Hey guys, Xristos Anesti! As we conclude our Orthodox Paschal season next week, I thought I’d look ahead to the beautiful feast of Pentecost and post a story our friend Bryan shared with me last year, about how he and his wife Judy converted to Orthodox Christianity. Given that they were chrismated on Pentecost, I thought it might be a nice time to share with everyone. Enjoy!
I had met my soon to be wife, Judy, when she joined the Presbyterian drama ministry I was leading at the time. She was living in Center City, Philadelphia when we first met. About nine months into the relationship she relocated to the suburbs of Philadelphia, a town a little north of the city called Elkins Park. Her apartment was right next door to a Romanian Orthodox Church. When we married in ’99, we were next door to this church which was at the time was very ethnically driven, with loud crazy parties every weekend! In that first year, it was a church where the priest would just come for Sunday morning services, and all the rest of the week, the other services were kind of overlooked and the church was more of an ethnic Romanian hangout. We learned years later that after about a year and a half of our living there they actually got a priest and his family assigned who lived in the house behind the church.
When this young priest and his new family—all his kids were in single digits—moved in, their English was very limited. I would see him come out every other week and mow the lawn himself while his kids would play in the gated driveway. My wife and I would wave to them; they seemed so out of place, we thought let’s just be welcoming to them with a simple wave and hello. This one night in particular, my wife was washing dishes in the kitchen and I came in and said, I don’t know how to explain it, but I just feel very led. I told Judy I didn’t know where this came from but it just felt put upon my heart. I felt led to reach out to the priest in the back of our house. Judy concurred, so following that evening, I started making more of a point that when I saw him doing yardwork, I would go out into the back and just kind of ask him about who he was, where was he from (obviously Romania), etc.
Eventually, within a couple of months we had our first encounter with Orthodox Easter, and how it was celebrated in the middle of the night! My wife and I were up late, and we were following Protestant Easter at the time so the calendars didn’t always synch up and I never understood any of that at the time, but next thing I knew, I said to my wife, “Honey! There’s some big thing going on at the church! Everyone’s walking around it with candles! What is this?!” We heard chanting, it was so beautiful that we went down onto the porch of the apartment complex and we just watched it. When next I saw the priest during the week, I asked him what it was and he explained the calendar difference, the service difference, and that “Pascha” was Easter, or what I understood as Easter.
The very next year, my wife and I abruptly decided, “Let’s attend that Easter service.” It was three hours long… in Romanian! And everybody stood the whole time! We had no clue but I walked away afterwards and told Judy I didn’t know what happened, but I felt like I had been in the most worshipful three hours in a church that I have ever spent in my entire life. And I didn’t understand a single word of it! Of course, as a good old Protestant, after we walked around the church with our candles, everyone was going up and kissing this object in the priest’s hand. And I (again as a Protestant) was afraid of what “idol worship” I was getting into, and what harm to my soul and my salvation would I do if I bent down and kissed this golden thing (laughs). When our turn came, I went up to the priest and I whispered, “Uh, Father, what is this?” He said, “It’s the Gospel.” And I looked, and it’s a book, and I said, “Okay, I have no problem kissing the Gospel!”
So on we went pretty much every subsequent year we lived in Elkins Park. Judy at that time couldn’t take the standing and that it was all in another language, so every year for Pascha I would just go next door to my Romanian neighbors and take part on my own. That was my introduction to Orthodoxy without ever knowing any of the theology behind it, or where the differences were. Then some members of the Romanian church ended up coming to see some of the play performances I was doing with my theater troupe mereBreath Drama. Next thing we know, Father Adrian invited us in, this Protestant group, to come on a Friday evening and give a performance for the Romanian congregation.
In retrospect I think what impressed me most was that there was never a conscious effort to convert us. In our Protestant days, even some of the plays we performed would be criticized by some of our well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters: “This play doesn’t proselytize effectively enough.” So suddenly the art and the work that I was doing was being judged by how effective it was in winning souls. Thankfully, no one in authority at our church ever had that perspective, but it would always be well-meaning friends and family and hangers-on that would follow us around and felt that they had enough of an inroad with the director to say “This one works spiritually, this one doesn’t.” So I was just very impressed after the fact that at no point did Father Adrian, priest of the Romanian church make any effort whatsoever to actively convert me away from Protestantism. None of the differences in doctrine were ever brought up. All he ever was to me was kind and welcoming. And he let me bring my Protestant message into his church!
Then when we wanted to shoot a video of our drama production, and it was very difficult to have everyone assemble multiple nights to film a video at the Center City church, the priest even opened up the Romanian church’s stage to allow us to build our set, and there it sat for over three months, in reserve for whenever I could get the cast together during our offseason. It was just an amazing, amazing experience. Within a few years, we moved approximately 40-45 minutes away so it wasn’t an easy trek to drive back and forth, but I would still try whenever I could, to make the Pascha services every year.
Meanwhile, fast forward to about five years ago. But first, I have a cousin whose daughter had had a very peculiar, wandering road to faith. She had left her parents’ church as soon as she was able. She got married and got involved with an Anglican congregation for a time, and then they’d jump and go to another church, and then another church. Next thing we know, she found Orthodoxy. A year went by, two years went by, and for her and her husband Orthodoxy was it.
A little over four years ago, when we knew we were going to buy the house that we’re now living in, my niece Erin (I’ll give her a shout out) said, “Yeah, the house you’re moving into is only ten minutes away from St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. You should check that out.” We bought our home in April, and that summer we were overseeing the final death rows of [our church theater group] mereBreath Drama. We were no longer attending Tenth Presbyterian, and we felt we’d been without a true church home for a couple of years. That summer, we started saying, “As soon as our life settles down a bit let’s check out that church Erin recommended to us.”
As the fall approached, we realized we just had to put a date on the calendar. We would say “Let’s see if we can go this Sunday.” And then something would come up. “We’ll go next Sunday!” And something would come up. Finally, Judy just said, “Let’s put a date on the calendar and we will go to bed that Saturday night knowing that the next day we are going to this ‘St. George’s place’ and see what it’s all about.” With my busy convention schedule and craziness at the house, in late August/early September, the first Sunday available to us was the first Sunday of November of that year.
When Judy’s birthday had come around that fall, I bought her an Orthodox Study Bible. Judy likes to laugh about it because I ended up absorbing it before she ever got to crack the cover. I said “I’m going to start in Genesis and just move forward.” The moment you’re looking at the Orthodox view of the Garden of Eden and the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, doctrinally, it was light years away from everything I had ever been taught! And yet instead of that scaring me that is was false, it just resonated in my heart and mind and spirit as “This is the Gospel which I’ve always believed in my heart,” even though I didn’t have the theology to back it up, a lot of the theology that Calvinism is actively opposed to. How organic the theology of Orthodoxy really is.
I just recently joked with another family member about how Protestant theology likes to categorize things. All the aspects of Protestant theology fit into their little boxes. You can do a whole sermon series on just one facet of theology. That could never be done in Orthodoxy because everything in Orthodoxy is connected to everything else in Orthodoxy. No matter what theological topic you bring up, depending on how long the conversation is going to go, you can go from the Old Testament to the New Testament to heaven to hell to the Theotokos to the Garden to the Cross and what it means in your daily life and prayers! Everything is connected to everything else, and I found that to be amazing.
We had also bought Father Peter Gilquist’s book [Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith] and every night Judy was in the kitchen cooking dinner, I would stand in the doorway and read aloud the next chapter of Fr. Gilquist’s book. By the time we were finishing, we acquired Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy by Fr. Damick, which explored the history of denominations: all these pocket groups, who their leaders were, where and how their theology evolved to take them further and further away from the purity of the original faith, and that that original faith itself had not been distorted or corrupted, but was still just progressing on. So by the time we got to November and we were finally ready to try this church, between these two books and what I had shared with Judy from the Orthodox Study Bible, we thought okay, let’s go check out what an actual Sunday morning service is like.
The church, at the time that we started attending, was predominantly a Middle Eastern congregation—a lot of Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanians. But just within the four years we have been there, the church is now growing by leaps and bounds. When we came in, this wonderful Middle Eastern man welcomed us, escorted us to a pew, and as soon as the service was over, he invited us to come down for coffee hour. Judy and I looked at each other and were like, “Do we really want to do this?” And we decided, “Yeah, let’s do so.” Within five minutes of going downstairs and getting coffee, there was the priest, Fr. Joel, who came over, sat down, welcomed us, and wanted to know what had brought us to his church. That was the beginning of our path to chrismation, our conversion to Orthodoxy. We now have a church family like we have never experienced before.
Then, as we are today, we have just been lapping up the theology like a sponge that had been dried out for decades! (laughs) Everything resonates, it’s beautiful. I have never felt this good about what I believe. It’s great to have jettisoned all that baggage of having to make myself a nuisance to other people, or else I’m not being a good, evangelizing Christian… understanding that evangelism begins with the kindness you show, the emphasis on removing judgment from your life. I feel a lot of Protestants will give lip service on how bad judgment is, while they go around judging how judgmental everyone else is. Everything comes down to judgment. I realize all those criticisms we’d receive about how mereBreath was effective or non-effective were judgment calls.
Then of course you have to start looking at your own life and seeing “I’ve spent forty years judging everything and everybody, thinking I’m such a wonderful person.” But you know what? There’s that line in the sand by which I judge everyone I encounter. It’s not that I have to move away from that line, I have to begin erasing that line. It’s been very cool. (laughs) We just passed our two-year anniversary of being chrismated. We were chrismated on Pentecost.
Bryan is an award-winning comic book writer who just finished his epic, ten-year run on The Mice Templar for Image Comics. He is also the writer of the brilliant Furious miniseries for Dark Horse, as well as various Thor projects for Marvel and much more. He can be found on his website, bryanjlglass.com, or on Facebook. At the time this interview was posted, he and his wonderful wife, Judy are nearing their third anniversary of being chrismated. Thank you Bryan and Judy, and God bless you!