by Seminarian Jesse Dominick
I was raised as a non-denominational Evangelical Protestant in southern Pennsylvania. We were pretty conservative morally, and theologically in some ways — we believed firmly in the Trinity, the Virgin birth, that Christ is God, that Christ is sinless, etc — but we did not believe in liturgical worship, the sacraments, the Saints, etc. For us, salvation was “Once Saved, Always Saved;” I was saved forever, no matter what, because I had placed my faith in Christ as a child. I always believed in absolute truth (relative truth is an absurdity and this was always obvious to me) therefore I always believed that my particular brand of Christianity was the only true one. I remember arguing with some Catholic friends in middle schoo, telling them they were not Christians because Christians follow the Bible and the Catholics certainly don’t! This is not something I hold to now as an Orthodox Christian, but nevertheless, such were my beliefs before becoming Orthodox. We were quite active in our church — went to services three times a week — and at various points in my life I would read the Bible daily. I never once doubted the truth of Christ.
Towards the end of high school and into the beginning of college I got into the partying scene, although, thank God I never got too crazy. When I got to Penn State (and didn’t have my parents to make me go to church) I stopped going, although I never stopped believing in Christ. However, my life did not line up with this faith. I specifically remember one time when I was hanging out and drinking with several agnostic/atheistic friends. I was trying to convince them that homosexuality is a sin, and they pointed out to me that the Bible also says that getting drunk is a sin. I said
“yes, but I’m saved, so its ok.”
I really thought this was some great line and that I had really “got” them. Looking back, this was, of course, completely ridiculous of me to think and say.
In the fall of my junior year when I was 20, I went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert with several friends. We ended up getting arrested because my friends were using an illegal substance. I was taken out of the concert with them and while being questioned the police smelled alcohol on my breath. I had already been charged with underage drinking in high school and had gotten in trouble with Penn State in my freshman year for drinking in the dorms. I was pretty sick of getting in trouble — it’s expensive to keep getting citations! And more importantly, my conscience was beginning to nag at me and I was ashamed of letting my parents down who had raised me properly in the Christian faith.
So I decided to stop partying, and while I was at it I decided to go back to church. By this time, I had encountered Gary Cattell, the “Willard Preacher.” He is a well known street preacher on Penn State’s campus who preaches outside the Willard Building (hence the name). He has been preaching on campus for over 30 years, and about 15 years ago he converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism. At this point I knew nothing about Orthodoxy and I simply assumed Gary was the pastor of some Protestant church known as “Orthodox.” So I went to nearby Holy Trinity Orthodox Church one Sunday, and boy was I shocked! Gary had nothing to do with the service, and as far as I could tell this was just some weird form of Catholicism! I hated it and told myself I’d never go there again! So I found a Baptist church online and I stated going there, where many other students attended. I also started going to several Protestant youth groups on campus. I was going to a different group almost every night of the week.
Fast forward to the Spring of that school year. I was listening to the Willard Preacher every day, and one day I remember hearing him speak about why he left Protestantism and embraced Orthodoxy. Somehow I had managed to listen to him for quite a while before finding out that he had once been a Protestant. Years before, a Catholic and Orthodox student confronted him about some things he was saying and they asked him to prove Sola Scriptura — that the Bible is the sole authority in Christianity. Gary spent the weekend looking through the Scriptures and found out that the Bible never claims to be the sole authority, but that it is profitable for salvation, whereas the Scriptures proclaim the Church to be the pillar and ground of truth. This eventually led to him entering that Church — the holy Orthodox Church. As he spoke about the problem of Sola Scriptura and other problems with Protestantism I became intrigued. Everything he said made perfect sense to me. I never thought about these things before.
I was a bit of a unique case at Willard in that I knew almost right away that I would have to become Orthodox. I have seen many others convert who took years to finally come around and who wept and struggled hard, but everything fell into place for me. Suddenly all those things I rejected from my childhood faith — liturgy, sacraments, Saints, etc — all made perfect sense. I started regularly attending Holy Trinity and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship on campus where I made many good friends. The first service I went to this second time was in Lent and it must have been a Presanctified Liturgy (I remember thinking how cool it was that you could come out of Church sweating!). I went to many more services in the end of that semester, including Pascha which was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
I went home that summer and attended the local Orthodox Church several times, and when I returned to school in the fall of my senior year, I was enrolled as a catechumen in the first few weeks of the semester. In the ensuing weeks many other students became catechumens thanks in part to the influence of the Willard Preacher. I was very active in the parish and the OCF. We had Church-related events every day of the week except Fridays and we went on many retreats hosted by other OCF’s and to various monasteries. I loved everything about the Church. I was baptized that school year — on Holy Saturday, 2006 — and it was undoubtedly the greatest moment of my life!
Conversion, though, is not a one-time event. It is ongoing throughout the remainder of our lives. My own conversion was mainly intellectual — the doctrines and history of the Church all made sense and opened up an incredible depth of faith and praxis. I had not had any profound experience in an Orthodox Church and never been moved to tears by a service (as did some of my friends). I had, and still have, absolutely no doubts about the truth of the Orthodox faith. But my conversion is continuing in the struggle to bring my faith from my head into my heart. An absolutely essential element of this process for me has been the person and writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose who taught me to value love and humility and obedience over always being “correct.” Fr. Seraphim is an American convert to Orthodoxy who became a monk and priest and a well-known author. He reposed in 1982, and many consider him to be a Saint, as do I.
I had converted to Orthodoxy because it is the truth, but soon after I converted I found out about the Old Calendarist groups who proclaim that they have preserved the truth even more fully than had the historic Orthodox Churches which they believed had compromised too much with the world. I was quite interested in these various groups for quite awhile — they appealed to my desire for truth. But the biography and letters of Fr. Seraphim Rose which detail his dealings with such right-wing zealots helped me to see the errors of judging without love and schisming from the Orthodox Church, which these “True” Orthodox churches had one. Fr. Seraphim taught me that although the truth is of utmost importance, an essential element of that truth is to have a humble and loving heart which refrains from judging others. By his guidance and prayers and that of all the Saints, I continue to struggle to develop a truly Orthodox heart such as he had.
In 2010, I entered the Masters of Divinity program at St. Tikhon’s Seminary.
My desire is to serve the Church in some capacity which I am still in the process of discerning. I am grateful to God that He used my mistakes for good and united me to Himself in His holy Church. I pray that I may continue to draw ever nearer to Him in the service of His Church! +
Jesse Dominick says
Here is the website for the Willard Preacher – http://thewillardpreacher.com/