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The service was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. At a quarter to six, the doors of the domed white church were still locked, but there was movement, and lots of it, in the next building over. Children rehearsed songs on the stage while below, teenagers draped burgundy cloths over circular tables. The reason for all the hubbub stood in the center of the room: a scale model of the renovated church property. Tomorrow would see the banquet that kicked off the capital campaign.

But the brigade of women in the kitchen were not thinking of tomorrow. They were thinking of Easter, still a week away, and they were making sarma. “It’s a stuffed cabbage,” explained Simona as she took a short break. “We pickle the cabbage in plastic barrels — that’s about a two- or three-week process. Then we make the meat filling. The stuffed cabbage leaves are put in roasters, and then a nice sauce is put on top. It’s for our Easter celebration — we’ll have about 400 people at lunch.”

“We fast for all six weeks of Lent,” added Bozana, spooning meat into a cupped cabbage leaf. “That comes from Christ being on the mountain for 40 days, tempted. Anything that comes from a warm-blooded animal, we don’t eat. Milk, cheese, meat — our big Easter feast is this meat meal. Lamb is traditional, and so is sarma. We actually inherited it from the Turks — we were occupied for 500 years. Of course, they use more lamb in theirs because they’re Muslim. Ours is beef and pork with rice and sautéed onions and seasonings — salt, pepper, paprika — and an egg for binder. You lay the rolls on a layer of chopped cabbage with bay leaves and cook slowly. And if you had some nice smoked ribs or smoked sausages, they would go in between the rolls.”

“You have read the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible?” asked Father Krsic, who unlocked the church doors at five minutes before the hour. “They were sisters. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to the word of God while Martha was running around and preparing the food. Because of tomorrow, we have many Marthas tonight. I do not know how many Marys we will have. All the people who would normally be in here are over there. Renovating our church property is part of our spiritual life as well, and we prayed before we began our work, but it’s a balance that we are called to examine carefully — especially during Great and Holy Lent. We try to intensify our prayer lives. Can we make that one extra visit to church during the week?” That’s why Krsic took up the Friday-night singing of the Akathis to the Most Holy Mother of God, a sixth-century hymn “of praise and fervent supplication.”

As it happened, I was the only Mary in attendance that evening, so Krsic sang an abbreviated form of the lengthy hymn. As a pot of incense smoldered by his side, he stood at the front of the church, his black cassock decorated only with a heavy purple stole, facing the icon screen that both adorned and obscured the Sanctuary. Above the screen, a big mosaic of Mary glowed in the half-dome of the apse, her arms spread wide to reveal Christ in her bosom.

Krsic sang for a little over 12 minutes; I’m guessing the full text might have taken it to twice that. Both opening and closing were given over to praise and supplication aimed directly at God — the Psalms figured heavily. (“Quick, Lord, answer me before my spirit fails.... Let dawn bring proof of Your love for one who relies on You.”) But the heart of the song was aimed at Mary, each stanza punctuated by the sung refrain, “Most holy Birthgiver of God, save us!” “I beseech you, O Virgin, to scatter the troubles which afflict my soul and banish the storms which rage within me; for you, O holy Bride, have given birth to Christ, the source of serenity, O only blessed one.”

What happens when we die?

“There is a separation of soul and body,” said Krsic. “We hope and pray that the soul is taken to heaven. We don’t destroy the body because it housed the soul. The body participates in the process of becoming Christ-like while in this life — we try to sanctify and purify both body and soul. So we don’t cremate it, but carefully lay it in a cemetery. At the Second Coming of Christ, the body and soul will be reunited. The body we’ll receive then will not be subject to illness and decay. It will be similar to that of Christ after His own resurrection — a transformed body.”

St. George's Serbian Orthodox Church

3025 Denver Street, Clairemont

Denomination: Orthodox (under Serbian jurisdiction)
Founded locally: 1952
Senior pastor: Bratislav Krsic
Congregation size: 200 stewards
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: 25
Annual budget: around $170,000
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: about 15 minutes (see text)
Website: stgeorgeinsd.com

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