by Bishop Nash
Even with all its dips and doglegs, it’s hard to say if anyone’s trip out W.Va. Route 152 has taken more twists than that of The Rev. Jonah Campbell.
Rector of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Wayne since September 2011, the 37-year-old’s road to Russian Orthodox priesthood took him across the country and into the most intimate regions of the soul.
“The way things in my life have worked out since then, gosh, it’s amazing.” Campbell said. “I would have never predicted that things would have turned out that way.”
Born in Mooresville, North Carolina, Campbell was raised by Baptist parents in a Presbyterian upbringing. Campbell graduated from high school in 1996 and received a scholarship to study at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he studied as a pre-med student majoring in chemistry. Campbell said he began college very charismatic about his Protestant faith, but converted to Roman Catholicism with his older brother in 1997, becoming an Eastern Rite Catholic a year later.
Campbell became fascinated with the history of the early church and theology of ancient saints, calling his discovery of Orthodox Christianity’s historical depth “earth-shattering.”
“That continuity, to me, was something that just changed the whole view that I had toward Christianity,” Campbell said.
Though he had a “wonderful experience” during four years in the Catholic Church, Campbell’s major disagreement with the church was with the doctrine of papal infallibility, the idea that it is impossible for the Pope to be in error. In 2000, Campbell was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, North Carolina, upon graduating with his bachelor’s degree. Though he earned a 3.93 GPA, Campbell never took the MCAT and did not pursue a medical degree. His interest lies in the health of the soul.
“A whole new world opened up to me, and it was so much more interesting than equations and redox reactions and titrations,” Campbell said.
During his sophomore year, Campbell thought it best to become a monk, going across the country looking for Eastern Rite Catholic monasteries to join during his breaks from school. Campbell joined the Holy Transfiguration Skete Monastery in Eagle River, Michigan, but after only a month found it not a good fit. Campbell eventually moved to Asheville, North Carolina, with his brother in 2000 to regroup.
As a fresh convert to Orthodoxy, Campbell visited the newly established Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne and was overwhelmed by the monks’ kindness and stories of similar spiritual paths. Campbell was advised to get connected to the local parish in Asheville to continue his growth in the faith. Campbell was hired as a quality control technician by Day International in Asheville, and worked a career-based lifestyle for around ten years. Campbell met his future wife, Yelena, a Russian native, during a church pilgrimage and fell in love, compounding more evidence that he might not be monk material. The two were married in November 2001, and their first child, Alexey, was born in August 2002.
While at the Asheville parish, Campbell began performing clerical duties in 2003 and was ordained as a deacon in 2007. Campbell was ordained as a priest in August 2009 and became the treasurer of the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russian that same year, relocating to Howell, New Jersey. Joking that he felt more at home with Russians and Ukrainians than New Jerseyans, Campbell left the position after two years when asked to become rector of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Wayne.
Campbell said he had tried to move near the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne three times before getting the call to serve the parish out of the blue.
“It was God’s providence,” Campbell said. “Being in the shadow of the monastery is a special blessing. It’s a thing I have to remind myself of when I’m driving out my road on Miller’s Fork and damaging the rims on my tires.”
Campbell said he was most nervous about the incredible spiritual responsibility of acting as priest, such as asking for God’s blessing over the sacraments, performing weddings and hearing confessionals. The parish, founded in 2002, is more of a close-knit family than the larger churches Campbell served in New Jersey, and that sense of community is what Campbell said binds them together.
With about three-quarters of its congregation American converts, Campbell said the Orthodoxy fits in nicely with Appalachian culture.
“People in West Virginia and Appalachia are all about their roots, and I think that works totally with Orthodox Christianity.” Campbell said. “I think there is this thirst in America for roots that connect to something more ancient.”
“It’s not like you covert to Orthodoxy and have to give up deer hunting or something like that.”
Campbell said his fear is his church be “hiding in plain sight” just 100 yards off W.Va. Route 152, and that engaging with the Wayne community is a goal his congregation has brainstormed over for a few years now. In January, the church opened its weekly food pantry, which Campbell said servers around 150 people every Wednesday.
In four years with the church, Campbell said he now feels at home in Wayne.
“I go to Walmart now, and I know a lot of people on a first-name basis,” Campbell said. “That used to not be the case. I used to sort of be that weird guy in the robe over there. I find that to be a tremendous blessing.”
While one may look at his black robe and forest of a beard with an odd curiosity, Campbell said he lives “a pretty normal life,” and that Orthodoxy puts no prohibition on enjoying good things in life. Campbell enjoys trout and fly fishing, playing guitar, chicken farming and tending to his family’s fruit trees and blueberry bushes. Campbell also operates a successful printmaking shop, Damascene Gallery, which creates church icons for many wholesale buyers.
“Of course the pace of my life and the overall thing which defines the course of my life is my devotion to Christ,” Campbell said.