Pat Chiperas laughs when she thinks about an Easter service two years ago at her Greek Orthodox Church.
The priest anointed her husband's head with oil but wouldn't allow her the same privilege.
"Are you Orthodox?" the priest asked. Pat, who is African American and was a Baptist, said no. The priest refused to give her the blessing.
That day, instead of sharing her husband's rage or charging racism, Pat Chiperas decided to reach deeper into her husband's faith. For six months, she studied twice a week, and then she converted to the Greek Orthodox faith. The couple also got remarried, blessed by a Greek Orthodox priest.
Pat had learned a jarring lesson: that when church officials said she was in a "mixed marriage," they were not talking about race. "When they say 'mixed marriage,' they mean Christian Orthodoxy versus Christian nonorthodoxy."
"Even though we had been married for 30 years, in the Greek Orthodox Church our marriage was not recognized," John said. "When she got turned away, it was a signal to me you that you have to do something about this.
"I wanted my wife and me to be one in the sight of God," he said.
Pat added: "There is a sense that because people see the words Greek Orthodox, they think it is just for Greek people, but it isn't."
"They keep telling me that I am now Greek," said Pat, who along with John is now an active member of St. Theodore Greek Orthodox congregation in Lanham.
Last weekend, the church sponsored a Greek Festival that attracted more than 6,000 people to exquisite food, folk dancing and imported art. It was largely organized by Pat and John Chiperas.
One goal of the community event, Pat said, is to help show that the church welcomes people from many backgrounds.
About 130 families are members of St. Theodore, and most live in Prince George's County. Although most members of St. Theodore are of Greek descent, there are growing number of parishioners who come from other nationalities.
"In the Greek Orthodox Church, the whole focus is celebrating the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Pat Chiperas said. "When you are in this church, you are transformed back 2,000 years. It is like you relive what was happening back then."
From cook Demetris Kollaros, who is half Greek, half Ethiopian, to dishwasher Clibei Brobo, who is Mexican, people from many nationalities helped make the festival a success. "We have been cooking for two weeks," said Evangelia Marketon, who along with her husband, Ervin, and with Eleftherios Aloupis cooked for the event.
"In the church they talk about love a lot. God's love doesn't see any racial barriers," said Pat Chiperas, who believes she has found a true venue for God's love. "You can say 'I love you forever,' but love is something in the heart that has to come."
St. Theodore is adorned with elaborate icons and pictures that seemed to be taken straight out of the Bible. The Greek Orthodox Church uses icons more extensively than other churches, and Orthodox Christians use icons in their homes as a reminder of God's presence.
The pastor, the Rev. Konstantinos Kostaris, said many people don't realize that the roots of Christianity can be found in the Greek Orthodox Church. "The Orthodox Church is the eastern branch of Christianity, while the Roman Catholic Church is the western branch."
The Eastern Orthodox Church dates to the time of Christ and the Apostles. The Apostle Paul established the Christian church in Greece through his early missionary efforts in cities such as Corinth, Thessalonica and Philippi. The Apostle Peter founded the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Antioch and later became the first pope of the Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Church, according to church doctrine, also can be called Catholic because that means the wholeness of the faith in Christ. The two branches split apart in 1054 over the issue of the extent of the pope's authority.
In the early 1900s, many immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe, and another wave came after World War II. Many of them ended up in the Washington area, such as Angie Geralis, 69, a member of St. Theodore, who immigrated to the United States from Sparta, Greece, in 1951. After living in Chicago for four years, she eventually ended up in Prince George's County.
"Our religion is very important to me, my husband and my son," said Geralis, who is considered the church historian and has been a member of St. Theodore since the church was founded in 1971.
"I grew up in a Greek Orthodox Church in Greece," Geralis said. "It is the service; it is the tradition. We are trying to bring up our children in the same religion of our ancestors."
Bill Pantazes, 15, of Glenn Dale, said he loves going to a church with so many of his relatives. "Billy serves on the altar every Sunday. We are very proud of him," said the teenager's grandmother, Nola Pantazes, who left Greece more than 30 years ago.
Steve N. Katsakis, the first parish president of St. Theodore, said the congregation began in Brandywine in 1971 after a group of Greek Orthodox families expressed an interest in having their own building. "We met at St. John's Catholic Church every Saturday, and we talked a lot in the parking lot about how we should have a church of our own."
Katsakis, who has deep roots in the Greek Orthodox Church, was the lawyer who worked on the purchase of land for the first church.
Katsakis sees his role in life as provider for his people. In the late 1980s, St. Theodore moved into a house in Lanham. Despite resistance from county officials, the church was able to build a $700,000 community center that is being used as a church building at 7101 Cipriano Rd.
William Skaltsas, the current president of the parish, said the church hopes to build a $2 million structure in the next few years on several acres of land it owns in Lanham.
CAPTION: At left, Pat and John Chiperas look over religious items for sale at St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church's festival. One goal of the event, Pat said, is to help show that the church welcomes people from many backgrounds. Above, Steve N. Katsakis, the first parish president, helped build St. Theodore.