Church Provides Refuge for Serbs in New York

For new refugees and long-time residents, Serbian cathedral becomes a help and home

Pilgrims fleeing war in Serbia have a refuge on Manhattan's West 25th Street on Sunday mornings that reminds them of better times at home.

Over the past five years, St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral has become a sanctuary for Serbian immigrants. Like many other immigrant groups, Serbs are drawn by America's promise of opportunity and material comfort. But they are also displaced from their country by war and alienated from their religion by communism. They come to the church seeking refuge from the judgment of others, and they continue its traditions in an effort to preserve the idea of Serbia itself.

"This is a second home," says Zivorad Tomic, who came to the United States four years ago. Mr. Tomic's optimism beams from his wide smile and bright blue eyes. He says St. Sava is often the source of first apartments, first jobs, and first friends for Serbs arriving in New York.

After each Sunday's two-hour-long Orthodox service, the somber Slavonic hymns give way to animated Serbian conversation. The congregation meanders down the gray stone steps of the church and gathers in a meeting hall for another two hours of gossip and political debate over date-filled pastries and casseroles pungent with sausages. Even on a busy Sunday, the church is half empty and looks dark with the accumulated grime of 150 years, but the adjacent hall fills quickly with chatter as adults share food and drink, and children scurry among the folding chairs.

"I came to New York without knowing anybody," says Ana Micic, a graduate student in microbiology at Hunter College. "The first weekend, I came to the church."

She arrived in the United States six years ago as a high school exchange student in Michigan and stayed there for college. Stylishly dressed in a short lavender shirtdress and sandals, Ms. Micic looks at home in Manhattan. But part of what attracted her to St. Sava was the chance to reconnect to a Serbian community.

In addition to refugees fleeing the war, many Serbs who were already here came to St. Sava when the war began. With the influx of newcomers, St. Sava has grown steadily and is now home to about 200 of the 67,000 Serbian Orthodox Christians in the United States.

Dragoslav Canic, a bank vice president, says St. Sava fulfills the need to share what he calls the Serbs' common tragedy. Mr. Canic says he hardly ever came to church before the war started, but now attends services regularly. Anger at what he calls the vilification of Serbs in the press drove him to seek a community in the church. "It was just unbearable," he says, and the church's connection to the Serbian past was his only comfort during the war.

Jelena Milinkovich first came to the US with her family 16 years ago. She said she has always been religious, but the church became even more important to her after the war began. She said St. Sava has become like her family, the only place where she does not have to defend her position as a Serb. "For the past five years, I've consistently been on the defensive," she says.

St. Sava is experiencing the third major wave of Serbian immigration to the US, each one a response to war in the Balkans. The first group fled Yugoslavia during World War I. In 1944, another generation of immigrants and refugees from World War II founded St. Sava in what was previously Episcopal Trinity Chapel. They bought the building and installed the icons and partitioned sanctuary that mark it as an Orthodox church.

But that congregation waned over the next several decades, and Serbs assimilated into American culture. The few immigrants who came during Yugoslavia's communist rule had grown up without religion and did not replenish the empty pews. That changed with the fall of communism in 1989 and the subsequent war in Yugoslavia.

"People came - especially back home - came back to church, and generally to religion, when the whole thing started," according to St. Sava's pastor, the Very Rev. Ljubomir Josimovic.

The Orthodox church and its members maintain an uneasy relationship with Serbian nationalism. Throughout Serbia's history, the two have been intertwined. "It is impossible to separate national identity from Orthodoxy," Canic says. "It always has both a secular and spiritual dimension to it."

"The church saved our people as a nation," says physicist Svetozar Popovich. The patron of the church, St. Sava, established the Serbian Orthodox Church as one of the various independent national Orthodox churches in eastern Europe, Mr. Popovich explains.

Many Serbs view the current conflict as part of a larger struggle in the history of the Serbian people, who spent 500 years under the Ottoman Empire and most of World War II under a fascist Croat puppet regime. But claiming their nationalism can mean stepping into the mire of Serbian politics.

Whatever the sympathies of individual members, St. Sava limits its official activities to relief efforts for Bosnian Serbs and prayers for peace.

Ms. Milinkovic says younger Serbs in particular have started coming to the church more in the last two years, since it became less political. "There were pictures in this church hall of political figures, people that were involved with the war. Now it's mainly icons and religious leaders," she says.

Having drawn together both new arrivals and less recent immigrants, the church has become revitalized in numbers and spirit. "I do see, to an extent, a sort of faith growing," Canic says. But for those who had grown up under communism, the traditions and beliefs of the church were often unfamiliar and sometimes completely unknown. "Some of them don't even know how to cross themselves," says Boris Stepich, a member of St. Sava for most of his life.

In response, St. Sava has organized periodic lectures over this past year about the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its beliefs. Adults and children attend Sunday School classes, and occasionally Fr. Josimovic will use his sermon to teach. On one recent Sunday, he explained exactly how to act in church, from crossing oneself at the entrance to approaching the altar. "A lot of people need it," Micic says.

For Serbs who have fled the war, St. Sava is one step closer to their future. For others, it is their only link to the past. That tension has both challenged and helped forge this community.

"You cannot forget," Milinkovic says. "But you need to forgive."

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