By DAVID GUNTER, Feature correspondent
BONNERS FERRY — Take the northern entrance to Pleasant Valley Loop Road and, in less than half a mile, you come upon what appears to be a little country church. Only the sign outside — announcing the presence of the Holy Myrrhbearers Orthodox Christian Church — hints that there is some ancient secret hidden within these walls.
“On the outside, we blend right into the Boundary County landscape,” said Father Gregory Horton, pastor for the parish just a few miles south of Bonners Ferry.
“On the inside, it’s a little diamond — a jewel.”
Stepping through the front door and into the narthex supports that lofty statement. Just beyond, in the larger nave of the church, is an open space framed by an ornate, wooden “icon screen.” Set in the middle of the screen are the “royal doors” that lead into a sanctuary whose main feature is a glittering altar table.
“The royal doors are symbolic of the pearly gates,” Father Gregory explained. “And the sanctuary is reminiscent of the Old Testament Holy of Holies.”
If the surroundings hadn’t caught your attention by this point, the presence of the pastor most likely would have. Dressed in a long black robe topped with a black button-up sweater, with shoulder-length hair and long beard, he might be an anachronism in any other setting. But here, in this quiet space where the scent of incense still wafts around from a weekday morning liturgy, he is the modern-day link to centuries-old tradition associated with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.
“This church is 2,000 years old,” Father Gregory said, adding that little has changed as millennia passed.
To underscore the importance of keeping the faith in its original state, he shared a joke about the subject.
“How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?” he asked. By way of an answer, the pastor made a shocked face and said: “Change?!”
Horton and his wife, Cindy, moved to the Inland Northwest from Pennsylvania in 1995, after he had changed his plans to become a Catholic priest and they both became converts to the Orthodox Christian Church.
Fulfilling what he saw as his spiritual path in a different way, Horton and his wife started churches in Post Falls and Spokane, both of which grew to more than 200 parish members.
In the fall of 2007, they traveled north to establish yet another church, this time to serve an already established community of Orthodox Christian families in Creston, British Columbia, who had been traveling to Post Falls for worship. The following year, a five-acre parcel was purchased in Pleasant Valley and weekly services began at the new Holy Myrrhbearers Orthodox Christian Church.
“This our third church start and, each time, they have been small enough that I could immerse myself in the lives of our people,” the pastor said, adding that the Creston worshipers now are joined by families from Montana, Sandpoint and Priest River. “It’s a pretty big geography. We have some traditional Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but by-and-large, we’re pretty much American and convert-based.”
The spiritual pull of the church comes from its ancient roots, along with a style of worship that is meant to sweep the senses up in a combination of music, movement and incense. Father Gregory describes it as “full immersion worship 101.”
“Some people come to us because they’re looking for what they call ‘bedrock truth,’” he said. “People in the West are starving for spirituality and a lot of them have given up on Christianity for one reason or another.
“For the first 1,000 years, the church was one — East and West — and it was just known as The Church,” he continued. “But they went their separate ways. Orthodox is the perfect synthesis between Christianity and mysticism and its traditions go back to the beginning.”
The parish near Bonners Ferry has grown to more than 100 members, according to the pastor, who said the recent Easter midnight worship service drew such a large attendance that “people were hanging out the doors.”
Historically, the Orthodox Christian Church was disrupted by Islamic invasions on one front and incursions by the Roman Catholic Church during the 4th Crusade on another. With their sacred sites taken over and their relics carted off to Rome, the followers scattered to the East, settling most notably in Russia. From there, missions fanned out over the centuries until the faith came at last to Western Europe and United States — locations where it still is seen as an oddity when compared with the more familiar Catholic and Protestant traditions.
“Orthodox Christianity is like the best-kept secret in the Western world,” said Father Gregory. “Yes, it’s ancient. And yes, it’s traditional. But it has a vibrancy and a relevance.”
Becoming a convert to the faith is a journey, not a quick trip, and it was especially tough on Horton, whose decision caused him to set aside the quest for priesthood and leave the Catholic Church.
“My Irish Catholic grandmother was not well pleased,” he confided.
Today, much of his time is spent explaining how the unfamiliar ways of the Orthodox Church are rooted in the earliest days of Christianity. There are, for instance, no pews or chairs in the church itself — services are held standing. All music comes in the form of unaccompanied song and chant. Even the spot where a steeple can usually be found is adorned instead by a dome that opens inward, rather than pointing up to the heavens.
“That signifies that God is not ‘out there’ somewhere,” said the pastor. “He’s embracing us — right here.”
Visual and symbolic differences aside, the Holy Myrrhbearers Orthodox Christian Church has blended with the larger church community in this northernmost section of the Idaho Panhandle. Father Gregory, who serves as the treasurer for a pastors’ group that represents the denominations in the immediate area, pointed out that lower population doesn’t mean fewer choices for worshipers.
“There’s over 25 churches here,” he said. “The world is all meeting right here in little Boundary County.”
One question remains — how does a church where the feeling of antiquity hangs in the air as surely as lingering incense smoke or the religious icons on the wall stake its claim to contemporary times?
“The element that ties it all together is the element of love,” Father Gregory said. “It hits you like a wave as soon as you walk through the door.”