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sgoc_120A new church will hold its first service in an old church in Lansing.  The Reformed Orthodox Christian Church will open its doors for the first time Sunday in Saint George Orthodox Church at Myers Heights.  At least a dozen people are expected to worship Sundays at the historical church, led by Father Matthew Binkewicz.  The church will offer the traditional Orthodox Christian service that will be open to all Christians.

"I'm looking forward to just bringing the message of the Gospel of Christ to people who want to hear it," Binkewicz says.  "That's it.  there will be nothing else.  It will be a community of faith and love... that's what we're hoping for.  We're trying to be a more inclusive church whereby Roman Catholic, Protestants and other Orthodox Christians would be welcome to come worship and receive Holy Communion."

Binkewicz was ordained an Eastern Orthodox celibate or monk priest in 1994 in the Russian Orthodox Church.  In 2003 he asked permission to leave the priesthood in order to get married.  He notes that most Orthodox priests are married.

"I petitioned my Bishop and he granted me his blessing to leave the priesthood with the understanding that some day I might return.  I attempted to return in 2010 and unfortunately it didn't work out.  Another bishop took up my case, and we started the church on Ridge Road, but a year later I was told the Council of Bishops would not grant my request."

While he considered how to continue his ministry, Binkewicz and his wife Katrina hosted 'home group' meetings at which faith was discussed.  It attracted a small faithful following of people who wanted less structured worship.

"Then there was a great push by some of them to start a church community that would be more inclusive, that all Christians could attend, and all Christians could partake of the Sacrement, including the Eucarist, which is reserved only for Orthodox Christians in a traditional Orthodox church," Binkewicz says.

sgoc_churchandmatthewSaint George Orthodox Church has stood on the hill overlooking Cayuga Lake above Salt Point since the 1920s. Father Matthew Binkewicz will preside over Sunday services.

The Thursday 'home group' sessions will continue along with Sunday church services.  Home group discussions will focus on the Acts of the Apostles this fall.

While the church itself is a liberal offshoot of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is not the first to split from the traditional church.  Binkewicz notes that Old Calendar Orthodox Churches have also broken away.  He says the difference is that they are more conservative, while this one will lean toward a more liberal approach to Orthodox Christianity.

Saint George Orthodox Church was founded by Syrian immigrants who worked at the Cayuga Lake Salt Company.  The plant, which was located below the church on Salt Point, was begun in 1891 to produce table salt using a deep well process.  When it opened the plant had 100 employees.  The company provided housing, and around the late 1920s the church was built to accomodate the immigrants who worked there.  The plant finally closed after a fire in 1962, and the community dwindled.  With fewer worshipers the Orthodox Church stopped sending a priest, but the Divine Liturgy service was held at the church once a year.  Occasional weddings and other events have also been celebrated there since the '60s.

"There were weddings and baptisms," Binkewicz says.  "People who came back to the area, their grandchildren or even great grandchildren would come back to get married."

'The Young Men of Melkie' own the building and have maintained it over the years.  The organization was philanthropic, and provided support for young Arab-Americans when they arrived in America, and help to families still in Syria.  At one time the membership boasted 80 or 90 men from Syrian Hill and the Myers area.  Today that number has dwindled to fewer than a dozen, with perhaps four or five still living in the area. 

"To delineate the Orthodox Christians from the other Christians in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire called them 'Melkie'," Binkewicz explains.  "It's an Arabic word that goes back to the Byzantine Emperor.  Melkie means 'the King' or the Byzantine Emperor'.  If you remember, Melchior was one of the three kings."


The building appears smaller on the outside than it does on the inside.  When you enter a table for candles is to the left as you approach the sanctuary area.  Traditional Orthodox art adorns the walls, broken up by windows that give the sanctuary a bright, open feeling.  A traditional icon screen with images from the life of Christ and saints of the church acts as an archway to the alter, which has a round wall at the back.  Binkewicz and members of the congregation have been working on restoring and repairing the interior to prepare for Sunday's service.

The Orthodox service is a bit different from what most Christians are used to.  Binkewicz says it is similar to the Catholic pre-Vatican II mass.  It is chanted, but is accessible to American worshipers because it is in English.  The liturgy follows a pattern of petitions, old and new Testament readings, the Gospel, the offering of the gifts, the offering of the faithful that the Holy Spirit come down and change the bread and wine into the body of Christ, then a brief prayer and the closing.

"It has a basic tenor to it that all Christian churches follow, especially the liturgical ones," Binkewicz says.  "Especially Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, so they would not be surprised by the service."

He says that he and the congregation hope the church will attract Christians who are looking for a different way to worship.  Membership will be less restricted, but the service will follow the traditional Orthodox liturgy.  Like the congregation and the church building, it will be something new steeped in something old.

Binkewicz says the church will do the same kinds of things all churches do.  He holds civil credentials from New York State and City as well as his theological credentials to perform weddings, funerals, and baptisms.  He has been officiating at such events since he moved back to New York as a hospice chaplain.  And the congregation will do charitable work.

"We want to be a part of the community, to do those things that Christ taught us to do: help the poor, visit the sick and the infirm, and be part of the other churches' programs whether it be Haiti or Guatemala, if not by sending people with the groups then certainly financially supporting them to the best of our abilities," Binkewicz says.  "We're going to march right into the community and be part of all the other wonderful parishes and faiths that serve not only Lansing, but our country."

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