Set deep in a dusty, less-than-spectacular Midrand suburb, St Sergius of Radonezh Russian Orthodox Church is an anomaly: only one of three Russian Orthodox Churches in Africa, its gold-leaf domes blindingly glint against an incongruous hot-blue sky; a Slavic Star of Bethlehem, they guide curious strangers from the N1 highway to the gate’s buzzer. Inside you’ll find ground-up saint bones, beeswax candles, a 15th-century icon of St Mark, Patron Saint of Africa, and no chairs.
The church is an unusual sight – as Google Maps tells me to turn a corner, I’m a little awestruck when it suddenly appears up close; its white walls and gold onion domes sit so unexpected in the high-walled, estate-filled far north of Joburg. The church is overseen by the rector, Reverend Daniel Lugovoy, a bearded man of God with young eyes and a strong Muscovite accent. He tells me that he’d only been to South Africa once before, on a fleeting five-day visit, before being posted to Midrand – “indefinitely.”
“My wife wasn’t so happy coming to Africa, but the church makes the decisions, not me. We’ve been here seven years, and my three children go to the Russian Embassy School in Pretoria, so they don’t speak English so well,” he says. Born in Moscow, his parents converted to Russian Orthodoxy when he was seven; he started going to church and fell into studying theology. “There was no big seeing the light,” he explains, “how you, say… it went ‘smoothly’?”
The church, which has a cross-shaped plan, was designed and constructed by Kirs George Victorovich, a Russian architect. It took about two and a half years to build, and was officially consecrated in 2003. Before the church was built, the parish was based in a small house in Carlswald; the first priest arrived in South Africa in 1999, when Midrand wasn’t as developed as it is today – the smallholding suburb was peaceful, and perfectly located halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The building has five golden domes, which Rev. Lugovoy says symbolises one God and the four disciples of the Holy Gospels (although Russian Orthodox churches will have anything from one dome to 13). “Many people, when they come here, they ask, ‘Is it real gold?’ Yes, but very thin thin of the gold, in total it’s less than one kay-gee of gold,” says Rev. Lugovoy. I like how he squints his eyes and brings his index finger and thumb extremely close together when he says “very thin thin”.
Inside the church, the first thing I notice is the strong waft of incense – it’s undoubtably the same stuff the Catholics use; its unmistakable scent evokes many a Mass of my childhood. A couple of babuschkas are at the entrance, buying Mary amulets and slipping coins into a wooden donation box. There are so many candles, only a handful of chairs, and no pews. What’s with the seating arrangement – or lack thereof – I ask the reverend? “During the service we are standing,” he replies. “You can see not a lot of chairs. Some people who are tired, if they like they can sit, but usually they are standing.”
He smiles, strokes his grey-streaked beard, and adds, “it’s very interesting that for these younger people, it’s more difficult for them to stand. If they do, it’s like, miracle!” We laugh a hearty Russian laugh. He says that standing, as opposed to sitting, prevents nodding off during the service, and it’s character building – the Russian way. “On Sunday we start the service at 9am and finish at 11:30 – so its takes getting used to. The old people are usually fine.”
There’s a whole lot of symbolism in Russian Orthodoxy. Rev. Lugovoy tells me that gold symbolises “the glory and divine grace of the heavenly kingdom”, while candles symbolise sacrifice to God, with the flames mirrored in the shape of the domes . “Our prayers should fly from the earth to the heaven as quick and easily like the flame of a candle,” explains the reverend. I look upwards as he says this, and I’m struck by the murals of angels and saints covering the walls, with Christ on the highest point, painted on the inner central dome. Much of the detailing was done by Russian craftsmen, and the ornate altar screen was hand-carved by an Italian prisoner of war. The altar area reminds me of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that we visited in Berea; like in Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the altar is separated by a screen which acts as a ‘gate’, as only the priest is allowed behind it, while those who assist him go in and out of side doors behind the altar.
Reverend Lugovoy gives some background on the Russian Orthodox Church: Russia became a Christian country more than 1 000 years ago, but at the beginning of the 20th century, scores of people were killed during the Russian Revolution. “It was a very dangerous time when Soviet government took people during the night from their houses, and took them to the forests and insist they dig the grave for themselves,” says the reverend. “The Soviets only ask, ‘Do you believe in God?’ If yes, they shoot them. This was for also Muslims and Jews and anybody who believed in any God. Very tough time. After that we have a lot of martyrs who were killed for the church.”
He explains the tradition of relics in the church (another similarity to Catholicism): inside the church, there are pieces of saints (well, it’s assumed they’re the correct people, at least); the bones of the saints are ground up, sealed in wax, and displayed next to icons in small boxes on the walls, which serve as relics for parishioners to kiss and receive blessings from. “The body of the living saint is like a vessel of the holy spirit, but after death the body still has the source of divine grace and spiritual comfort for the people,” explains Reverend Lugovoy. “They come to the box and make sign of the cross and they kiss and ask these saints to pray for them to God. We don’t regard saints as other gods, they’re like our friends who can help us because they’re closer to God. We ask them to pray about us. People really feel this helps. Also we have small piece of the body of St Sergious, a Russian monk with a powerful spirit from the 15th century, whom the church was named after.”
Acoustics are important, as it’s part of Russian Orthodox tradition to not use microphones, and, during services, there’s a choir of four people who sing on a balcony above the standing parishioners. “The service is like a dialogue between priest and choir,” says Rev. Lugovoy. “The priest says something and the choir answers, for example, I say, ‘Let us pray’, and the choir answers, ‘Lord have mercy.'”
According to Rev. Lugovoy, the church in Midrand is a meeting point for all sub-Saharan Russian Orthodox people, like those in Nambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and they come here to baptise their babies, as there are no Russian Orthodox Churches in this part of the continent. It’s true that there is no shortage of Greek Orthodox Churches in South Africa, and there’s also Serbian-, Romanian-, and Bulgarian Orthodox churches, but St. Sergious is the only Russian Orthodox Church, literally, for thousands of kilometres. “Every Sunday we have about 70 people in our church, in total the Russian Orthodox community in South Africa is about 300 people, but nobody knows how big the Russian community as a whole really is,” says Rev. Lugovoy. “Not all of the Russians are religious or orthodox, or even Christian; a lot of Jews left the Russian Empire at the beginning of 20th century,” he adds.
Incense wafts, candles burn, angels gaze down, prayers fly from heaven to earth like flames to the sky. I can only imagine what it must be like with the choir’s dialogue, and Heather wonders the same. ‘Maybe we should come to a service sometime? It must be amazing,’ she says. The sacredness of the space makes our speech respectfully hushed, and together we ponder this idea for about three seconds. But we both know that neither of us would be able to tolerate one and a half hours of solid standing – much like ‘the younger people’.
Virgina Woolf said that Russia was where “the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden, and sentences are often left unfinished from doubt as how to best end them”, while Yuri Gargarin said, on becoming the first Russian – and human – to enter space, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” I like the idea of a long sunset, a slow dawn; unfinished sentences not so much. And I long stopped looking for God. But at St Sergious of Radonezh, in estate-filled, hot and dusty Midrand, there’s a lesson in holiness that perhaps we can all learn from: sometimes the sacred is found by having the strength of character to keep standing… the Russian way.
For photos and details on some the church’s icons and relics, which all come from Russia, go here
Find St Sergius of Radonezh Russian Orthodox Church on the corner of Wattle and 8th streets, Noordwyk, Midrand. For more info visit the church’s website
All images 2Summers. For more of her images and to read about 2Summers’ experience at the church, see her blog post