Here, we hope to share with you some personal “journeys” of some of the faithful of St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church.
Lief (Ambrose) Pierson
Journey to the Orthodox Christian Church
I grew up in a Christian home and never lacked faith in Christ. Our Protestant (Pentecostal) faith made me venerate the scriptures and the spiritual reality, and I had an early interest in theology. Although our theological answers we supposed to come from the scriptures, I learned that the explanations varied widely depending on who you asked. The church that I was brought up in emphasized emotional energy as the experience of God. I started to realize that there were other approaches to spirituality among Christians.
I had some historical knowledge of our Christian heritage but did not learn of the actual origins of the Protestant movement until I got into college. Protestantism, it turned out, was not so much a return to the early church as it was an unruly child of Roman Catholicism. Around the same time, I was getting interested in other religions and spiritualities. This included Catholicism, which had many of the same moral teachings that I had learned at home and that liberal, mainline Protestant theologians had abandoned. I wasn’t thinking seriously of converting to something else—just looking around at the different possibilities.
As a curious student of histories and cultures I had of course heard of the Orthodox Church, but didn’t know of converts to it. Then I was exposed to a publication by a certain former evangelical Protestant. I had already read and appreciated the major books by his father, who had a way of cutting right to the heart of cultural movements and how they related to the gospel of Christ. This Orthodox convert pointed out that the mainline Protestant churches had abandoned many traditional theological and moral teachings, and evangelicals were headed down the same path as their worship and spirituality were shallow and directionless.
He went on to point out the basic features of the authentic, historical church: the clergy as successors to the apostles, the ecumenical councils, the liturgy, iconography, the church calendar with fasts and feasts, and the sacraments. All of these are part of Holy Tradition. Scripture, which Protestants already hold up as their authority, has to be interpreted, and that interpretation makes all the difference. That is why it has to be interpreted inside the living church with all of these authentic features, not by mere individuals.
I also started to notice the different approaches to material reality between Protestants and the historical church. I grew up thinking that God was in the “space” between material objects, which avoided idolatry because it deemphasized material things. A faith like Orthodox Christianity sees material creation differently, accepting symbols (icons, the cross, etc.) as a focus for our senses and minds. Like Israel’s tabernacle or temple, they are provided by God to direct us toward the spiritual goal. They aid our worship, rather than hindering it.
Because of this background, I was faced with two different paths. I could continue on as an isolated Protestant (or “independent”) where I could not be certain who was right or with what community to associate. This approach was rather lonely since I really could not trust anyone else’s interpretation of the scriptures. Or, I could look for a church that openly followed Holy Tradition.
When I looked at the alternatives, Roman Catholicism seemed farther from the historical church model. I viewed the papacy, which puts all the burden on one bishop, as a deformed church structure. As Catholicism developed during the Middle Ages, it came to emphasize scholarship as the route to true theology. Orthodoxy is different on both counts. It maintains the conciliar structure of church government. The Orthodox bishops in council define doctrine and practice as long as the Church as a whole comes to agree with them. Regarding scholarship, a true Orthodox theologian is someone who speaks from the experience of ascetic struggle, not scholarly achievement.
I should also bring up the communal nature of the Orthodox Church. The prayers, the communion of the saints, and other aspects of the faith and practice of the Orthodox all uphold the sense of community more than anything I had experienced before.
My own journey was slow until I found an Orthodox parish where I could consistently attend and get to know people personally. Not until I ended up in graduate school at the University of Kansas did I find that situation. The young people in the college fellowship and the parish (in neighboring Topeka) impressed me. They were highly intelligent and sincere, and had their own spiritual paths. They could have gone anywhere, but they found something to devote themselves to in Orthodoxy. I had been getting more and more interested in spirituality and found that the Orthodox spiritual tradition truly cut to the heart of the human struggle. I was particularly moved by the mystery of the body and blood of Christ. I was received into the Orthodox Church at Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Topeka in 2001. Certainly not everything worked out as I had hoped in this situation in Kansas. Some people talk about new converts suffering particular spiritual “attack,” and I found that to be the case personally. As far as my faith, though, I was at home no matter the struggle. I ended up moving to Denton, Texas, where I was blessed to attend a wonderful parish. When I then moved to Tyler I was again fortunate to find a parish with dedicated faithful. I have been impressed by the authenticity of the Orthodox people throughout my journey.
Margaret (Macrina) Barno
My journey to Orthodoxy began before I was conceived. My paternal grandparents came from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the early 1900s, settled in Wolf Run, Ohio, where six of their eight children, including my father were born. I’ve learned that my grandparents loaned funds to buy land and build All Saints Russian Orthodox Church over one hundred years ago. I’m happy to say, the church is now affiliated with the OCA and is still active.
I was baptized in the Methodist Church. Because our family moved frequently to different parts of the US, I was exposed to a variety of Protestant traditions, graduated from a Methodist college, earned two Master’s degrees from a United Methodist seminary, and received a third Master’s degree in Social Work from a Roman Catholic graduate school. I spent most of my adult life attending Episcopal churches.
I knew nothing about my Orthodox roots in fact until 2017, when three events occurred: I reviewed a cousin’s information that his son had asked him to gather on his grandparents’ religious background. Joining Ancestry.com confirmed that 47% of my genes revealed a Central European heritage. The third and most unusual event occurred one afternoon; while reading, I noticed a 3”x5” card floating from my kitchen ceiling to the floor near me, landing face down. When I picked the card up and turned it over I read the following:
Prayer to the Holy Spirit
Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
Who are everywhere present and fill all things.
Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life,
Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain
and save our soul. O Gracious Lord.
~ from the Eastern Christian Tradition
I have no idea from where it came from, though having had unusual events in the past that were equally unexplainable, I knew it came from above. I read it over and over, finally prayerfully saying, “Thank you Grandma B.” Then I began a new search: I called OCA Headquarters in NYC, learned of the church name both in Wolf Run, Ohio, and here in Tyler, TX, e-mailing the priest of each church. I received information about All Saints, while Fr. John Mikita arranged to have is wife pick me up and attend Saturday evening vespers.
After vespers, he sat beside me and asked how I felt. Instead of the words I’d wanted to say, I sobbed and sobbed, managing to say, “I’m HOME! I’ve finally found my spiritual home.” That visit took place in May 2017. Following several conversations with Fr. John and his conferring with his superior and Archbishop Alexander in Dallas, I became a catechumen and was chrismated on August 19, 2017.
I have read several books on the Elders of Optina and others on the history of orthodoxy, listened to Ancient Faith Radio. What I’ve found most helpful is listening to how others were drawn to Orthodoxy and attending every service whenever possible. I pray Morning Prayer and “Prayers Before Sleep” almost daily. I’ve met the Lord and the Theotokos in new ways: in icons, using the prayer rope, and in the people of Saint John of Damascus Orthodox Church.