Food and faith at the Alaska Greek Festival

If you’ve never attended the Alaska Greek Festival, this might be a great weekend to do so. This well-known festival is hosted by and held at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. An annual Anchorage tradition, this year’s festival will be the 21st celebration. Holy Transfiguration is located immediately on O’Malley Road, near its intersection with Lake Otis Parkway. Parking is available on the church grounds, or at Hanshew Middle School, a couple blocks north.

My columns explore faith and faith traditions. Like other Orthodox faith traditions, the Greek Orthodox Church traces its beginnings back to the Apostles after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel quickly spread from Jerusalem to Syria, Turkey and Greece.

Holy Transfiguration’s new church, a work of many years, was conceived and a project initiated in 2005. In 2009, the Greek Orthodox community of Holy Transfiguration welcomed its hierarch, Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, for groundbreaking ceremonies, at which time the community received the Metropolitan’s blessing for the parish to officially begin construction of its new church. In the summer of 2014, their first service, the Paraklesis to the Mother of God, was held in the new church building. The following Sunday, Divine Liturgy was held on the feast of Pentecost.

Metropolitan Gerasimos came and celebrated the Thyranoixia (Opening of the Doors) that October. Participating clergy from the Orthodox (formerly Russian Orthodox) and Antiochian Orthodox joined hands with their Greek Orthodox brethren to make this a most joyful time indeed. I was fortunate to be standing with the wife (Matushka) of an Orthodox priest, who gave me insight into the rituals. Many parishioners, former parishioners, and other community well-wishers joined in the celebration. In the service following, both bishop chairs were used as Orthodox Bishop David and Metropolitan Gerasimos were present.

Holy Transfiguration’s priest is the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse. His wife leads the choir. Orthodox services feature a strong choral tradition. The Rev. Vasili’s wife, Presvytera Maria, serves as cantor. She’ll chant Great Vespers Saturday night at 7 p.m., giving attendees a taste of Byzantine chant. To learn more about the Greek Orthodox tradition and explore this beautiful new church, the Rev. Vasili is giving tours at 1:15 p.m., 3:45 p.m., and 6:15 p.m. each day of the festival. Be sure to ask questions about Greek Orthodox icons and iconography. The church narthex and bookstore will remain open outside of tour times. The acoustics in the church are wonderful. During services there is an inspiring attitude of respect and quiet. During a service I attended, I was moved by the portion of the service where the Lord’s Prayer was recited in unison in a number of tongues, as called for by the Rev. Vasili. I’ve not heard this done during any other of my church visits.

“The proceeds from Festival are only used to support the completion of the new church building,” the Rev. Vasili says. “The annual gala profits are used to support the operations, ministries, and housing expenses of the church.” He also noted there is no charge for festival admission and most credit cards are accepted.

“Over the years the Alaska Greek Festival has become a mainstay of the Anchorage community,” Vasili says. It has provided wholesome fun and entertainment for Alaskans and visitors to our beautiful state. This festival is all about sharing the best of our culture and our Faith. While the food, music, and dancing are all Greek in character, those who are preparing and serving the food, and those who are dancing for you come from various ethnic backgrounds. We have all found a common joy in sharing the Hellenic culture and Orthodox Christian Faith with our visitors. We’ve been so blessed to have the support of the Anchorage community, and it has only been through their support that we were able to build this beautiful new Byzantine church as an expression of our faith in God, and as an example of the love that God has for all of his creatures. We hope that all of our visitors are blessed by their participation in our festival, and we thank them from the depths of our heart!”

In addition to the church related activities, the festival offers daily live Greek music and dancing, cooking demonstrations, bouncy house for the kids, silent auction, an agora (a market of gifts and souvenirs), a deli, and Orthodox Christian bookstore.

The food is truly delightful. A dinner booth will offer traditional Greek entrees. A gyro and souvlaki booth offers both of these tasty grilled items. You may spot the Rev. Vasili working at the gyro booth. In the kafenion you’ll find your favorite Greek coffee, pastries and desserts — yes, baklava will be there too. Finally the loukoumades booth will be making and serving a true treat. In ancient Greece, these heavenly, hot honey puffs, sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts, were awarded to top athletes at religious festivals.

Some friends from this congregation invited me to their place one Christmas when I was alone. In addition to great food and wine, I was introduced to Greek dancing and the word “Opa!” I discovered “Opa!” is used when they dance and celebrate. It is a term of high emotion expressing great delight in what is going on. If you’re old enough to remember the picture “Zorba the Greek” you will know what “Opa!” means.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

 

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