by John Gresham
What do you do when you want to become Orthodox, but your spouse is not on board? This question is a common one we deal with here at JTO, and very often it has glorious results. Our thanks to John and Brenda Gresham for allowing us to share and repost this excellent account of their own experience with this question!
When I decided to leave the Baptist church and convert to Orthodoxy, my wife was understandably concerned. First, there was the loss of income we would suffer as I would be leaving my pastoral salary. I would have to be Orthodox for at least five years to be considered for ordination to the priesthood and even that isn’t guaranteed to anyone. She was more concerned about me forcing her to join a church that we were not accustomed to. We barely knew any white people who were Orthodox and there were none in our small southern town. The worship was completely different. To have to adjust to new styles of church decor (the Baptist are very iconoclastic), preaching, singing, status (we would no longer be pastor and first lady); Brenda found the change quite overwhelming. I assured her that she could remain Baptist if she wished and could call anyone to give her a ride to any church. I would still love her even if she didn’t convert.
Brenda barely attended worship services in my last six to seven years of my pastorate. Between her mental illness and the multiple sclerosis, we were drifting apart for a while. I had my own demons to fight as well even before the resulting loneliness. Never the less, I still remained loyal to her and was determined to keep the marriage together. Now that I think about it, the fact that I went to church alone as a married pastor, I figured I was no better than a layman. Maybe being a layman in a church whose doctrine and history I believed in could heal me and us. Maybe It couldn’t. I had nothing to lose, except money. And even with the financial loss, God provides for those who earnestly follow Him. He has and does. But, she was there to support me for my chrismation in January of 2014. She was there when I invited Fr. Deacon Paul Abernathy to speak for the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses. She didn’t make it to the speaking engagements I had the following year. But, something began to happen.
I maintained a steady rule of prayer in the morning and made it a habit to pray a short vespers before preparing dinner. I took a chance and asked her to join me in the evening prayer as it would take only a few minutes (the Trisagion and the Selections from Vespers in the “Jordanville” prayer-book). After a few months, she began attending services once or twice a month at St. Basil and joined me as I visited the church where I started my journey, St. Cyprian. She even surprised me as she made the procession with her cane for Palm Sunday. Brenda was never a morning person and her illnesses did slow her down from attending Church every week. But, she always prayed Vespers with me every evening without fail. She glanced at some of my books and even made an attempt at reading Father Seraphim Rose: His Life & Works (which I thought was a bit ambitious). Reading A Little Daily Wisdom from the Early Church helped her decide to convert.
Along with these, Brenda noticed a change in me. Writing and preaching sermons every week is stressful. Not keeping a regular routine of prayer (and I have tried a variety of routines of my own and from others) was corroding my spirit. I had been dissatisfied with catch-phrases, gimmicks, and the encroaching of charismatic practices in the Baptist denomination. Orthodoxy has given me a break from the pulpit while challenging my thirst for history and spirituality. I had a prayer life that was shared by people from all over the world. I had found a spiritual home with roots deep in the Nile Valley, Mt. Athos, the Siberian forest, and even monasteries here in America. Brenda noticed that my love for Christ has grown deeper with a steady stream of spiritual growth.
In particular, that much of my spiritual growth has come from the words of and my admiration for the African Desert Fathers. Yes, I have stepped away from the black church. But, I have tried to tell people who rather than look to whatever is popular or relevant, African-Americans need to tap into the Christian spirituality that developed long before our ancestors were brought here. Black people had been Christian since the days of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39) and Simeon called Niger in Antioch (Acts 13:1). The New Testament was canonized in Africa from a list of books favored by an African bishop. If Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa can continue in and build from the spirituality of these and other like-minded saints; I believed that we African-American Christians should (at least) know who they are and what the Orthodox Church is about. Brenda saw that I was willing to take the risk on what I believed. She began practicing and reading some of what I was doing and the Church teaches.
Attending services, she saw and experienced the beauty of liturgical worship. She enjoyed meeting and making friends with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds as our Antiochian parish includes Greeks, Russians (from every corner of the old USSR), Serbs, Ethiopians, and a few others. She saw it was possible for African-Americans to maintain our culture and still worship where all of us were in Christ and Christ in all of us (Colossians 3:11). Our God-fearing ancestors have a place among the saints in the living room icon corner. She still enjoys reading folklore from Africa and the African diaspora (at one time, Brenda was a Storyteller). We love our family and friends as we did before our conversion. Anyone who knows us knows that we haven’t
“forgotten where we came from.”
If anything, our appreciation of the Christian struggle of our people in America and our embracing of ancient African Christianity has given us a full perspective of who we are in God.
She still has her illnesses that are managed with medication and therapy. I still have my struggles as well. But, we are walking together now as an Orthodox Christian couple. To God be the glory in our journey!
John R. Gresham, Jr. is the son and grandson of Baptist deacons and deaconesses. He is a graduate of Virginia State University and received a Certificate in Church Ministry through the Evan-Smith Institute of the Baptist General Convention and the Virginia Union University School of Theology. He served as the Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in West Point, VA and the Moderator of the Pamunkey Baptist Association. John began studying the Orthodox Church in June 2012 and joined the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline. After over a year of learning and practicing the ancient faith as much as possible as a Protestant minister, he left his church of 16 years and denomination of his childhood to become fully Orthodox. John serves as a chanter/reader at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton, VA.