Orthodoxy in Small-Town America
I grew up in a small town on the southern coast of Oregon. My family was Protestant, and after “church-hopping” for most of my early years, my parents settled on attending the local First Presbyterian Church once we moved to Oregon from the South. Although we tithed and were active in the church community, we never became “official” Presbyterians.
My childhood was a happy one. I made friends with a good group of girls, and those friendships lasted until graduation– and some, even today. For this, I consider myself very blessed. I had quite a few Catholic friends, along with some agnostics and an atheist. I invited some of my religious friends to youth group and church summer camps, and these activities gave us opportunities to deepen our friendships on a spiritual level.
The summer before my freshman year was to begin, though, my fairly comfortable, insulated Christian life was given a good, hard, vigorous shake. I’ll never forget that day in August when my dad called us in for a family meeting around the kitchen table. Along with our mom, my three siblings and I sat and listened to my dad explain to us his developing interest in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He had been learning about it for some time, and was ready to move forward in becoming Orthodox. He earnestly expressed his desire that we all come along with him, as a family.
“WHAT?” was all I could say.
I had no frame of reference whatsoever for what Orthodox Christianity was. Honestly, I panicked. I cried. All within about ten minutes of the meeting’s beginning. This knee-jerk reaction might have been a bit over-the-top. I guess I never realized how much the church-hopping of my very early years– the strange sanctuaries and unfamiliar Sunday school classrooms I reluctantly joined each week, the confusion I internalized but never really questioned– effected me. All of that resurfaced that day, and the sheer foreignness of Orthodoxy added a whole new layer of complexity. I was honestly afraid of what Orthodoxy was, and what it would do to my family.
My dad shared how he had come across a small Orthodox bookstore in the town of Eugene, Oregon, which is a two-hour drive north from where we lived. I did not know that my dad had been struggling with Protestantism, or with what he knew of western Christianity in general. But when he was in Eugene for a work-related reason, this small bookstore (advertised with a beautiful, eye-catching mural and “Way of the Pilgrim Bookstore” on the side of the building) caught his eye, and he decided to go inside. After talking to the woman working there, he left eager to learn more.
A period of time had passed before my dad announced his discovery of Orthodoxy to us. Nothing could have prepared me for it. I was ready to start high school and couldn’t be bothered with the inconvenience of any familial or spiritual upheaval. Still, when my dad finally brought us to our first Divine Liturgy in Eugene a few months into my freshman year, I knew my life would never be the same.
I didn’t feel “at home” or “in love” with Orthodoxy from the get-go, but something in me did look at the beautiful piety of the parishioners with great admiration. I knew, despite my discomfort, that what I was witnessing was worship befitting God, the True King of Heaven, in all its reverence and other-worldliness. I was just a public-school kid from a po-dunk small town. I wasn’t ready to change, or to be different from the friends that I loved so much. But I knew in my heart that one day, I wanted what these people had. Maybe when my heart was more mature, and less cold and selfish. But not now.
For two years, we visited the parish in Eugene every other Sunday. The other Sundays, we’d attend the Presbyterian church, as per my mom’s preference. It was difficult to watch the tension between my parents in regards to their differing opinions on faith matters. I wanted to support both of them, but I felt torn. Worse, I felt like I could not talk about the issue with any of the friends who were so dear to me. Most were becoming disenfranchised with their own faith, and couldn’t understand where I was coming from or what I was going through. I felt very alone.
Thanks be to God, after those two years passed, we–as a family– grew in our conviction of the Orthodox Faith. We stopped going to Presbyterian church. I remained an inquirer throughout high school, and was blessed to join a parish in Portland, Oregon once I started college at a nearby university. For the first time, I was able to live close to an Orthodox church (well, thirty minutes, instead of two hours). I was able to attend Vespers and Feast Days, in addition to Sunday liturgy! I became a catechumen in September of 2001, was chrismated on the Eve of Theophany, 2002. Glory to God, each of my family members entered the Church within the year!
Now, twelve years later, I reflect on how my journey to Orthodoxy has shaped me. I wish I could have had exposure to Orthodoxy earlier in my life. It might have made my “introduction” to Orthodoxy at age fourteen a little less traumatic and foreign. I long to see a larger Orthodox presence in the smaller towns of America. I do realize that there are parishes in many small towns throughout our country– for this, I am grateful! But we need more! Some people may never see or have a chance to know what Orthodoxy is– a fact that is unimaginable to me today! Certainly, if my own dad had not spotted the bookstore two whole hours away in Eugene, who knows if I would have been exposed to Orthodoxy at all?
May we continue to grow in our relationship with Christ so that we can bear witness to those who are in need of His Church, the Holy Mysteries, and of His love and mercy. I pray that God would strengthen the Orthodox faithful in our country so that we might be “bearers of Light” to our own communities, and that the exposure and availability of the Orthodox Church would increase, especially throughout the smaller towns of America.