All my life I’ve been used to jam packed churches for Greek Orthodox Easter, no matter where I’ve lived. In Northwest Indiana and Chicago, the churches are so full it’s nearly impossible to find a spot if you don’t show up super early. It was the same in Melbourne and Istanbul where I even had to stand outside of the church. In all these places, the familiar smell of burnt hair from someone’s stray candle was always in the air. This Easter, my first in Colombia, was completely different.
While searching for an Orthodox church to attend for the midnight Resurrection service, I came across a very basic website put together by the Greek Orthodox clergy in Colombia. It listed the priests and the churches they served. I found Padre Crisostomo in nearby Pereira and sent him a short email asking if there were church services in Pereira, and, if so, the location of the church. I received a response a few days later with a phone number to contact him.
My girlfriend Marisol and I called him and he was very happy that we were thinking of joining him for the service. He even offered to let us stay at the church overnight (which we didn’t understand why until later).
We headed to Pereira on Holy Saturday. About 10:45pm, we jumped in a taxi and gave the driver the address. He drove us a good distance outside the city but wasn’t quite sure where we had to go. He stopped and asked where the turnoff was to the country road we were looking for.
We found the turnoff and continued down a rough gravel road for what seemed to be ages. Now we understood why Padre Crisostomo had invited us to stay overnight after the service. We stopped a few more times and asked directions and were finally given an answer. A few minutes later, we pulled up to the gates of a farm with a sign indicating the church was there. It was pitch black outside and the driver offered to stay with us until someone came to open the gates. He honked his horn a few times until two young girls appeared on the long path on the other side of the gate.
The two girls opened the gate and welcomed us. We followed them to the church. When we reached the church I was very surprised. There was a decent sized house with a few cars parked out front. Behind the house was a canopy made of corrugated metal held up by a few poles. Under it was a small iconostasis with about 20 plastic chairs facing it. There were no doors or walls and a light breeze was blowing through the church. The chanter was reciting everything in Spanish with a little Greek mixed in.
And the worshippers? There were only 12 people! 12! Well, 14 with me and Marisol included, but I had never been to an Easter service, let alone a church service, with just 14 people!
Other than Padre Crisostomo, Marisol, and me, there was another Colombian priest and a Colombian monk who had spent a few years at Mount Athos (he spoke very good Greek), an altar boy, a chanter, and 7 people in the chairs. Most of the people were family of Padre Crisostomo.
We followed the service and I explained to Marisol what was going on and the significance of certain things. It was also quite cold and many people were covered with blankets. One of the girls came and gave Marisol a sweater and a blanket to keep her warm.
After the service, we were invited to break the Lenten fast with some traditional Colombian food and hot tea. We were given red hard boiled eggs and did the traditional cracking of the eggs (Marisol won). It was well after 2am and we were exhausted, so Marisol called the taxi driver to pick us up. When the taxi arrived, we thanked Padre Crisostomo and everyone for allowing us to join them and made the long walk back to the gates.
The service was beautifully done as expected, but there was quite a calm that I had never experienced before. I’m used to a sense of chaos during Easter services – constant movement with people walking up and down the church aisles, whispers, occasional laughter, babies crying, the smell of burnt hair, and the majority of people leaving right after midnight. But this was different – very solemn, quiet, and intimate. Everyone stayed until after the liturgy. I really didn’t know what to expect, but this wasn’t it.
During the service, I imagined the first Christians in the first few centuries gathering in small homes, caves, or outdoors under small canopies like this for their Resurrection services, and I realized that this was probably the closest thing to how a Resurrection service was meant to be. It turned out to be a wonderful surprise and 3 hours I will never forget.