Last Thursday there was a group from a protestant church in Michigan, who were working with a Philadelphia ministry, hanging out where we serve. I introduced myself and talked with them for a bit, answering their questions about homeless ministries in Philadelphia. After they left, Alexei and Larry asked me if I ever broached the subject of Orthodoxy with groups like this.
I basically told them that I answer questions as honestly and directly as I can. They asked me if I thought any of them were at all persuaded by what I had to say. I said that I was happy if I managed to throw some sabots into the gears of their reasoning, so they might have to stop and consider another way.
I then listed a few of the people who had done this for me along the way. In high school, college and seminary, I was a militant, fundamentalist Baptist who thought Jerry Falwell was too liberal.
I was a slow learner, but God was gracious with me. I became good friends with Grama Ethel and Grampa Emil. They’re adoptive grandparents. Ethel went to a “liberal” Baptist church downtown. Emil didn’t have time for church at all. I would chide Ethel for going to such a church and she would say: “Well, Bughouse (an affectionate name for me), if I were to find the perfect church, they would ruin their perfect record by letting me in, now wouldn’t they?” How can you argue with that?
Emil was a pro-union Democrat. I was an anti-union Republican. He was 71. I was 17. We’d argue history, politics and religion; and shake our heads and laugh. We had a great time. We loved and respected each other, as wrong-headed as we were!
I dare say I learned more about God’s love and grace in that chocolate brown house on 25-1/2th Ave. than I did at Fourth Baptist Church, four blocks south.
Then there’s Curt Olson and Jonathan Alden Hogetvedt. Curt was in our daily morning prayer meeting in our public high school library. He put up with our pharisaical snobbery, which was not at all subtle, in order to maintain a friendship and pray for our school and town. He is the only childhood friend that still talks to me. With how obnoxious I have been, that is a lesson in grace.
Jonathan’s theology didn’t jive with mine, but his person radiated the peace of Christ. When we moved from Minneapolis to PA, he was the one who helped me re-roof the garage in 90 degree heat and load the van. And by the one, I mean just that.
How can you not be persuaded by such love? Now I didn’t adopt any of their doctrinal systems, but I had to abandon mine, because it didn’t have a place for them. Sabots in the gears.
It was a series of people and situations that didn’t fit my theology that liberated me from a flawed system. And it was people who love God who drew me into Orthodoxy. I will just mention one couple to demonstrate the point.
St. Philip’s provided a scholarship for me to go to the Conference on Missions and Evangelism in 1997 for five days at Antiochian Village. I knew no one at this event. We had services morning and evening. There was bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross, incense, lots of men in black. By this time, I had been in a number of very strange places. I know that there are a number of people out there who sincerely love God, but are doctrinally off. I can deal with differences and be safe if the love of God is there. I wanted to explore Orthodoxy, but I didn’t dare let my guard down unless I knew there were people here who truly loved God.
I asked God to let me know. The first night at vespers, I had my answer. I was standing in the chapel, and the service had just started. Someone had entered and was standing about six feet behind me. I could feel their presence; and it was a sense of the peace and love of God. I turned around to see who this was, to find Father Gordon Walker and his lovely Khouriye. At that moment I knew this was a safe place, because people who truly loved God were here.
I observed them all during the conference. It was obvious that they loved God and they loved each other. At the end of the conference, I introduced myself to them and thanked them for their example. I came home and asked to become a catechumen.
A scholar attracts by his knowledge, a wealthy man by riches, a handsome man by beauty, and an artist by his skill. Only love attracts all human beings. The attraction of love is unlimited. And educated or uneducated, rich or poor, skilled or unskilled, beautiful or ugly, healthy or sick, and young or old, all want to be loved. Christ spread His love on everyone, and lovingly drew all to Himself. With His great love, He encompassed even the dead, long decomposed and forgotten by men.
– Archimandrite Callistratus to Kassiana: Lessons in Divine and Christian Love