On Sunday, March 8, 2009, Eastern Orthodox Christians from a dozen parishes in San Diego and Riverside counties filled St. George Serbian Orthodox Church—one of San Diego’s architectural and iconographic jewels—to celebrate “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” in a Vesper service.
“I’ve dreamed of this day for fifteen years!” exclaimed Fr. Jon Braun, priest Emeritus of St. Anthony Antiochian parish in La Jolla. While the Orthodox parishes in San Diego have been celebrating this feast day together for many years, it has been sparsely attended in the past and this was the first time in several decades that a Pan-Orthodox choir sang the responses for the city-wide Vesper service. The chorus of 40 singers from nine different parishes was organized and conducted by Valerie Yova, Music Director of St. Anthony's Antiochian Orthodox Church. Ms. Yova is a Founder and former Artistic Director of the Orthodox Christian Chorale of Detroit, Past President of the Pan-Orthodox Society for the Advancement of Liturgical Music and graduate of New England Conservatory. “For a number of reasons, the timing seemed right to begin a pan-Orthodox music ministry here in San Diego, and I’m very grateful to the clergy here for giving us their enthusiastic blessing! We have so much to gain from coming together to share our knowledge and traditions! Not just the musicians, but ALL of us.” stated Yova.
The music chosen for the service was a colorful tapestry of the many cultures that brought Eastern Orthodox Christianity to this country in the 19th and 20th centuries. The responses and hymns included four-part choral arrangements and 2-part chant settings in English based on the musical traditions of Greece, the Middle East, Romania, Serbia, the Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, and the United States. The congregation was invited and encouraged to join in singing the refrains of the Psalm verses and many of the other responses and hymns, and they did so with gusto!
The very gracious acoustics of St. George church, along with the exquisite mosaic iconography that covers every inch of its walls, made for an experience that Orthodox Christians here will be talking about for some time to come. Nina McDonald, a recent convert to Orthodoxy, a journalist and resident of Imperial Beach, CA, was overwhelmed by her first Sunday of Orthodoxy experience. “I could not take my eyes off the icons—the whole inside of the church shimmered. It really seemed as if the walls melted away and we were surrounded by angels and saints—all of us—the WHOLE church-- worshipping together. And the choir! They truly sounded angelic, so powerful and majestic, yet still intimate and sweet.”
For we “cradle” Orthodox and those of us who are veterans of Sunday of Orthodoxy services—the good, the mediocre and the chaotic—it is refreshing, heart-warming and inspiring for us to hear from those who had to work a little harder to find and adopt the Faith that we sometimes take for granted. McDonald added, “This really brought the Orthodox experience home for me; how Orthodoxy ministers to our whole person—body, soul and spirit—one’s entire being is caught up in worship.”
Fr. George Morelli, President of the Eastern Orthodox Clergy Conference of San Diego, is an enthusiastic supporter of pan-Orthodox cooperation, and the clergy have initiated or blessed a number of new projects in San Diego this year. “The working together of this pan-Orthodox Christian Choir to bring about the beauty of the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vesper service is not only a reflection of the "Beauty" that is God, but to His "Goodness" and "Truthfulness" as well. This is a cry to all to fulfill the priestly prayer of Jesus that "they may be one, even as we are one." (Jn 17:11).
Many of those who were present for the San Diego con-celebration expressed the desire to come together more often as an Orthodox community, and so the clergy and musicians in San Diego are exploring ways to make that happen in the near future.