where he saw the Greek Orthodox traditions. "I was attracted to the unchanging nature of the faith. The faith has stayed the same over 2000 years, where other traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have changed over the years," said Chase. He now plans to attend seminary to become a priest.
"Several people have converted from the Episcopal tradition," said Father Tsigas. "They are looking for something that isn't going to change on them. Some have left over theological issues, like the ordination of women or homosexuals. Now, there are even questions about the resurrection and the authority of scripture [in the Episcopalian tradition]."
I asked Father Tsigas the question I ask each week: What happens to a person after he dies? "The Greek Orthodox Church believes that after you die there is a partial judgment, and after Jesus returns, then there is a final judgment," said Tsigas. "In the partial judgment people get a foretaste of the final judgment." Tsigas holds to a minority viewpoint that disagrees with the official Church stance. "I believe after a person dies he can still grow toward God." I asked Tsigas if Hitler could work his way back to Heaven. "Even the devil could work his way back into heaven," replied Tsigas.
1454 Jamacha Road, El Cajon
Denomination: Greek Orthodox
Founded locally: 1992
Senior pastor: Demetri Tsigas
Congregation size: 200
Staff size: 2
Sunday school enrollment: 12
Annual budget: $200,000
Weekly giving: $2000
Singles program: no
Dress: business casual to dressy
Worship: 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 1/2 hours