Keeping Traditions Alive
Ionel Popa spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States from Romania in 1997. Now an American citizen who is quite fluent both speaking and reading English, Popa is concerned that the congregation of mostly immigrants where he pastors will become too assimilated to secular ways. So the 44-year-old Popa strives to keep the religious traditions of the home country alive.
That is a reason the three-hour Sunday morning service at Eben-Ezer Romanian Assembly in Springfield, Missouri -- a mere two miles from the Assemblies of God national offices -- is entirely in Romanian.
In addition to the preaching, the bulletin, music overheads, songs, Bible reading, and prayers are all in Romanian. In fact, everyone in the aging brick building hails from Romania, or, in the case of the children, their parents did.
Some of the older attendees speak no English, but younger couples and children typically do. But not on Sunday morning between 9 a.m. and noon, even in the youth and children's classes.
"We all speak the same, we all pray the same," Popa says.
The morning service features lengthy prayers while standing and kneeling, mellow worship songs led by young people, and exuberant teachings from a variety of male speakers. Several of the 70 congregants respond with an occasional "alleluia" or "amen."
"Kneeling is to honor God and to submit to God," Popa says. The stocky Popa is a demonstrative preacher, waving his hands, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, changing his voice inflection.
Popa isn't a stickler for ritual just for tradition's sake. For instance, older women tend to wear headscarves, but there's nothing mandatory. Foot washing is part of the after service for those who desire it, mostly older attendees. Attendees have the option of drinking Communion from an individual plastic cup or a common glass goblet.
There is a blending of cultures evident behind the pulpit, with Christian, U.S. Missouri, and Romania flags as backdrops. The formal attire of suits and ties for men and blouses and long skirts for women are the common attire.
One difference from many American churches is that young children are attentively listening to the proceedings rather than playing video games on a handheld device. In fact, one by one, children as young as four years of age take turns walking to the front of the sanctuary and speaking into a microphone, boldly reciting a memorized Bible verse.
Popa moved to the U.S. in 1997 at the age of 27 after being accepted via the State Department's immigration visa lottery. He has been pastor of Eben-Ezer since 2004. He obtained a civil engineering degree in Romania, but left a well-paid job when he sensed a calling by the Lord to preach.
Of approximately 500 Romanian pastors in the U.S., Popa says he is among only a handful not working another vocation.
"It's important for a pastor to be paid full time so he has time to prepare and to meet the needs of the congregation," Popa says. "A full-time pastor has more time to pray."
John Matei is the ordained associate pastor at Eben-Ezer. His full-time job is working in the finishing services department at the AG National Leadership and Resource Center. He credits church leaders helped him navigate the path to citizenship.
Matei, 54, has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, initially drawn by the motto "In God We Trust" and the phrase "one nation under God with liberty and justice for all" in the Pledge of Allegiance. In Romania, after the fall of communism, he worked as a producer for the Radio Voice of the Gospel. He tried attending a local AG congregation, but says he felt compelled to worship with fellow Romanians.
"I felt comfortable in the American church, but I know God wants me here," Matei says.
Pictured: John Matei (left) and Ionel Popa