An interview with Fr. Josiah Trenham
I was born and raised in Pasadena, California. I’m of English descent and one of my ancestors actually did come over aboard the Mayflower. So you probably are wondering why I became involved in the Greek Orthodox tradition. I was raised a Presbyterian and when I was eight I had a friend who was Greek and who I played baseball with. I used to spend the night at his house on the weekends and he took me to his church in Pasadena. That was my first exposure to Orthodox Christianity and I didn’t understand much because it was a heavily Greek congregation and I didn’t speak any Greek at all.
When I was 18 I had just gone to college and I met a woman there who became my wife, Catherine (and who is in the background of the video standing next to Father Josiah) and she was the youngest of six and was from Mount Shasta. Two of her older brothers had become Orthodox Christians and before had been Methodist. That was my second interaction with Orthodoxy and I began to court her. Her brothers sent me books and they sent me letters and began to engage me about religion because they didn’t want their sister to marry a Presbyterian. We started corresponding and that was at a time when I was in college and I was very interested in it. That began about a five year process of reading and at first I tried to make them Presbyterian but they won. We now have 9 kids and we’ve been married for almost 24 years.
I’ve been at this church since the early 90’s and before that I spent a year in one of our orphanages in Mexico. I was ordained in 93 and before that I was an assistant priest at a wonderful parish up in Santa Barbara. I did my undergraduate at a place called Westmont College which is up in Santa Barbara and after that I went to what is called the Reform Theological Seminary which is Presbyterian which was during the time I was going through the process of becoming Orthodox.
As a matter of fact when I went to the seminary I wrote out a list of all of the difference between the Reform Faith and the Orthodox Faith. I then did independent studies for a semester trying to solve these problems and I graduated from a school called Westminster Theological Seminary, which is an old Presbyterian seminary, and then I did a PHD with an Orthodox scholar in the northern part of England. My thesis was on “Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom” who was the patriarch of Constantinople and the greatest preacher in the history of the church. He died in 407 A.D. He was actually born in Antioch but his name means “Golden Mouth”.
Then he became a saint and became known as St. John Chrysostom. I learned everything from him. He is everything to me. He taught me how to pray and he is very much alive in Christ. Most people think that when a saint dies they are in some other place and if you pray to them you are practicing a form of idolatry. Presbyterians may think that but Orthodox never thinks of Christ as being apart from the saints. The scriptures say that he is wonderful or wondrous and though their bodies rest in the grave their souls are very much alive.
Chrysostom was the most incredible bishop in the world at that time. We have volumes of his writing and they are all very practical. There are homilies that he preached where he teaches us how to live as a family and my dissertation was pretty much on family life. What is it like to live as Christians in the home and also in the monastery? Marriage and virginity both. I read him every day and I will until I’m dead.
The Church says St. Paul was the mouth of Christ and St. John Chrysostom is the mouth of Paul He wrote commentaries on all of Paul’s letters and they are still read. After I got my doctorate I’ve been a pastor and that is what I’ve been doing here. This is a young community which was started in 1992 and the previous pastor left to go back East. We started with about 12 people and we had our original meetings at room at the Baptist University here in Riverside.
After that we rented a store front on Indiana and Tyler and then we moved to an industrial warehouse off of Van Buren and then in 1999 we purchased this property which was owned by a wonderful retired botanist from UCR named Dr Homer Chapman who was at that time 101 years old. We didn’t have enough money to buy it but I wrote him a letter and said we really would like to buy it and this is what we can offer. He wrote back and very graciously said that even though our offer was 35% less than he wanted he told us fine build your church. He died a few years later at 106 and he wrote letters in support of us when we were going before the city. We bought it in 1999 and started building in 2001 and built the hall and occupied it in 2002. Two years later we purchased the last vacant piece next door which was three acres and we designed our church temple which we just finished which is our second phase. We got three phases approved by the city which are the hall our offices are in and the church and then next a school as an education center which we are hoping to do in the future.
So what did I find interesting about the Orthodox Religion? Well I’m tempted to say, “Everything!” However I would say the immediate draw for me was the orthodox liturgy. The actual worship service. It left me absolutely undone and done and fulfilled. With the Presbyterians we had great preachers but the worship itself sitting down and saying your prayers while on your rear and as a young man I knew there was no example of that in the Bible. There are hundreds of references to positions in prayer in the Bible but there is only one that is about sitting down.
The Orthodox take worship very seriously and it is not about entertainment. I most of the liturgy the priest has his back to you and isn’t even looking at you. There is however the sense of the grandeur of God and the majesty of the Holy Trinity and this being something that the congregation was doing for him and not for themselves. That deeply affected me. The beauty of the churches themselves, the iconography and the writings of history really got to me.
The Presbyterian Church was changing so rapidly and I knew enough to know that if this was a matter of truth why is there so much change? As a young man it made me feel like I was not confident in my church. I got married at twenty and I remember as I was preparing to get married as a 19 year old asking myself,
“I wonder if I have kids will the church be anything like it was when I was growing up?”
And I answered that by saying that I doubted it so why would I invest in it? Why would I invest in something I didn’t have any confidence in? With Orthodoxy well someone told me a joke about it. How many Orthodox Bishops does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is “CHANGE?” I like that and it has been almost 21 years now since I’ve been Orthodox.
What is the foundation of my beliefs? It is the entire church built upon the belief in the Man who is Jesus Christ! We call him a word in Greek Theanthro which is a combination words in Greek which means “The God Man.” He is the person upon which the whole church is built. His life and his death and resurrection are everything to us. It is what we celebrate constantly year round and every Sunday we have the celebration of the feast and the Church is what he established. He said in the New Testament that He would build His Church and he has. The Church is intimately connected to him.
As a matter of fact we call it a “Body” because it is a living organism within which he dwells. It is a temple for his birth as well as his father and the Holy Spirit. That is the foundation of the church. We view the Church as something that is human because otherwise we wouldn’t be in it and also imperfect in that sense allowing there to be sinners like me. At the same time it is not just human but also divine as something that God had invested in and has promised to uphold as a beacon of light. Jesus called his disciples a city set up on a hill as a light of the world. That certainly is what it has been for me in my life.
This spiritual life is not just about experiences so much as it is an encounter with the Living God. The heart of what an Orthodox things of salvation is not about forgiveness or a courtroom idea of God declaring us OK. It is much more of an organic interaction between God and man which takes place in the church through what we call the Holy Mystery where we actually believe we mesh with God and he meshes with us and we are transformed by that. That is at the heart of every liturgy which looking at it from an objective view point is what it is and what it says it is which is full of miracles.
Often Pentecostals come and visit here. I tell them that while speaking in tongues may be one thing but what we have in the liturgy is so mind blowing and beyond anything the Pentecostal experience may have that it is also a very personal thing. There is a beautiful historical account of something that took place at the end of the tenth century around 988. The great prince of Kiev at the time was Vladimir. His grandmother Olga had become Christian and had gone to Constantinople to be baptized and she was living among the Slavs who were all pagan at that time. She had become Christian and she tried to convince her son to become Christian but he never did. Her Grandson Vladimir did.
The way that he did was he sent out delegates al over the world to Rome, Baghdad, and he wanted to explore Catholicism and Islam and also sent them to Constantinople. They wrote him a letter in which they said that when they entered the great church of Santa Sophia, which was the queen of Christian churches in the world, that they did not know if they were in Heaven or on earth and that they were overwhelmed by the beauty and that the only thing that they knew was that their God dwelt amongst men. That was enough for him and he told them OK to send Bishops and priests and and that is how Russia ended up being converted to Christianity in 988. That experiences that the ambassadors had really resonated with me and I said that what really hit me was the service.
St. Paul even mentions it and he says in I Corinthians 14 That the worship of the early church was such that an unbeliever who entered into the middle of a service would be pierced through the heart and their conscience would be quickened and that they would fall down on their faces and declare that God is certainly in your midst. This is the effect that the services have and what he experienced in the First Century I experienced in the Twentieth and the ambassadors experienced in the Tenth Century.
That is because that is what the liturgy actually is because the church is an outgrowth but after it is concentrated it becomes a beacon and an outpost of Heaven and that the liturgy is actually an ascent. St. Paul describes it as an ascent to Mount Zion and a Heavenly Jerusalem where there is an intermingling of angels and me, saints and sinners and where God comes to dwell amongst us at the call of the priest the Holy Spirit descends. The gifts that we offer to God he takes and transforms. He gives us grapes and wheat and the ground and we take it and we make the best things we can such as bread and wine and give them to him and he takes them back and transforms them to be the body and blood of his son and feeds us the divine. That is incredible. That happens in every single liturgy. That is a lot better than speaking in tongues.
We have a lot of pleasant people here in the sense of constituency. We have about 450 active and about half of them are from about 15 different countries. They are first and second generation immigrants and the other half of the parish are persons who have become orthodox and their children from this area. There is a real mix and we use predominantly English at about 95% and I can speak some Spanish since I spoke a year in Mexico and can actually do the whole service in Spanish. We do a little Spanish and a little Arabic and I can read in the Greek language so we use a little Greek and a little Arabic and some Slavonic which is the old Russian and a little bit of Spanish just just for people whom English is a difficulty. Not enough to make it difficult for English speakers but enough to cheer up those who are just here.
This is a unique moment in American history. It has really only been in the last twenty years that Orthodox Christianity has become an option for Americans. Prior to that it was for foreigners very much like it still is in England and I go back to England every year and have for 15 years. There is a lot of Orthodox in England but still the English people will view Orthodox Christianity as something for Cypriots because there are so many Cypriots there or that’s for Russians. They like it in general and they probably know more about Orthodox Christianity than Americans do. In America Orthodoxy is not viewed just as a foreign faith. It is viewed really as part of the religious collage and there are a million Orthodox here now. We’ve had enough American converts now that people who want traditional Christianity without faddism and without change it is a very attractive feature. I think that is what is most important for Americans, to see Orthodox Christianity as something that they could consider and has now become accessible to them.
A Church with a 2,000 year history of worship and faith and martyrs and saints that hasn’t blown with the wind.