A Most Exotic Exile

The church is Russian. The priest is from Boston. The founders were midgets. And the congregation is slim to none.

These are not Christie's personal observations but views he picked up from McKenzie. Distrust of the ecumenical movement is a tenet of the federation of Russian Orthodox Churches Outside of Russia. Moreover, a significant minority of the Orthodox Church in America -- a separate, larger organization -- adheres to similar notions.

McKenzie joins Christie outside, having exchanged his elaborate vestments for a simple black cassock. Christie has just finished explaining why he stopped going to church as a teenager. "On the one hand they were telling me that they were the one church, the only true church, and on the other hand, they were teaching ecumenism. I said this was just a bunch of shit."

Christie is dressed casually, wearing jeans and an open-collar green shirt. His black hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and he'd be indistinguishable from any other man on an Athenian street except that he was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and has spent the last fifteen years of his life in Miami. The only child of a widowed mother, he originally set out to flee the nest, but his 81-year-old mother, who speaks only Greek, followed him south. They now live together, or as Christie sheepishly puts it: "She lives with me. I live with her. It screws up my social life, but it's okay."

He asks McKenzie to confirm the rumors about the Masons. "Yes, it's true," McKenzie says gravely. "But it's not good to concentrate on that stuff. It's better to think about your sins and about repentance."

McKenzie answers the door to the parish on a weekday morning. He's dressed, as usual, in his black cassock. Several of his seven children are at a Russian Orthodox summer camp in the Catskills, leaving him with his wife, their five-week old daughter, and seven-year-old son. The family occupies the northern wing of the church, a dimly lit, cheaply built, cramped four-bedroom structure attached to the sanctuary by a short linoleum-tiled hallway opening almost directly onto the altar. On the other side of the sanctuary is the southern wing, which consists of a large meeting room used for celebrations and feasts.

Heavy red and gold religious books are spread on the dining table, which is located in the back of the family's living room, the main room of the house where visitors are received. McKenzie is preparing this week's service. The small apartment, decorated with ubiquitous icons, a large map of Russia, and religious tracts overflowing from bookshelves, has the isolated, anachronistic feel of a dacha on the Black Sea.

Vladimir, the priest's youngest son, clambers into his father's lap as McKenzie begins to recount his own conversion to Orthodoxy. As he talks, McKenzie strokes his son's back and lightly kisses his head. The key to the story is Vladimir's mother, Sonia, born in Montreal of Russian parents. A woman of abundant proportions and a round, timid face, Sonia rocks her newborn daughter as she listens to her husband, anxiously screening questions she considers too intimate. McKenzie frequently defers to his wife, quizzing her about family history and asking her for the translations of Russian phrases. He calls her "Momma," conveying in a word the idea of a matriarch, a fecund force of household tranquility, an anchor in a godless world.

"I was the product of a typical American family, where you have alcohol problems, all that stuff," McKenzie remembers. "My father remarried three times. I didn't really know my first mom. My second mom had problems drinking. My third mom was a nurse who was also involved in drugs and alcohol." He moved to Florida from western Pennsylvania when he was seventeen and later met Sonia in the cafeteria of Boca Raton's Florida Atlantic University, where they were both attending college. Soon after they started dating, Sonia brought him to St. Vladimir.

"The church was dark, warm, and had an air of holiness," McKenzie murmurs. "Monya, the midget lady, was the only one in the church proper. Everyone else was standing with the choir. The image I had was sort of like going back to some pious, warm memories of youth. Of course, that's just speaking of emotions. Above and beyond all this was the shocking revelation that the Roman Church had actually separated itself from Eastern Christianity, something that is not properly explained in the Roman Church."

The Eastern Orthodox Church, which comprises different Orthodox churches distinguished by nationality (for example, the Greek Orthodox Church), split from the Roman Catholic Church in the Eleventh Century over a conflict about the extent of papal authority and changes in the creed. McKenzie and other parishioners of St. Vladimir who converted to Orthodoxy believe that the Roman Catholic Church purposely obscures the breach. McKenzie says he finally sorted through his Catholic upbringing while studying at the Russian Orthodox Church's Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, New York, where he and his family lived for seven years until he was ordained in 1989. That's also where he learned Russian, phrases of which are sprinkled throughout his account.

For the past six years the family has lived at St. Vladimir. McKenzie's children, who range from the newborn to twenty-year-old Maria, have attended Miami public schools, which has unhappily exposed them to the Orthodox bugaboo of evolution. "They teach the kids they're animals, and they're surprised when they act like animals!" he grouses. "The true scientist knows that evolution is a lie, but they continue to teach it in the schools. They whittle away at the kids' faith in God little by little." McKenzie has tried to separate his own children as much as possible from the non-Russian Orthodox world. And while their home reveals some modern accouterments -- toys, Florida Marlins paraphernalia, a computer loaded with games -- the children are urged to make the church the center of their lives.

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