It is 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning at the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn. The service does not begin until 10:00 a.m., but 17-year-old Pavel Shapturenko is already hard at work. He cleans the altar, prepares the sacraments, heats water and wine for the communion, and lights the incense in a special incensory that the priest will use throughout the service. He then puts on the religious garments for the service – and it begins, with Pavel as an altar boy.
Pavel admits that serving as an altar boy at a Russian Orthodox Church is not an orthodox pastime for an American teenager. At times, he says, he has moments of doubt, especially when he has to wake up early for the service. But then he remembers why he decided to join the service in the first place.
“Being a teenager can be confusing at times; there are all these distractions, and sometimes you don’t know who to trust,” Pavel said. “The church has definitely helped me navigate some morally uneven territory. Also, I now understand the value of being generous, sociable, nice, helpful to other people … just being a kinder, more compassionate person, maybe even a more loving person.” [This is a more effective first quote.]
“I’m not saying it’s the only answer,” he added. “But it’s definitely one of them: to look for truth inside yourself rather than on the outside.”
Looking for truth on the inside does not prevent Pavel from fully participating in the “normal” teenage activities of the outside world. He is an avid swimmer and a tennis player. He likes to read; his favorite author is Jack London [Great!]. He listens to music, and, even though he does not have someone whom he would consider a “best friend,” he does enjoy “hanging out” with friends. “Being an altar boy only requires you to be at church during the service on Sundays and sometimes on Saturdays, so it does not really interfere with my social life,” he said.
Yet, the Rev. Vladimir Alexeev, the priest in charge of the Holy Trinity church, said that it takes a special kind of person to serve at the altar – and that Pavel showed signs of being one as early as 12 years of age.
“I noticed him when he came for the first time for confession, and I realized I’m talking to an adult person already,” said Alexeev. “Then, I observed how he is watching the service. You can tell by the eyes if somebody is absolutely involved, from the beginning until the end.”
Alexeev waited three years before asking Pavel to join the service at the age of 15. Pavel took two months to consider, then he agreed.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s Divine Liturgy dates back to the times of the Apostles. It is laden with rituals and symbols: the priest symbolizes the heavenly Father, the servers – including the altar boy – the angels and cherubims surrounding Him. The church itself is seen as an intersection of heaven and earth: the dome of the church symbolizes the heavenly kingdom descending unto the people, the icons that parishioners kiss after they cross themselves – two-way windows between the physical and spiritual worlds. And the candles people light throughout the service represent the eternal light of God’s love burning in each person’s soul.
The Divine Liturgy is like a tightly choreographed dance, and Alexeev relies on Pavel to make sure it all goes smoothly. It begins with the prayers – some for guidance, some for forgiveness, some in preparation for the communion. Then comes the reading of the Bible, the singing, the sermon, the proclamation of faith sung by the entire congregation, and, finally, the most important part of the service: the communion.
During the communion, Pavel’s duties include wiping the parishioners’ lips as the priest puts the holy bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, into their mouths. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he says, smiling and somewhat embarrassed. “You have to be careful. Some people are too eager to take communion, and you don’t want the blood and the body of Christ falling on the ground.”
Pavel’s family came to New York from Minsk, Belorussia when he was six years old. His father, Sergey Shapturenko, 46, is a postal worker. His mother, Oksana Shapturenko, 38, was as a teacher back home and now works as a dental hygienist. Recently, the Shapturenkos welcomed a fourth member of the family: Pavel’s sister, Maria, is now 7 months old. [Very good.]
Shapturenko said that the church has helped Pavel to become more focused and organized. The church, he said, may have also given him something that he, as a father, could not.
“If he decided to do this, it must mean that perhaps there was some kind of emptiness inside him that I couldn’t fill … and church could,” Shapturenko said. “Maybe it was my fault, or maybe there was just a place inside him that I couldn’t reach. But if he had that emptiness inside, and the church was able to fill it, I can only be happy about this.” [I love this guy.]
In contrast to Shapturenko’s measured, contained reaction to his son’s decision to join the church service, Pavel’s mom could not be more proud of her boy [Nice writing.]. “He’s always been different and advanced for his age,” she said. “It took me, for example, years to understand simple things like the fact that spiritual values are worth more than material possessions. Pavel, thank God, understood it much earlier than I did.”
The Shapturenkos support their son’s church position, but insist that he must get a formal education before thinking about deepening his involvement in the church. Pavel is now in his senior year of high school and is planning to apply to Columbia University as a science major next year. In the meantime, he will be praying for a good score on his SAT’s.
Sergey Gordeev: Every Sunday, when his friends are still asleep, 17 year-old Pavel Shapturenko wakes up early and goes to church. He arrives before anyone else, because he has to prepare the service. He cleans the altar, prepares the sacraments, heats up the water and wine for the communion, and lights up incense in a special incensory that the priest will use throughout the service. He then puts on the religious garments for the service – and it begins, with Pavel as an altar boy.
Ambience: church choir
Pavel Shapturenko: “The first time I actually started to like church for what it is instead of making it a chore was when the priest at our church asked me to become an altar boy… I felt uncertain of what I wanted to do with my time at church – and I decided to try it.”
Gordeev: The Russian Orthodox Church service is very ceremonial and rich in ritual. It’s like a tightly choreographed dance, and Pavel has to make sure that it all goes smoothly. Father Vladimir is the priest in charge of the Holy Trinity church. He says that it takes a special kind of person to serve at the altar.
Father Vladimir: “I noticed him when he came for the first time for confession and I realized I’m talking to an adult person already. … You can see by the eyes, when someone is absolutely involved from the beginning until the end.”
Gordeev: Father Vladimir says that Pavel was just 12 years old then, and that he waited for 3 years before asking Pavel to join the service. For Pavel, it was an easy decision to make.
Pavel: “Going from just being a church member to someone who takes part in the service, it gives me more insight into what the faith is all about and the values that the church upholds, and I could tie that into my life and make myself the better for it.”
Gordeev: Pavel’s family came to New York from Minsk in Belorussia when he was 6 years old. His father is a postal worker. His mother now works as a dental hygienist. Pavel’s father, Sergey Shapturenko, says that the church has helped Pavel become more focused and more organized. He also said that perhaps the church was able to give his son something that he couldn’t.
Sergey Shapturenko [in Russian with English translation]: “If he decided to do this, it must mean that perhaps there was some kind of emptiness inside him that I couldn’t fill … and that church could. Maybe it was my fault, or maybe there was just a place inside him that I couldn’t reach, for some reason … but if he had that emptiness inside, and the church was able to fill it, I can only be happy about this.”
Gordeev: Pavel’s father supports his son’s being a part of the church service, but, like a true Russian father, insists that Pavel must get a formal education before thinking about deepening his involvement in the church. Pavel is now in his senior year of high school and is planning to apply to Columbia University as a science major next year. In the meantime, he will be praying for a good score on his S-A-T’s. Sergey Gordeev, Columbia Radio News.