My first experience in an Orthodox church (that I can recall) was in San Francisco in 1998 when my Russian language class visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral there, as well as some Russian shops and a restaurant. As I was concentrating so much on the language, however, the spiritual significance was rather lost on me (and likely I was not spiritually mature enough to appreciate it, too).
In Autumn 2003, my first of three semesters at Wheaton College (IL), I had a friend in class who was actually Coptic Orthodox. She was kind enough to allow me to join her and a friend one Sunday for Divine Liturgy. The Copts, I recall, use the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The service was in Coptic, Arabic, and English. Up to this point, I had been a little timid to visit Orthodox churches because they were outside of my life’s experiences. I was rather comfortable in most any Protestant or Roman Catholic churches, but Orthodox was something else again. However, following this initial experience, I felt comfortable enough to visit several other Orthodox churches and conducted a lot of research on the Internet. It did, perhaps, help that we were studying quite a bit about early Christianity in my courses (which would lead to an M.A. in the History of Christianity).
That Christmas I was fortunate enough to join a friend on pilgrimage to Constantinople (!) and several other holy places in Turkey; we were visiting an old college friend and his wife. For Epiphany, we attended services at St. George’s in the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Such experiences only reinforced my interest in the Orthodox Church.
Before I had left for Christmas, I had desired to visit an Antiochian Orthodox church, especially after all I had read about the friendliness and openness of this Church to non-ethnic seekers. And so, the first Sunday after Epiphany, I visited Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, IL (a suburb next to Wheaton). Like the first Russian envoys, I was astounded by the beauty and mystery associated with the Liturgy. And, I must say, for an interested person’s first visit to a Byzantine Rite Orthodox church, Holy Transfiguration really was an ideal place to begin. Having visited a good dozen churches my first semester, I told myself that I would continue at Holy Transfiguration for the purpose – if nothing else – of becoming as comfortable and knowledgeable in an Orthodox church as I was in most Protestant or Catholic churches. By the second or third Sunday, however, I felt as though I was learning as much or more in the Adult Education classes as I was in my own studies (and it was free!!!)!
The summer of 2004 was the summer of summers for me. While the previous trip (to Turkey) might yet be my best trip ever, this summer was superb. I spent two months in the Holy Land (Israel, plus St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai and Petra in Jordan) and two months in Ireland (with a side trip to Iona). In both of these settings, my favorite experience was visiting a number of roughly sixth century monasteries and holy sites. You can imagine the tremendous reinforcement these two pilgrimages had upon my young Orthodox-inclined mind. In addition, I read such books as Wm. Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” and Bishop Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Church” (the latter of whom I was fortunate enough to meet during a pilgrimage in Donegal for several days).
Upon my return to Wheaton, I had no second thoughts about where I would attend church services or, indeed, which I considered to be ‘my church.’ By the end of 2004, I was certainly Orthodox in my heart and in my mind, albeit not formally.
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. Being historically minded and proud of my heritage and forebears (all of whom immigrated to this country before 1750), I was naturally attached to this part of my identity, even though I disdained its’ theologically (and politically, and socially, etc.) liberal hierarchical leadership and had, in my time, attended a Baptist church, an Episcopal church, and a Nazarene church in various locales that I had lived. I was Presbyterian by identity, but rather ecumenically-inclined on a church to church basis. A great aspect that I appreciated about the Orthodox Friends of Iona (whose website I had randomly come across whilst studying in Cork, Eire) and Bishop Kallistos was their purposeful emphasis on the importance and relevance of the early Saints and believers from the lands of my forebears, including my patron, St. Kenneth of Aghaboe (one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland).
There is a world of information on the Internet (some edifying, some heretical), and I had read about the Western Rite Antiochian Orthodox whilst at Wheaton. I came to the Washington, DC, area hoping to labour on behalf of the Persecuted Church. It was my fortune, as well, to have many opportunities to attend services at the many Orthodox churches in the area during Lent. Despite the driving, I cherished these experiences at SS. Peter and Paul, at St. Sophia, St. Nicholas, and St. Gregory the Great. In this latter congregation, however, I also found a wonderful community that really drew me in and made me feel welcome. As much as I enjoy the Byzantine Rite, I also appreciate learning about the Western Rite. I find that I like smaller parishes in which I can contribute in some fashion, rather than just losing myself in the crowd (although there may be a time and season for this as well).
The day after Lent, in what seemed extraordinary timing, I was offered a job in my intended field. Although this drew me an hour southwards, I yet felt connected and dedicated to St. Gregory’s. In the early summer, I asked to join the Catechumate, and was chrismated on 6 November 2005. I am thankful for St. Gregory’s, for Father Nicholas and Khouria Rebecca, for my sponsors Jim and Lien O’Neill, and for all the parishioners. I appreciate being able to relate and communicate from a similar heritage whilst looking forward to a common goal.
– by Scott Parker (2006)