by Seminarian Alex Baldwin
From a young age, my parents taught me the importance of two very important realities: two experiences that we lived. These two realities were that of culture and family.
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta; the North Western part of the State of Mississippi. It is a very impoverished area but, like many places in the South, it is rich with culture. The Mississippi Delta Blues Festival was literally right down the road from our house. I remember walking down to it, in an open field. The bands were all there playing music and many people came to hear them. It was a real cultural experience, part of the life of the people. As with kindness, being gentle and taking care of others is a part of the culture down there. We helped our neighbors and they helped us. Even though we were from the North — my father from Chicago area and my mother from Indianapolis, Indiana — people welcomed us and we welcomed them. They treated us like we belonged there. We were family to them and they were family to us.
The reality of family is another thing we lived. We were close knit. Family was important to us. We even travelled back many times to Indianapolis to see our family and relatives — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. I was raised zealously nominal Roman Catholic. This was part of both family and culture. It was what we did as a family. Everybody in the family was Roman Catholic so we were too. It was a meeting of family and culture for me growing up.
Moving ahead to my senior year in High School, we moved to Phoenix. I met my future wife, Veronika, at the Catholic Church youth group. I graduated and got a job. My future wife and I both decided to go to Catholic Universities for our undergraduate degrees. I went to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and she went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. We graduated and moved back to Phoenix. I moved in with my Dad. We got married six months later. My Dad’s neighbor was a retired French Chef from France and my Dad asked me if I wanted a job. I said yes and I began working for the Chef, Bernard. He taught me how to cook. (I am now the cook at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and cook for all the Seminarians) I worked under the Chef for two years. After my wife and I got married we became catechumens in the Orthodox Church and then were Baptized Orthodox.
I had first been exposed to the Orthodox Church at the University. I had a friend who became my mentor; an old gentleman I met there named Todd. He taught me about the Orthodox Church, the Theology of the Orthodox Church, Patristics, St. Gregory Palamas and the Cappadocian Fathers. I had never had any experience with the Orthodox Church. There are Orthodox Churches in Mississippi, but there aren’t many and thus not many people know about the Orthodox Church there. I wasn’t taught anything about the Orthodox Church growing up. I had a little bit of experience of the Divine Liturgy and Orthodox Spirituality before going to University because I had visited some Byzantine/ Greek Catholic Churches, but it wasn’t the fullness of the Orthodox Church. Todd introduced me to the Orthodox Church, but for me it was still just an intellectual knowledge of Orthodoxy, not the fullness. My future wife and I would drive up to a Greek Catholic Church in Northern Ohio while I was at University. I was searching for more. Not to say anything bad about Roman Catholicism, but if I’m honest with myself, I would say I was going to hell as a Roman Catholic, for a lot of reasons. The Orthodox Church — Christ saved me. I was looking for more, for culture. I was looking for the Orthodox Church, to experience it.
Culture is not just something that you do. I was looking to live the Christian culture. We do this as Orthodox Christians. We say our morning prayers and our evening prayers. We have icon corners in our homes. We live out our tradition, our faith. Our Faith is our lived-out Christian culture. We have culture in Christ. The Church is our Family. That’s what I was looking for; what I was yearning for. My wife and I were trying to live out Orthodox faith and spirituality without being Orthodox — so we became Orthodox because we realized you couldn’t be Orthodox without being in the Church.