Building a Temple

[Ancient Faith Radio; January 21, 2009]

F: I’m here in Macon, Georgia, being driven to the shuttle that’s going to carry me back to the airport so I can fly home. I’ve been speaking this weekend at Mercer University and Wesleyan University, and also last night at St. Innocent OCA Church. My driver this morning is Tom Kehayes. He was telling me last night about how this church happened to be built. We’re driving at dawn, and it’s lovely; the mist is rising, and I’m sure the deer are stalking around in the woods on this two-lane road. Suddenly out of nowhere there’s an opening and there’s a Georgian church—a perfect replica of a church in the nation of Georgia, is that right?

T: Seventh century in Tbilisi, yes.

F: Do you happen to know who that church, in Tbilisi, is dedicated to?

T: I knew you would ask me that, but I can’t for the life of me remember [laughing].

F: [laughs] It’s amazing—you just have a little piece of Georgia right here. It’s in a cross shape, but the arms of the cross are short, so it feels like a cube. The altar area goes back a little further, but you don’t see that because the iconostasis is so high. The church is built of stone.

T: Yes, it’s a kind of prefabricated stone, if you will—stone made of stone, crushed and reformed. That’s what the facades are made of.

F: So it’s not just cement scored to look like stone. It’s a sandstone color, and goes way up high. It has a pointed central dome. That’s the main difference from other Orthodox churches; it looks like somebody squeezed it at the top. It’s different to look at, but to me the astounding thing is when you walk inside. Is the iconostasis similar to the one in Georgia, or is this your own parish’s design?

T: We don’t know. I haven’t seen the interior of the church in Tbilisi, just the exterior.

F: How did you come to build a Georgian church in Macon, Georgia?

T: Let me back up and just say that, for a number of years, a small group of people in the Macon area who were interested in having an English-speaking Orthodox community gathered together and had services wherever there was space to have them. We began in a classroom at Wesleyan College, and then moved to an orphanage that was subsequently condemned. From there, we went to a local Episcopal church, which was very generous to us. During that period at St. Paul’s, it gave us some breathing space to accumulate funds to purchase a property some time in the future. We struggled, but the community was forming. We tried any number of times to purchase property, and things always just fell through.

There was one time we went with check in hand to give to a prospective seller as earnest money, only to have someone drive up in front of us at about the same time to give the money first. We thought we might have had an appropriate place then, but God had other plans.

That sort of thing happened several times. We reached a point of discouragement; something’s gotta break loose here. Everything was done prayerfully and with consensus. Mark and Diane Dororgy—Mark is a local cardiologist—they passed by some property that was for sale in the area. At that time the market was depressed, and we were able to purchase seven acres of prime property—lovely property—accessible from the interstate, in a very nice neighborhood, as it turned out.

Once we got the property, the question was, “Does anyone know anything about building a church?” We were all caught flat-footed, with everyone shrugging. We were babes in the woods. That day, coincidentally, there was visiting a young woman from the Republic of Georgia, married to an Air Force officer. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a picture postcard. We passed it around, and everyone said, “I kinda like this, what do you think?,” and right there we had a consensus. We were trying to avoid being overtly ethnic in whatever type of architecture we chose, so we avoided onion domes or Greek domes. We wanted to find something as near American as we could, and this seemed to fill the bill.

“Let me get in touch with my father,” the woman said. Several weeks letter we get this tube in the mail, filled with engineering plans, of this very church in Tblisi. I don’t know whether he bribed some local official or what to get it, but in any case we had these plans of this original seventh century church. It had been renovated by the Georgian government.

We took it to our architect who took it to a structural engineer. Everything was brought up to code, measurements changed from metric into English. That was about it—no beard-pulling, no long arguing meetings about what style, what architect, anything. It was just like it was handed to us [laughing].

F: [laughs] One of the things I love about your decision is that many people—for practical purposes—they think, “First we’ll build the parish hall, worship in it, and then build the church,” but you built the church first.

T: Yes, we felt that God’s house was first, and that if we did that, whenever we were meant to have a parish hall or whatever, he would give it to us. This woman with the postcard—that was a story in and of itself, because she had gone to a concert and saw Diane Dorogy there, and started speaking Georgian to her. To her, Diane just looked Georgian. Diane said, “I’m not Georgian, but I am Orthodox.” [laughs] Had it not been for that chance encounter, we would not have been able to get the postcard or decide on the church.

F: It’s the quirky hand of the Holy Spirit. [laughing]

T: [laughs] Then we had to get this thing financed. Initially we thought $300,000 would be needed, but as time went by, the price kept increasing, so that by the end we were well over $800,000. So we were wondering, “How do we finance this thing?” We decided that some of us would just guarantee the loan, which put us on the hook. Susan and I were thinking, “If thing goes belly-up, we’re going to be bag people.” The bank, foolish as they were, gave us this money, and we went ahead and started building the church.

F: And you’ve managed to pay off almost half of it in four years!

T: In four years, yes, we have put everything we could into it.

F: Okay, we’ve got to focus on where we’re going now. We took a turn through the parking lot and now we’re on the interstate. There’s the rising sun at the edge of the horizon. —I was going to describe the interior; I was knocked out when I walked in. The iconostasis is made of dark wood—a mahogany-colored wood—and all of the motifs, the vines, the branches, and everything, looks to me to be gold-plated, not just painted gold.

T: Yes, it’s all gold leaf. When we came to town, my wife and I were attending the All-American Council in Orlando, and we were looking through the room where all the ecclesiastical wares were being sold. I happened to see two icons—a matched pair—one of our Lord and one of his mother. We were really taken by them, and thought about buying them for the church. We talked with our priest about that, and he said, “Well, let’s go ahead.”

F: Fr. Chris Williamson is the priest here.

T: He is now. Before, it was a Belarusian priest. [pauses]

F: Hmmm, I think we’d better make a u-turn.

T: I may end up driving you myself! It’s getting more exciting by the minute.

F: Anyway, so you found an iconographer.

T: We found an iconographer.

F: And the icons are extraordinary, they’re very large. They just knock you out when you walk in. And the gold leaf is so shiny that I could see my reflection in it. I can’t convey how astounding the beauty of this church interior is. The dark wood with the gold leaf and the big icons are just so imposing. There’s so much gold leaf everywhere. That was pretty gorgeous. That’s where I spoke last night.

Because of the high dome it has interesting acoustics. There’s an echo you have to be aware of. Several people told me they bring a quartet from Russia—what’s it called?

T: Konevets.

F: The quartet comes once a year, and the four of them stand under that dome and make music that’s just extraordinary. Well, is there anything else you want to add? I was going to close by saying I look forward to returning to Macon and worshipping at this church again, but I may just end up being here forever [laughs] if we never find our way… it’s like the Flying Dutchman now!

Well, here we are in the waiting room at Grooms. [laughing] You put on enough miles doing u-turns… we should have just driven to Atlanta! But fortunately they have an 8:30, so we’ll be out of here in about 20 minutes. There are some more things you want to tell me about; there are some suspicious coincidences with the church building, there.

T: Well, I was talking about the All-American Council in Orlando. We saw these icons, and of course it was by cash. None of us had enough money on hand. The priest had said, “We like these, we will get these, and if the parish doesn’t like them, then my wife and I will buy them.”

F: Were these the big ones in the iconostasis?

T: These were the small ones on the stands. We brought them back, and the people just loved Ana’s work. Ana is the wife of a priest in Moscow who’s been in charge of restoring a lot of the churches there.

F: What’s her last name?

T: I want to say Kalinina, or something close to that. [laughing] My Russian isn’t terribly good. She would occasionally make trips to the U.S., so we arranged to have her come to Macon and talk with us. We commissioned her to do the iconostasis. The price we were given at that time—there’s just no way we could ever have gotten icons of that quality and care anywhere close to that price. We just felt the Lord was providing for us. When the actual church was being built, we were nervous and scared. Every Sunday after serving the liturgy at our temporary quarters we would go to the worksite, put out picnic tables, and have our post-Liturgy agape meal there. We would pray and go in the church and sing. We watched this church being built over the course of about a year.

Never once on Sunday when we had our meals there did it ever rain. How strange. One day I asked if anyone had checked the mailbox. I asked one of our young men if he would go and see if we had any mail, and he came back with a single envelope in his hand. He said, “I don’t know what this is.” We opened it, and it was a bank check for $8,000. To this day we haven’t a clue as to where it came from or anything.

It was one of those points along the way which gave us reassurance to continue what we had begun. There were also other churches that from time to time would send small donations. While it didn’t affect our total financial picture all that much, I can tell you what a morale-boost it was, to know we were a part of something larger than our particular parish; there were people who knew about us, who cared about us, and would support us. That was a marvelous thing.

In the course of building the church, our lighting budget was minimal; we thought we’d have to settle for wall sconces and forget any idea of having chandeliers inside. When Diane and her husband were building their present home, she went to a lighting contractor to pick out fixtures for their home, and she inquired, “Do you have anything that might be suitable for a church?” “Well, we have this style over here, and we’re discontinuing them,” he said. They were chandeliers. Some were two-tiered and others were single. “Well, what would you want for them?” she asked, and found out they were over two thousand dollars apiece. But then he said, “We’ll let you have them for a few hundred dollars apiece. How many do you need?”

F: Wow!

T: So we went to the plans, then told him the number, and he said, “Well I don’t have that many here, but let me get on the web,” and he found exactly the number of chandeliers from the entire U.S. to meet our needs. So that was another one of those holy coincidences. Totally unreal.

When the icons came we unpacked them and stored them temporarily in the Dorogy’s home. The icons were awesome. Dr. Dorogy had them in his office; the first time we went in and saw them, you didn’t know whether to cry, fall on your knees—they were just awesome. When we got them in, they didn’t seem to fit the measurements of the church. However, during constructions, we had to extend the iconostasis further than we’d planned, which accommodated all of them.

We were able to commission an elderly gentlemen and his 60-ish son to do the actual structure for the iconostasis. He came in and saw the icons he said, “These must have been done by a woman.”

F: Wow!

T: “Why?” we asked. “They’re big,” he said. [both laughing]

They make a bold statement, though, they speak the essentials.

F: Oh yeah, they knock your eyes out.

So then you had the problem at that point, that you didn’t have a bathroom or a place to have a coffee hour, and so…

T: General Electric has a leasing program so we went and found a construction-office type trailer, because we needed bathrooms. We went to the county and asked if we could put this on the property, and they gave us a temporary okay, originally thinking perhaps a year. Little did they know! [both laughing]

Needless to say, this has gone on a bit more than a year. We decided we would just not mention anything to the county. [more laughing]

F: Somebody said you were thinking about getting a camouflage net and dropping it over the entire building! [both laughing]

T: For now it serves our purposes. We would like very much to have a parish hall, but we don’t have one. We feel there’s a reason—maybe we’re not ready.

F: This is not a real big parish—you have between 40-60 on a Sunday morning?

T: Yeah, if that many, but the parish life is pretty intense. Everyone there is committed to the Lord and His church, and to one another. We are growing, albeit slowly. Perhaps that’s best, rather than to be a flash in the pan. As we grow, I suspect the parish will begin to grow exponentially as the increasing numbers evangelize. In time we shall see significant growth.

F: I noticed that all three of my speeches were pretty much full—a lot of people there, especially young people. It’s not always easy for students to get off-campus, but there were a lot of students who came to the church for my talk.

T: There were, and that told us something. I was talking with Father this morning before he left for Atlanta about putting a lot of our eggs in that basket. There seems to be a hunger and interest, something among our youth. Rock bands and goosebumps don’t satisfy them over the long haul.

F: They’re looking for something more traditional.

T: And something more substantial, something with roots, something that has had continuity and can be trusted.

F: As people were saying yesterday, often when you present Orthodoxy to Protestants they’re just bewildered at first. But I think it’s the beauty that ends up drawing people in.

T: I think of Dostoyevsky saying—paraphrase, I guess—“The world will be saved by beauty.” It speaks of God.

F: You certainly have a beautiful church. I think you’re halfway there. I think God is going to honor that choice that you wanted worship to be first. I never thought of that before—that it just seemed so logical to do the parish hall first. You really gave God the best of the offering, the best thing you could—it’s gorgeous.

T: We were defying conventional wisdom, but we felt there was a theological statement that needed to be made. It’s what we valued the most, and we put up with our little sardine can—what I call facetiously our “Christian Life Center”. [both laughing]

I know people usually have visions of basketball courts, swimming pools, and this sort of thing… [laughing]

F: [laughing] You’ve got a checkerboard and a deck of cards! Well, it’s gorgeous, and I look forward to coming back again.

T: We want you back very much.

F: I’m going to sign off now, I see the van is here and it’s time to go.

T: We don’t want you to take the nine-o-clock! We’ve been through this once before. [both laughing]

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.