I spent the first 20 years of my life as a Jewish atheist in the New York City neighborhood of Astoria, a community, (at least at that time) with the largest concentration of Greek immigrants anywhere in the world. Every day on my way to school I walked past at least a couple of Greek Orthodox churches. I had no clue as to what they were, and certainly at that point in my life, didn’t really care.
In 1973, immediately after turning 20, I moved to Alaska for its mountains and its adventure, and spent the next almost 40 years of my life there. Everywhere you went, historic and ornate Russian Orthodox Churches dotted the majestic landscape, and though I admired them for their beauty, I still had no idea as to what they were.
Within a very short period of time after my arrival in Alaska, (and to make a very long story short) I had what one would call a radical “born-again” experience, and became a follower of Christ. I quickly got involved with a Bible study group outside of Anchorage with its leaders and roots connected to the “Campus Crusade for Christ” movement.
We, along with 19 other Christian fellowships across the country, (including one in nearby Yakima) then began an earnest and intense study of the ancient Christian Church. At that point we still knew nothing (like I knew nothing) of this so-called “Orthodox Church.” As “evangelicals” we knew the first 100 years of the historic church, because we knew the Bible pretty well. As “Protestants” we knew Reformation history, from Martin Luther and the 1500s on. But we had little idea about the 1,400 years in between, except for vague references to “The Dark Ages,” and some idea about the Latin Church centered in Rome, and the papacy.
And so we studied. From the first day and from the very first page, we discovered the majesty and mystery of this thing called Holy Orthodoxy. We became aflame for it. This wasn’t dry scholastic sleepy library reading. This was life! We read about the Christian martyrs and the frequent persecutions these early Christians endured in their stand for truth and their commitment to Jesus Christ. Men and women, young and old, with a burning faith and a love so immense that it made my own faith seem almost non-existent. We read about the Christological and Trinitarian controversies during the times of the Ecumenical Councils, (the first seven centuries) and how the church through her “God-seers” and saints, (these glorified holy ones) gave witness to “the faith once for all delivered,” and how they repudiated every heresy thrown against her.
We were awestruck by this living theology and the churches guarding of it, especially because in our day, so few seem to think dogma and theology important anymore. We read about liturgical worship and divine services and a method of prayer that produced an “other-worldly” atmosphere (a spiritual aroma so to speak), inside the chambers of the human heart, where the kingdom of God resides. “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
In the words of emissaries sent from Russia that attended a divine service in the “Great Church” of Constantinople 1,000 years ago, “We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on Earth.” We too were touched by this heavenly worship! And lastly we read about her monastic movement. Thousands upon thousands, myriad men and women, who for more than 1,600 years, even until now, have lived out the Gospel command: “Go sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me.” Earthly angels and heavenly men, the angelic life, we often call them, and after you have met some, you often find out why.
The fruit of this study was that in 1987 after a 14-year journey, 2,000 former evangelicals entered into a church that after 2,000 years has never changed. So not only in Yakima, but now in Ellensburg and Wenatchee; in Goldendale and Snohomish; in Arlington and Everson (and all over Washington), Orthodox churches and monasteries are sprouting up all around. The best kept secret? Perhaps not anymore.
Fr. Paul Moses Jaroslaw is the pastor of the Prophet Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission in Ellensburg. More information is at www.prophetelijah.net/.