My Journey To Orthodoxy

by Kevin Allen

Kevin is the award winning host of the radio program “The Illumined Heart,” and won the Best Podcast/Internet Radio Show once again! Congratulations Kevin on a well deserved award.

For you, our JTO readers, we offer Kevin’s own conversion story. Enjoy!

I began my spiritual journey in eastern religion – specifically Hinduism. Colleen was raised a traditional, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, and went to Catholic parochial schools from kindergarten to high school. Colleen’s spirituality was formed as a Roman Catholic and she barely knew the word “Hindu” until we met. Our backgrounds could not have been more different. I came from a non-religious home near New York City.

When I was around 16, after dropping out of high school and being involved in drugs and street life, my Mother introduced me to Buddhism and then to Vedanta Hinduism. Shortly after, we both began attending a Hindu center in New York City. I became an initiate of the Center’s leader and guru and spent the next two and a half years as a devotee and ashram member. Ironically, it was in the Hindu Center’s ashram in upstate New York where – sitting in Hindu puju – the picture on the wall of Christ on the cross (Vedanta Hinduism teaches all paths lead to God) introduced me to Christ.

After several years and college, my Hindu faith got lost in the “post modernism” of the university. When I graduated from college I went back to New York City and worked as an ambulance paramedic with the city’s ambulance service, and had a first row seat at the stage of human experience and mortality, in all its shapes and forms. My interest in answers to the questions “What is the meaning and purpose of life?”, “What happens after we die?”, “What do I make of all the human suffering?”, and “Is there a God and what or who is it?” began to re-emerge in my thinking. I saw so much; I needed a way to orient myself in the cosmos. Accepting a non-theistic, random worldview did not provide the answers I sought, nor did it satisfy the hunger in my heart for ultimate purpose and meaning.

I became a Roman Catholic catechumen after the inspiration of Thomas Merton (The Seven Story Mountain). I became dissatisfied during my catechism and was never baptized. The Roman Catholic Church had the answers, but there was something “missing”. I followed Satya Sai Baba, the alleged “miracle man of India” for awhile.

I was introduced to Sufism, a form of “mystical” Islam by a friend and mentor. I chanted “Hare Krishna”. I became a student of metaphysics (theosophy) and Religious Science (Science of Mind) and became a practitioner. But none of these metaphysical systems satisfied my deep need for Truth. They were all so abstract and impersonal.

Colleen and I met and she, with her young daughter Jennifer, married and became a family. We had become Evangelical Christians of the “charismatic” kind shortly before our marriage. Although some of the Evangelical explanations of the “Christian narrative” didn’t really suit my more metaphysical and mystical bent (IE the more literal interpretations of the bible; the penal understanding of Christ’s death) I did have a profound encounter with the risen Christ and this sustained me throughout the years of church hopping and disappointments we experienced in the several Evangelical and charismatic fellowships we joined.

Eventually we moved to southern California and at the recommendation of a friend found The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, at that time one of the “hottest” mega-churches in Christendom. We threw ourselves into ministry and fellowship. We met wonderful people, some of whom have become Eastern Orthodox too. Others have not, but we count our friendships as one of the crowning jewels of our years at the Vineyard. After 12 years or so some of the things going on at The Vineyard were a turn off to me (and I thought were in error); and, some disappointments in my work life with people who were supposedly “Christian” led me to think that modern Christianity was not radical or transformative enough.

The turning point was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s amazing book The Cost of Discipleship. He made the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. I realized – like being hit by a ton of bricks – that I had been surviving in my Christian experience on “cheap grace”, a grace that didn’t cost me very much and for which I didn’t invest much. This is not to say I questioned that Christ died for me; but I came to realize I had a life decision to make. Either I was going to become a radical follower of Christ and figure out how to do that, how to take up my cross and follow Him, or give up the whole business of Christianity. That’s really what it came down to. I was finished with mega-churches; I was finished with the prosperity gospel; I was finished with some of the manifestations of the Charismatic renewal that didn’t seem to change me on the inside.

I had a little book on the shelf about the Eastern Orthodox Church. What fascinated me about the Eastern Orthodox way was its two-fold promise that

(1) we can experience God in a direct, profound, unmediated way and,

(2) its pledge that the way to this (theosis) is the “narrow” way of self-emptying and repentance.

The Eastern Orthodox Church did not offer an “easy” Christianity. As Fr. Sophrony wrote:

“There is no more ascetic feat more difficult, more painful, than the effort to draw close to God Who is love”.

I found myself ready to embark on this path at nearly 45 years of age.

I read the book on Orthodoxy with great interest and shortly after happened upon an Orthodox Church – while on a business trip – in Anchorage, Alaska. I went with the idea of looking for books in their bookstore. The Orthodox parish I visited near Anchorage had been part of a group that came into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987 with two thousand others in what was known as the “Evangelical Orthodox Church”. I asked if there were other churches like theirs’ in southern California. The priest gave me the name of Saint Barnabas Orthodox Church, at the time a small parish of perhaps 20 or so families. Shortly afterwards I visited the small, single room church building for services. It was in a rundown, dilapidated warehouse building, and people stood somewhat awkwardly as services began.

I recall my first Vespers and Divine Liturgy well. When the services began the humble surroundings were instantly transformed! I felt as if heaven had been opened and angels were singing praise to God. The worship and the beauty and reverence were staggering. Worship involved the whole person – mind and body. People sang, genuflected, kissed icons and were reverent, as if God were truly present. I had never experienced such depth and beauty in worship even though the building the church met in was quite unremarkable. I knew this was where I belonged from the start.

It took a bit longer for Colleen and my children to come around to my newfound zeal! We had developed long-standing relationships at the Vineyard. Colleen and my daughters were reluctant to change churches and follow me. I agreed to alternate between Saint Barnabas and the Vineyard. Colleen agreed to attend the “inquirer’s classes” that our Father Michael used to give in his home. Colleen’s biggest fear was that I was dragging her back to some dead “ritualistic” faith and church.

She says her “epiphany” came when she realized that the Eastern Orthodox Church was nothing less than the church established by Christ and His Apostles and handed down to us through time, space and history in unbroken succession through its faith, practices and bishops. This was the “catholic” church she longed to find.

We were received into the Orthodox Church in 1995 and words cannot possibly describe the joy and gratitude we feel for being Orthodox Christians and the community which received us with open arms. We have been taught how to pray, how to worship, how to live this Christian life out and are part of a loving community, which truly cares for one another.

If you are reading these words and what I have said resonates, then I invite you to

“Come and see”.

You will be most welcome.





Comments

  1. Wow Kevin,
    I am sitting here in France in amazement. I too had gone to the very same Vineyard Church in Anaheim for many years for conferences. I was even a missionary for several years with YWAM. One of my YWAM friends posted this link and I read your article. I had questions about Hinduism and TM and Theosophy and how that fit into your faith. It is great to see God used those things to bring you to him. I too am tired of the Prosperity Gospel and “greasy Grace” and would like to deepen my walk with God. I have been looking into the Russian Orthodox only because I trained in the Russian martial art called “the system” (or Systema for short) and met a friend who was Russian Orthodox. Do you have any books that you would suggest reading first to start my journey? I just signed up for the newsletter and I am currently looking for an Orthodox Parish near Istres France.
    Much Thanks,
    Your Brother in Christ,
    -Kurt

  2. Kurt,

    Greetings! Small world.

    There are lots of places to start. If you want to begin with history, The Orthodox Church, by Timothy Ware is the best. It gets into Orthodox Eastern Christian spirituality, too. He follows up with excellent, The Orthodox Way, which can be a starting point, if you don’t want to begin with a historic context. Benedicta Ward’s The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin) is a tasty place to start for ethos of the desert fathers (early first century). If you are looking for a catechsim, I might recommend Clark Carlton’s The Faith, published by Regina Press. C.S. Lewis says we should pick the old books before the new, so I can highly recommend Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Press (online) for their broad and deep patrsitcics – early church fathers library in paperback…especially On The Incarnation (St Athanasius); On The Apostolic Preaching (St Irenaeus of Lyons); On The Mystical Life (St Symeon the New Theologian) (there are many others)…for a long and deep spiritual biography, you can try Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Monk Damascene, St Herman’s Press. He was an American monk, hermit and writer who started St Herman monastery in Platina, CA. Lots of interesting material here.

    This may come off as self-serving but you might also want to check out the podcasts I do for Ancient Faith Radio – many inquirers find them useful, because they are audio and cover an enormous amount of ground: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/illuminedheart

    You can email me through the podcast, if you would like more information, or want to contact me directly.

    Enjoy the journey!

    – Kevin

  3. Wow! I just listened to your latest Illumined Heart interview and then stumbled upon this page. It is wonderful after years of listening to your podcasts to know a bit about your own story. I always assumed, for some reason, that you were a cradle Orthodox. Now I learn that our journeys have been rather similar (including forays into Vedanta, Buddhism, followed by a seeking around for, and finding, the fullness of the Christian faith in Orthodoxy). Thanks for sharing, and a big thanks for the continued inspiration via your interviews.

  4. Hi Stavros,

    No, I’m not cradle! Wish I were, but as they say, “it is what it is”!

    If you are interested in a more detailed story on how I got here, you can read it here:
    http://strannik.com/watchful_gate/node/29

    (Fr John, I hope it’s okay to link outside JTO!!??)

    Thanks for the kind words, Satvros!

    – Kevin

  5. Kevin,

    Anything for you.

  6. Johnathan David Taylor says:

    Hello kevin I called in on your show tonight and was glad to speak with Father Cleenewerck and I appreciaed you taking my call. I am a convert from the protestant faith to Catholicism about 10 years ago. I have experienced to many changes to the liturgy that have started me on my journey to studing and hopefuly converting some day soon to Orthodoxy. Please don’t laugh but your show reminds me of the Marcus Grodi of Coming Home show on EWTN in some contexts, but of course in the Orthodox view which is refreshing. Please pray for me on my on going journey the Orthodox faith.

    God Bless,

    Johnathan (David)

  7. hi, kevin and kurt, and the rest

    i am fr. radu from romanian orthodox church, i am glad about kevin’s testimony. there is a great testimony of a man from german beckground who pased, also from more philosopies and religions until he become orthodox trought fr. sofrony from essex, hi name is KLAUS KENNETH. u can listen him on youtube.

    u can mail me also at rev_radu@yahoo.com

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