One of the big temptations in traveling to another land is to expect many of the familiar things there from your home country. Or if those things do not live natively in the host culture, the temptation is to somehow import them. Such a tradition for us is the great American church custom of coffee hour. Yes, that’s right, coffee hour is not a given at churches around the world but is a distinctively American custom for Christians to gather after a Sunday service for at least coffee and donuts and sometimes a whole lot more.
One of the churches we consider our home away from home in Moscow has long held the tradition of refreshments and social mingling after the Sunday Liturgy, but they don’t call it coffee hour and they don’t claim that the custom is borrowed from America. Because Russians are much more fond of tea than of coffee, the social hour is called chai chas, or “tea hour” (which sounds much better in Russian than in English). Some might argue that such a time is frivolous and unnecessary after the spiritual heights of Divine Liturgy and that such mingling might cause faithful Christians to spill the grace received in the sacrament by worldly gossip and idle chatter. We have found in our family that the custom produces the opposite effect when practiced well and with proper attention.
In our own home parish in America, coffee hours are in competition with one another for the Best of Boston award in the unknown category of “church coffee hours”. Thanks in large part to the oversight of our presbyteras/popadias, there is always a full meal to last hungry faithful much more than an hour after service. Ours might be better labeled a “Coffee Afternoon” by the lengths to which many folks linger after Liturgy. But far from scattering the grace of the Liturgy, we think that such lingering allows the faithful to also bask in the grace of the Church. When the people of God gather for sup in the house of God rather than dispersing to area restaurants, something of divine grace is better preserved.
We experienced this in the morning at the chai chas after Liturgy at the Ss. Martha and Mary Convent in the center of Moscow. A family who had immigrated to Moscow two years ago from Syria told stories of great gratitude for their own personal safety and of great loss over the devastation currently rocking churches and whole villages in their ancient, Christian homeland. It was a great consolation for us to see that we were not the only ones recently arrived in the land of St. Vladimir. While we don’t have to flee from similar destruction in our homeland, it was good to stand in solidarity with our Orthodox brothers and sisters who are. And we would not have had an occasion to meet these strangers without the hospitality of the nuns of Granduchess Elizabeth.
So whether your parish offers just coffee and donuts, or whether your church puts out a spread to rival the Tsar’s table, know that the tradition of coffee hour is a long and venerable one and ought not be taken for granted, wherever you happen to be in the world.