Orthodox America


Seek and ye shall find... A couple's journey to Orthodoxy


by Reader Peter Jackson

My wife, Styliana, grew up in a family of non-denominational Protestant missionaries. When she was five, she and her family moved to Colombia, where they began working as missionaries among the Kogi Indians. Her childhood years were spent divided between living in a mud and thatch hut, washing clothes in a river and cooking over a fire, and living with other missionary families at the mission station, complete with a school, a store and a clinic.

As the years went by, her father began questioning Evangelical Protestant theology. He realized that salvation meant growing in holiness and not just a one-time emotional experience. But while he was able to diagnose the problems of Protestantism, he was not able to adequately formulate a solution. He still maintained the Protestant view of an "in-visible Church," composed of individual believers struggling on their own, equipped only with a Bible. Left to her own, without any church and without any practical way to pursue holiness, Styliana found herself falling into sin and becoming angry at God. The holiness required by God was simply impossible to attain.

Once, on a visit to the U.S., she spied a beautiful church from the window of her grandmother's car and commented on it. "But that's a Greek Orthodox church," her grandmother responded. "What's that?" "Ah, they're worse than the Catholics." Still later, as a teenager, she read The Brothers Karamazov and was struck by the glimpse it gave of Holy Russia. "What a wonderful kind of Christianity they had," she thought. "Too bad I didn't live in 19th-century Russia." As a young woman, working as a nurse in Dallas, she began to visit every church she could find, hoping to find one that could help her. Where was true sanctity to be found, and where were God's people? As she searched for a church that could help her, she felt God reassure her that He still had his "7000 who had not bowed their knee to Baal." But where were they?

I was brought up Baptist and, later, Presby-terian, though my father insisted that denominations did not matter, as long as a church "preached from the Bible." Even as a child I wondered then, why it was that there were so many different churches, if everyone was claiming to be Christian. When I was eight or so, I was urged to "accept Jesus" at a Bible camp, and I began reading the Bible on my own. In junior high I attended the church youth group on Wednesday evenings. The part I enjoyed most were the question-and-answer sessions, although sometimes the pastor's answers seemed too pat and unconvincing. At one session someone asked why we didn't include the Apocrypha in our Bibles. To convince us that these books are just "fairy tales," the pastor cited the passage from Tobit where Raphael advises Tobias to burn the innards of a fish in order to get rid of a demon. This kind of argument did not convince me. There are other parts of Scripture far stranger than this that Protestants have no difficulty accepting.

One Wednesday the pastor told us that we were not too young to ask God to show us what He wanted us to do with our lives. I sincerely wanted to serve the Lord, and I began praying in earnest that if He had a plan for me He would make it known. That very Sunday a family of missionaries visited our church. They shared about their work of translating the Scriptures for an Indian tribe in Colombia. They spoke of the thousands of people who do not have a Bible in their own language, whose language does not even have a written form. It struck me how much I took the Bible for granted. What if no one had ever translated it into English? I had always been fascinated with languages, and felt strongly that here was a speedy answer to my prayer: God was calling me to be a Bible translator.

In my high school years I did whatever I could to serve the Lord and prepare myself for mission work. Besides singing in the choir and helping in the church library, during vacations I helped with children's Bible classes in the inner city and with Hispanic communities in the countryside. One summer I went to Mississippi to help restore houses for a local Christian ministry. As my world grew larger and I met different kinds of Christians, my questions persisted. Why were there so many forms of Christianity? What was a Presbyterian, anyway? I searched the library for answers, but to my surprise there was very little information on church history, and no one around appeared to know much about it either.

My questions seemed only to multiply. Another memory I have of this time is of sitting in church and looking at the bulletin that read "Worship Service" at the top. I asked myself, "Why do they call this worship? We're singing about God. The preacher is talking to us about God. I hear plenty of jokes and announcements. The choir is entertaining us. But where is the worship?" Once I could drive, I visited different churches with friends from school, but none of them had the answers I was seeking, nor did they worship. Some, like the Charismatics, made a show of worshiping, but it never struck me as true worship. I never visited an Orthodox church simply because I didn't know anyone who was Orthodox. And I assumed that Orthodoxy was basically an exotic form of Roman Catholicism.

After college I moved to Dallas to begin my training with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Their philosophy was that since the Bible was all that one needed, the best method of evangelism was simply to give people that Bible in their own language. Whether the people then wanted to join a church, or form their own, was up to them. I was also taught the principles of "dynamic equivalence" translation. In this view, the language of the Bible needed to be "clarified," since the meaning was often "obscured" by poetry, metaphor and symbolism. Since "Son of man" was too exotic a turn of phrase to be readily understood, it was better to translate it as "Jesus." Since the blood of Christ was a metonym for His death (just as one can say "head" and mean "cattle"), it was better to say "death of Christ" rather than mention His blood. And if a culture knew nothing of sheep, but sacrificed pigs, then it was legitimate to change "Lamb of God" to... well, you can guess.

While in Dallas I met Styliana, who was there working as a nurse. Her parents were shaken by the recent kidnapping of her brother - held by Marxist terrorists for four and a half months - and had sent her to live in the U.S. for a while. After we were married, we moved to Colombia to resume the Bible translation work that her parents had set aside ten years before. Her family had raised a Kogi youth named Alfonso, and had him help them translate some New Testament portions into Kogi (the Kogi do not speak Spanish), although he complained that he was too young for such a responsibility. When he was grown, he returned to the Kogi area, and Styliana's family lost contact with him.

When we arrived in Colombia, I was not sure what work I was going to do. I had no way to learn the Kogi language - I didn't even know any Spanish yet - and there was no one to assist me in the task of translating the Scriptures into Kogi. God's Providence soon rescued me from this quandary. Shortly after we arrived in Colombia, a Kogi came down from the mountains bearing a letter from Alfonso-the first anyone had heard from him in ten years-announcing that he was now ready to resume work on the Bible translation. He had no idea that I had just arrived in Colombia with that very intention.

After a few years I knew Kogi well enough to begin the task of translating the Scriptures with Alfonso. This work was challenging not just because of the complexity of the language, but also because it made me realize how superficial my understanding of Scripture was. When you are forced to render something into another language, you have to have a good understanding of just what that something means. I suddenly found that I wasn't sure what many key terms really meant: justification, grace, blessing, holiness, even salvation. How could these be expressed in Kogi? How could I get Alfonso to understand them if I didn't understand them myself? It took eight years to translate the entire New Testament and the book of Genesis. Those eight years were also a time of intense study in the Greek and Hebrew texts. In the process I discovered that the Christianity that I was raised on bore little resemblance to what I was finding for myself in the original Scriptures.

I began to study church history, which I had never been encouraged to read before. I had been raised to understand that between the Apostles and Martin Luther, nothing important happened. It was understood that the Church had "apostatized" at an early date and that no one really understood what Christianity was about until the Reformation. Now I was seeing that I had been deprived. I also realized that the West, both Roman and Protestant, had been unduly influenced by Augustine without being balanced by the more ancient, Eastern Fathers, who, unlike Augustine, read the Scriptures in Greek. I shared all of this with Styliana. Her response was, "Well, if the Greek Fathers had everything right, then maybe we should check out the Greek Church." "You mean, like Greek Orthodox?" I asked. That seemed out of the question. I figured that since they looked so Roman Catholic, whatever truth they once might have had was now lost.

Our convictions, however, were becoming more and more Orthodox, which puzzled our friends. The church we attended put me in charge of the adult Sunday school class. I began it with the idea of just holding a round-table discussion on Gospel passages, where the Holy Spirit would lead us to the Truth. But soon I found that each of us had our own slant on the Truth; in a group of ten there could be eleven opinions. Each class ended with us more divided and more convinced of our own views. There was no final court of appeals, so where was the Truth? When I was invited to preach, my sermons tended to be on topics such as fasting, the struggle for holiness and the danger of apostasizing. Such non-Evangelical ideas were coldly received.

When Styliana was asked to head the Sunday school department, she decided to replace the materials which typically spoke of Jesus as our "buddy" and contained a page where the child could sign his name on a dotted line to "receive salvation." She ordered materials from every Protestant Sunday school publisher she could find. To her dismay, they were all the same. "If this is Protestantism," we decided, "then we're not Protestants." But we knew we were not Roman Catholics, either. So what were we? Finally we had to pull our sons out of the Bible club at the Baptist church. They would get points for memorizing Bible verses, which were invariably taken out of context and twisted. At one point they were to learn: In the beginning was the Word... All things were made through Him... The passage itself was intact, but the accompanying drawing depicted a giant, glowing Bible moving over the primordial waters. The message was clear: the Bible is the Word, therefore the Bible created the universe. That was the last straw. We withdrew our boys from the club, which scandalized the missionary community.

Soon thereafter, we went to spend some time in the U.S. We were staying in Minneapolis, when one day Styliana came home from a garage sale with a book that she thought might interest me. It was The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos (Ware). It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I found that the Church of the Greek Fathers still existed after all. Why had I never looked in this direction before? On the very first page he quoted Khomiakov as saying that all the West knows is a single datum a. "Whether it is +a in the case of the Roman Catholics, or -a in the case of the Protestants, it is still the same a." It blew my mind to see that there was a Christian tradition that saw Catholics and Protestants as merely two sides of the same coin! Here was a whole terra incognita, so new and yet so old. Here were theosis and synergy, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, hesychasm, Mt Athos, and two thousand years of saints I had never heard of. All week Styliana heard me "oohing" and "aahing" over the book and saying, "This could be it!" "It?" she asked. "What it?" "The Church," I said. "But you don't believe there is a Church," she reminded me. "Well, maybe there is after all."

The next Sunday, Styliana asked where we were going to church. "Oh, the same church we've been attending, I guess." "But why? All week you've been saying, 'The Orthodox Church, this'; 'The Orthodox Church, that'; and now you want to go back to the same old church?" "But you don't understand," I tried to explain. "You can't just show up. They might not let us in. Besides, they might not even speak English." "Well, call one and ask," she suggested. At random I chose the OCA cathedral (it turned out to be the one where Fr. Alexis Toth had served). The deacon reassured me that we were certainly welcome, and when he met us at the door, he said, "You've come on a special day. It's Pentecost."

The moment we walked in we felt God's presence in a way we never had before. What was different? We couldn't put our finger on it. When Styliana saw the icons her first reaction was, "This is Roman Catholic." But then she thought, "No, this is different." Having grown up in Latin America, where the Roman Church is especially corrupt and paganized, she had been around many Catholic churches and always felt an aversion and a spiritual oppression around their images. I had had the same experience in the Philippines. Yet these icons, far from repulsing us, attracted us. Rather than a heaviness, there was a particular lightness to the atmosphere. It was a hot day, our sons were restless, the service was mostly in Slavonic, yet it was wonderful. Styliana said afterwards, "I don't know what that was, but I know I will never be the same for having been there." With only a few weeks left before returning to Colombia, we visited different parishes to learn as much as we could. The next Sunday we went to an English-speaking parish. As Styliana read the words, she cried and cried. They were saying everything that should be said: "Lord have mercy... That the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless... a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ... grant this, O Lord." One priest was especially kind, giving us a whole Orthodox library and offering to visit us in Colombia. At his parish, Styliana had an experience that made her take a big step forward. At Vespers, she felt frustrated at all the bowing and formality, so unfamiliar to her experience. At the end of the service I asked if she wanted to venerate the cross. "Ah, they just do the hokey-pokey and turn themselves around," she muttered. "I'm not kissing anything." The next morning at Matins she walked in and saw Christ in the apse frowning at her. She felt convicted and vowed to venerate whatever they offered. At the veneration of the Gospel, she kissed the icon of the Crucifixion in the center, and as she did so she had a vision that to this day she cannot put into words.

On our return to Bogota, we began reading through all the books we had acquired, and many of our questions and doubts were finally resolved. One issue in particular that had been difficult for us as Protestants had been the role of the Theotokos. We had seen so much error in the Roman Church. Howdid the Orthodox understanding differ? The book that set this matter straight for us was The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, by Saint John of San Francisco. We finally reached the point where we knew we had to become Orthodox. It was everything we had been seeking all our lives. We searched for an Orthodox church in Bogota and eventually learned that there was only a small, non-functioning Greek parish under Constantinople. It would be a full year before we met any clergy serving this parish. During this time we shared about our new-found Faith with everyone we knew and were pleased to find that there was a good deal of interest. But since there was no functioning church, all we could do was have informal reader services in our home. I was ambivalent about this since I knew that what we were doing bore no resemblance to an Orthodox service. We had no icons, we didn't know how to chant, and I was afraid that we were giving people the idea that Orthodoxy was just some form of Protestantism. We gradually made contact with some of the Greek community, but they were not interested in lay services. "Just wait for the priest," was their advice.

We wanted not only to become Orthodox ourselves, but we felt a need to start up an Orthodox mission. We began looking for whatever Orthodox materials we could find in Spanish, but there was (and still is) little available. I had to translate materials myself to share with Colombian friends. The most help we received was from Christ of the Hills Monastery in Texas. They sent us Spanish materials that we found had originally been published by the Russian Church Abroad in Chile. We were pleased to find that there was already an Orthodox presence in South America, and that an attempt was being made to reach out to Spanish-speaking non-Orthodox. We also gradually realized that of the Orthodox materials that we owned, the ones that were most instructive, most serious, and most in line with what we understood Orthodoxy to be were those that were published by Old Calendarists. Eventually I wrote to Holy Trinity Monastery for direction, and we received letters from Fr. Luke of Jordanville and from Bishop (now Archbishop) Hilarion. They also sent materials explaining more about ecumenism and modernism, issues that had disturbed us, as had the involvement of so many Orthodox jurisdictions in the WCC. After a period of trying to be Orthodox "by correspondence," we came to the understanding that we had to live in an Orthodox community. We sold our car and furniture, handed over our house, and, with Vladika Hilarion's blessing, we moved to Jordanville, where I am now attending Holy Trinity Seminary.

We feel strongly that we must return to Colombia and establish a mission there. It is the only South American country without a single functioning parish. There are a number of Orthodox living there with no opportunity to worship. In the last two years we spent there, we told many people about Orthodoxy, and a surprising number showed interest. When they would ask to visit our parish, it broke our hearts to tell them there was none. We even met a young man, Javier, who had dropped out of Roman Catholic seminary. From his study of church history he realized that Rome had apostatized, and so he began seeking the Orthodox Church. He finally tracked us down just before we left the country. For his sake alone, Orthodoxy must be planted there, but we know there are many more like Javier, disillusioned with Rome. Please join with us in praying to all the saints of America to intercede not only for North America, but for the other America as well.

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