Timothy Keefer is today chief counsel for civil rights and civil liberties for the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This past summer, he represented the U.S. as part of a delegation to a conference in Vienna sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, giving a talk called “Human Rights and the Fight Against Terrorism.” Keefer’s office makes sure that, as they go about their business preventing and deterring terrorist attacks and responding to threats and hazards to the nation, Homeland Security’s 180,000 employees honor Americans’ civil rights. Among numerous duties, Keefer and his staff assess proposed legislation and regulations for potential civil-rights issues. Says Keefer,
“We provide advice to DHS decision makers on the impact their proposed policies and programs might have on civil rights and civil liberties.”
This interview was done for Pravmir.com.
What led you to Orthodoxy and prompted you to convert? Did anyone have a great influence on you in your decision?
This is a very long story which would take a book to tell, so I will offer the condensed version. The journey itself began when I was about 11 years old. One day I asked my mother for a “real” book to read, so she went to the bookcase and pulled down Robert Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra,” the story of the last Tsar of Russia. This book fascinated me, and I was drawn to Russia as a country through it. I became in awe of things noble and majestic; that take us beyond ourselves and common existence. Simultaneously, I wondered what could lead people to murder this family and then go on to martyr so many people of faith.
When I was ready to begin college, one of my teachers advised me to study what I love, and to not look for what would make me the most money. I followed my heart and majored in Russian Studies in college. Here I was exposed to Orthodoxy for the first time when my Russian language class visited Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York.
Like the emissaries from Prince Vladimir of Kiev when they visited Constantinople, I did not know whether I was in Heaven. At this time, however, I was an Evangelical Protestant, and I was rather set in my way of thinking about God. After college, I moved to Washington, D.C. and continued my language studies. One of my instructors was Russian Orthodox and I visited her church on one occasion. I knew she was a devout Christian, but I still did not know what to think of Orthodoxy.
Years later, after a marriage and divorce, I found myself living in New York State again for one year. I was searching for many answers in my faith, but I was having trouble accepting the answers I was getting. I was troubled. I remembered Holy Trinity Monastery, and took two trips there during that year. One time, I stayed overnight with the monks and spent most of the time praying. The monks there were extremely kind to me, and very open in discussing their faith. I was very impressed with Orthodoxy and had gained much respect for it.
I moved again to Washington, D.C. to begin a career as a lawyer. I became very active in an Evangelical Protestant church here, and was generally happy with it. I realized, however, that something was missing. I found that what I believed did not seem to penetrate into my actual life; and that I felt that this great faith seemed too susceptible to influence by the trends found in modern society.
I became disturbed when I would hear pastors preach sermons on a section of the Bible, providing their personal interpretation, and then hear another pastor elsewhere do the same thing but say something that could not be reconciled with what the first one had said. If we believed in one, true faith, how could this be? Was everything open to individual interpretation? If so, why should I not just believe whatever I want to believe, and justify it in my own mind? I reached a very low point in my faith. I questioned the Bible and organized Christianity. I was almost ready to give up my belief, and then I remembered the Orthodox. I wondered, do they know something that I am missing?
I began each Sunday to attend a different Orthodox church in the Washington area. At Holy Cross Antiochian Church, Fr. Gregory Mathews-Green gave me a book “Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian” by Jordan Bajis, to read. This book completely changed my way of thinking about Christianity. It was as if someone had turned on a light and made sense of everything I always though I understood about Christianity. At the same time, a friend recommended St. Nicholas Cathedral, the primatial cathedral for the Orthodox Church in America, because it was a church in the Russian tradition. Through this book, and attending services at St. Nicholas, I began to see the truth of Orthodox Christianity, and to realize the foundational errors in the schisms that have broken Christianity apart.
As a lawyer, I am trained to look for the best argument as to why one position or another is correct. The more I looked at the history of Christianity, the more I realized I could not defend my existing Protestant belief system in the face of the facts. Orthodoxy has everything: Biblical foundation; Apostolic succession; doctrine that was holistic and rational; adherence to the earliest forms of Christian worship and sacraments; trial through martyrdom; preservation of Orthodox belief through the collective of the many rather than the authority of a single man; the high principles of forgiveness and not judging others; and of course, love. When faced with all of this evidence, and seeing how God had led me step-by-step to this point, there was no option. Orthodoxy is home.
So many wonderful people joined alongside me on this journey! In coming to Orthodoxy I made many dear friends: Fr. Gregory and Subdeacon Robert from Holy Cross Antiochian Church; Fr. Constantine from St. Nicholas Cathedral; Georgia from my law firm; Christopher from St. Nicholas; Lily Parescheva a friend; Fr. Menas a Greek monk; and my friend and godfather Prof. Timothy Patitsas.
How did your path as an Orthodox person begin?
With great joy! I felt as if I had arrived home after a long journey. I was chrismated on Holy Saturday in 2003. The service of chrismation was performed in the morning before the liturgy of St. Basil the Great. A number of my Protestant friends came to see this happen. For some of them it was the first time they had stepped foot in an Orthodox church. After the chrismation, one of my Orthodox friends greeted me with the words, “Welcome Home!”
I knew she was right. During the liturgy, I received my first communion from Metropolitan Herman, and so began the journey of the rest of my life as an Orthodox Christian. When I arrived home, I lay down on my bed and the first thought that came to me was that I was now part of the body of believers stretching back 2,000 years, and that I will be part of this same body long after I am gone. I can not express to you the comfort that this realization had for me. I had found, and God had put me on the path to, the missing piece.
What difficulties did you face? Did you feel any societal pressure or negativity? How did those around you (friends, family, etc.) react?
There were mixed reactions to my decision. Some people thought I must be getting married to an Orthodox Christian, others wanted to debate theological topics. My family, who are Methodists and Lutherans, were actually quite supportive. Some of my Protestant friends did not know how to react to this. Some were very supportive and kind. A few of them attended my chrismation. The general reaction, though, was a sort of odd curiosity. Many wanted to know the difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Some actually asked if we believe in the Trinity or the deity of Christ.
In America, even among other Christians, there is significant ignorance about the Orthodox Church. A common reaction I received was “Well, I am glad that you have found a church where you are comfortable.” This, of course, was not my reason for converting at all. It was because of the Truth, but I do not think many wanted to consider that idea.
What did you find especially liberating and positive in your journey?
There is so much to say about this. I found that in coming to Orthodoxy, many of the verses of the Bible that I heard all my life suddenly made much more sense because of the holistic approach to Orthodox doctrine. In addition, Orthodoxy has such a treasury of writings that in a lifetime one could never read it all. Orthodoxy also provides a much healthier way of seeing the world around us. For us, it is a journey that is revealed day by day.
We realize that there is very little that we can control in this world, and without this sense of control we also have to let go of anxiety and worry. Instead, we must trust and have faith. This is aided by the fact that we are called to avoid self-centeredness and to offer forgiveness to others. These two principles can seem hard at first, but as we practice them we soon discover that they are quite liberating. Past, present, and future come together in Orthodoxy, and through this we see that we are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses in the Saints and our fellow sojourners here. Finally, Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation of Christ, and our lives today make sense through the lens of Orthodoxy.
Did you ever have personal/ethical issues in the work and public arena because of your Orthodox views? How did you resolve this?
This is rarely a problem. Integrity and honesty are important aspects of the work that I do for the government. Sometimes, work life can compete with church life, of course, but there is rarely a difficult conflict. I am able to take time off from work for particularly important church events. If anything, my Orthodox faith has helped me to handle better the difficult situations that come up.
Who has helped you in finding answers to difficult questions you have faced?
Currently, my father-confessor is Fr. Constantine, the Dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral. I also speak with the other priests at St. Nicholas, and Fr. John of All Saints of North America Russian Orthodox Church. Correspondence with the monk Fr. Menas has been helpful, as have conversations with friends such as my godfather Prof. Timothy Patitsas who now teaches at Holy Cross Theological Seminary in Boston. There are many others of course.
Do you do anything in the parish? If so, what is it and how did you come to contribute in this way?
I sing the bass part in the church choir. I also often read the Hours before Divine Liturgy on Sunday mornings. In addition, I also formed a discussion group during Great Lent on the Book of Job.
As for the choir, I come from a family of singers and musicians, and spiritual music has always been important to me. The beauty of Orthodox church music had a profound impact on me as I began to explore The Faith. I especially love the mix of voices, the full use of the masculine and feminine, especially the music in the Russian tradition.
I also enjoy having people get together at my home to discuss spiritual topics and how we can learn to apply these lessons in our individual lives.
Finally, I assisted the church in looking at its financial situation in terms of fundraising for a proposed expansion project. It was the Dean, Fr. Constantine, who asked me to take this on.
How has your faith guided you through tough times?
This is a wonderful question to ask during Lent. The Orthodox Faith is rich in its understanding of this world and of the soul. Therefore, we have a good perspective on what is really going on during difficulties. We understand that this is a fallen world, a perfect Creation of God marred by sin and death. We understand that we are strangers here, that this is not our home, but that we are intended for the Kingdom of Heaven.
We understand that if we are not so attached to the things of this life, the trials that come will be easier to bear. Beyond being able to understand the “real” world, we also have the Church. The Church gives us so much in spiritual strength and resources in times of trouble! There is true benefit to be found in our prayers that are said individually and universally as a worldwide body of believers. The enemy wishes greatly to drive us away from prayer, and it is sometimes difficult when we are tired and weary.
We must never forsake prayer. We have our Saints that not only intercede for us, but are examples for us who have persevered through trials, difficulties, and martyrdom; never losing sight of what is of true value.
The Blessed Virgin is our prime example of willing accession to the will of God, of suffering grief, and of living the true Christian life. She does intercede for us, and for me has been a comforter in times of great trouble – even during this current period of Lent. There is the sacrament of confession where we experience God’s forgiveness. Most importantly, there is Communion. There is no more important time to receive Communion than in times of difficulty. There have been times of trouble and illness where receiving Communion has made a great difference for me; and this is something that we experience communally, as a worldwide faith. It is important to remember this. I have had some great difficulties with many pressures of work, life, and spiritual difficulties. The words of the Saints such as St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Silouan, and the Optina Elders have been a source of great wisdom.
Prayer and confession have relieved my burdens. Discussions with priests have eased my soul. The Blessed Virgin has offered comfort in times of difficulty.
And the partaking of the Body and Blood in Holy Communion has healed and brought me back from despair. We should not expect and easy, comfortable and care-free life. Trials and suffering will surely come our way. Our Faith and the Church provide the means to handle them.
The question for us is whether we will avail ourselves when the time comes?