From Humble Beginnings: Local outreach starts an Orthodox Christian church in Muncie

Emily Wilson holds her daughter, Ada, before a service April 4 in the basement of Urban Light Community Church. Wilson's Patron Saint, or personal Guardian is Cecilia of Rome. Rylan Capper, DN
Emily Wilson holds her daughter, Ada, before a service April 4 in the basement of Urban Light Community Church. Wilson's Patron Saint, or personal Guardian is Cecilia of Rome. Rylan Capper, DN

On April 4, Father Joel Weir began a lengthy drive from Crawfordsville, Indiana, to Muncie. He was preparing to lead the first full liturgy of presanctified gifts at St. Photini’s Orthodox Outreach.

Weir is a part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and has been the serving priest of St. Photini’s Christian Orthodox Outreach and rector of St. Stephen’s American Orthodox Church in Crawfordsville, Indiana. 

He arrived in Muncie early before the service, not at an Orthodox church, but at a local evangelical church — Urban Light Community Church. From there, he walked down to the church’s basement, to a small conference room he and a small group of Orthodox Christians had managed to convert into a full Orthodox service.

The conference room was full of iconography, candles and an altar, as well as many other traditional elements of an Eastern Orthodox liturgy. This small conference room is St. Photini, a small Orthodox outreach and the only known Orthodox Christian outreach in Muncie that currently hosts evening prayer vespers, following ancient Orthodox tradition.

“There’s really no Orthodox presence within a half hour of the greater Muncie area,” Weir said.

Michele Calache lights a candle on the altar April 4 in the basement of Urban Light Community Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church, having more than 220 million baptized members. Rylan Capper, DN

One of St. Photini’s earliest members, Michel Calache, said, “There’s a void of Orthodoxy in east-central Indiana, and I’d like people to know more about this faith and this denomination.”

Orthodox Christianity one of the oldest Christian faiths, alongside Catholicism, and many ancient traditions have developed to be included in modern services.

Orthodox services are rooted in Eastern practices rather than Western, so they differ from most other American church denominations. Services still include the earliest and most ancient practices, such as burning incense throughout the service, the use of iconography, chanting prayers and psalms, as well as many other Eastern elements that have “a sense of the sacred and an embrace of mystery,” Weir said.

Some of Muncie’s nearest Orthodox churches are St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Fishers, Indiana, and Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis.

“I really appreciate the commitment of Father Joel driving down here all the way from Crawfordsville, and I really appreciate his investment into the Orthodox community,” said Eli Sparks, Ball State sophomore economics major who regularly attends St. Photini.

St. Photini began its outreach in 2018. However, its beginnings aren’t in Muncie, but in Gas City, Indiana.

“Our first meeting place was in an old building called Jacob’s Well,” Weir said. “Coincidentally, Jacob’s Well is where Jesus met St. Photini, so we thought that’s a good connection, right?” 

The inspiration behind St. Photini’s name is rooted in scripture.

“In the gospel, St. Photini is the Samaritan woman at the well who meets Jesus,” Weir said. “They had an interaction, and by the end of it, she really recognizes who he is, and she goes to tell other people about him.”

Weir said his congregation chose the name St. Photini because they liked the “idea of going to where people already are and establishing a presence there.”

Roughly a year after its founding, St. Photini’s parishes were disrupted and, eventually, halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year of dormancy, Weir and the members of St. Photini needed a new place to worship. The search ultimately led Weir to contact Pastor Andrew Draper at Urban Light Community Church.

“He was very open to allowing space [at Urban Light] to be used by different faith communities,” Weir said. ”Pastor Andrew was very supportive of us and is just very friendly to Orthodoxy.”

In September 2021, Weir and the St. Photini congregation personally chose a small conference room in Urban Light Community Church’s basement to hold their services.

“We got a core group of people together willing to meet, pray and fellowship twice a month,” Weir said. “For now, we’re hoping that there will be local interest in seeing it grow.”

Michel Calache poses for a photo April 4 in the basement of the Urban Light Community Church. Rylan Capper, DN

Weir said the Orthodox Church “has a lot of entrance points for people, whether they are looking for a place of peaceful meditation, want to experience something different within Christian worship or are just curious and want to learn about this church that has such a rich history.” Weir is hopeful St. Photini will not just be a resource for spiritual prayer but will also offer a helping hand to the Muncie community.

“We are first seeking to just be faithful about being an ongoing worship presence within the community,” said David Dunham, member at St. Photini and professor at Taylor University. “A big part of this, at this point, is just letting the community know that we are here.” 

Weir expressed interest in working in conjunction with Urban Light Community Church to better “plug in” to Muncie and make a positive impact in the community.

“Pastor Andrew has been so welcoming, so accommodating and supportive,” Weir said, “but also, I love the work that Urban Light does for Muncie. We look forward to plugging in more with the amazing ministry Urban Light is.”

Contact Richard Kann with comments at richard.kann@bsu.edu or on Twitter @RichardKann.

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