by Gary Summers
I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
My journey to Orthodoxy began about 12 years ago in St Petersburg, Russia. My wife and I were there in the process of adopting two children when I toured the ancient Orthodox cathedral of St Isaac’s. I was impressed and gazed in awe at all the icons of Jesus Christ, His Mother and the saints. While there, I also noticed a group of Russian soldiers touring the church. “What was this!? I thought Russia was a godless, atheist, communist country?” There was also an icon in the apartment where we stayed. It seemed to become for me a “window into Orthodoxy:” the ancient faith of the Russian people.
My religious background was with various Protestant denominations; from Baptist to Church of Christ to Presbyterian. I was completely oblivious to the Orthodox Church. Church history never seemed important in any church I ever attended. (They normally traced their “history” back only as far as the Reformation!) The thought of this historical “lapse” subsequently lingered with me.
Some three years later, my personal life turned upside down. I endured a painful divorce, the loss of my home and my business. Turning to my church at the time, I found little comfort or consolation and my faith began to falter.
Soon after, I returned to Russia for a tour. The tour guide was herself a convert to Orthodoxy. Our conversations again stirred my curiosity and renewed my earlier experiences and questions regarding the Orthodox Church and church history in general. I learned that with the fall of communism in 1991, a lot of Russians had returned to their ancient roots in the Orthodox faith; that old church buildings were being restored as functioning churches with regular services, and that the new Russian government was now actually encouraging the teaching of Christianity as it helped develop better citizens. In Moscow’s Kremlin, the heart of the “evil empire,” there were at least four churches and a museum I visited with centuries-old bibles, icons and artifacts. I was seeing a religious faith and a Church that was still alive, after a thousand years and severe persecution! This all piqued my curiosity and incited further study.
When I moved to Williamsport in 2000 — my faith, somewhat restored — I returned to my Protestant upbringing and visited churches of various denominations. I enjoyed the music and the people but became increasingly disillusioned in the lack of any substance to the faith professed.
“Where was their sense of history, of the early Church, of apostolic doctrine?”
Something seemed terribly missing.
My heart kept taking me back to Russia — and to the Orthodox Church! I began to read and study anything I could get my hands on. I discovered that the Orthodox Church dates back to the first century, with a line of apostolic succession to the present; that the areas where the apostles preached are largely still Orthodox to this day; that the Protestant Reformation was a reaction not to the Orthodox Church but the Roman Catholic Church; that the Orthodox Church is a living continuity with the Church revealed in the Bible, with liturgical worship, sacraments, spiritual discipline and direction appropriate to today! In light of these discoveries, I asked myself;
“If that apostolic church still exists, why am I not a part of it — why am I not Orthodox?”
While still attending a Protestant church, I conversed with people about my travels to Russia. In the midst of one such conversation, I was informed of (and surprised to hear about) the presence of an Orthodox church in Williamsport — made out of old logs and selling perogi. A Greek friend who belonged to that church personally invited me to come.
I remember driving into the Holy Cross parking lot for the first time and just staring at the church. It looked like some of the churches I’d seen in Russia. I think I did this three times before I finally mustered the courage to actually attend a service. One Sunday morning, I woke up and said to myself;
“Today’s the day. I’m going to go into that church.”
It seemed when I opened the large, wooden doors to the church, I was opening a new chapter in my life. It was something else: like heaven on earth. The candles, the icons, the incense, the worship, the standing and chanting were spiritually overwhelming.
“God,” I thought, “is truly present here!”
I stayed for coffee hour and the people were all very welcoming, though they didn’t know me from Adam. As I returned the following Sunday, my heart knew I was home.
Those born into Orthodox households or who, like me, have converted to Orthodoxy have been given a great gift from God. It is the gift of new and abundant life in Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church — a beautiful, loving, eternal family!
This is where I truly belong, now and forever.