I know, as my peers have described, comically little about Christianity. As a religion major, my focus has been mainly on Islam and Jewish text with a little Buddhism and Hinduism thrown in. I cannot, perhaps shamefully, tell you the differences between most protestant denominations. I have had a lot of Catholic friends and I live across from a Catholic church, so I have the most proficiency in Catholicism, but it is still not entirely conversational. When it was recommended that I write about Birmingham churches, I panicked much in the same way a kid who forgot to read that night’s chapter panics when the teacher announces a pop quiz. I am the religion writer, after all.
Fortunately, I paid attention in my religious methodology class. Religion is a hard term to define, as are most terms in academia. It is also pretty difficult for people who study religion as an academic subject to separate personal practice and belief from the topics at hand. What we define as religion is also a matter of personal experience. I understand religion, aside from faith, to be a connection to history, geography, and identity. Architecture, art, and aesthetic play a huge role in my understanding of religion, in my own practice and when looking at others.
I remember being stuck in traffic in front of the Orthodox church on Clairmont one day. I liked everything about the building. It was charming, quaint, warm, and it told a story. I thought, if I had to go to a church, it would be that one. Perhaps it has to do with my love of Tolstoy. I don’t mind if it is. Tolstoy is one of my favorite Russians, no offense to any of my family.
Birmingham seems to have more churches than New York City has corner shops. The vast majority are protestant churches. According to the Birmingham Wikipedia page, Birmingham is the most densely protestant city in the United States. There are not nearly as many Catholic churches, but the city does have a fair share of Catholic grade schools and two Catholic high schools. But unless there is a food festival, it seems the Orthodox churches of Birmingham are overlooked. It was difficult to find a reliable source documenting the percentage of the Birmingham Orthodox community. Demographics can be a tricky game, but this statewide survey puts Orthodox Christians at 0.5% of the population.
My immediate draw to the Orthodox churches of Birmingham was visual, yes, but also, the sense of place and combining of ancestry and modernity, mixing American-ness and proud Otherness, is so intrinsic to the Birmingham spirit. And while you may never attend one of these churches, it is nice to know that they are here and there is life within their walls. And while these churches are somewhat small compared to Birmingham’s famous megachurches, they make big impacts on the city as cultural hubs.
So where are these churches?
St. Symeon is, as stated, on Clairmont Ave South. The church was founded in 1977, but their new building was finished in 2014 and according to its website is frequented by Christians of Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek, and Arab background, as well as converts with no ethnic ties to the areas of Orthodox church origin. Father Alexander Fecanin has been at St. Symeon’s since 1984 with a few interruptions before he was declared an Archpriest in 1999, and officially returned to Birmingham.
St. George Church is located on 16th Ave South, right off the UAB campus. Birmingham knows Saint George for their Middle Eastern Food Festival. The St. George website is largely dedicated to food and music, offering all of the Lent chants for your listening pleasure. The church hosts a monthly Feed the Homeless program where volunteers cook at the church’s kitchen and bring meals to local shelters.
Holy Trinity-Holy Cross sits on 19th Street and 3rd Ave South, and is an iconic part of the Birmingham scenery. They have an extensive list of programs and services, including Greek school and dance classes. They offer community outreach including senior care and funeral service volunteers.
Next time you’re driving around downtown, check out these buildings. They are all beautiful. They are all important community centers. They are all welcome. To learn more about Orthodox Christianity, you can check out the OCA’s official page.