Nine years ago, a tiny transformation occurred. Christ the Life-giver Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Ky., formerly a mission of the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC), entered the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Unlike other parishes that entered at the same time, every single member of Christ the Life-giver chose to remain with the parish in its transition to the OCA, an amazing detail that is sometimes forgotten. In the days that followed, a new name (Saint Athanasius) appeared in the window, and the layman who was formerly the priest would again be ordained to lead the tiny band of pilgrims. To better understand the place of that decisive moment in the history of the parish, I present it here through the lens of my own life.
My story begins in 1995, when I entered the Roman Catholic Church. Before that, I was an evangelical, and I continued to attend an evangelical college. One of my art professors began reading about Eastern Orthodoxy and attending prayers held in the living room of a nearby seminarian, David Rucker. Rucker was studying missiology. He served in Hong Kong, and he was frustrated over inadequate responses to ancestor veneration in Asian cultures. He believed that Eastern Orthodoxy could provide a positive answer for Asians. My professor’s interest piqued my own, and I began attending the Sunday evening prayers. In the fall of 1995, Rucker began holding catechism classes. He invited me to attend, and I did.
In 1996, Rucker’s doctoral thesis advisor unexpectedly died, and he faced the prospect of completely rewriting his thesis on ancestor veneration in Chinese culture. When he discussed returning to Hong Kong with his missions board, he realized that Orthodox practices had become more than an academic investigation. The evangelical mission board forbade him to use the sign of the cross or icons in his ministry. They required the impossible. Rucker resigned and responded positively to pleas to form a mission in Kentucky. Together they named the new mission Christ the Life-giver, because now they experienced him as one who gives life.
At that time, I was still faithfully attending mass in the Roman Catholic Church. It frustrated me that the EOC was not a canonical Orthodox group. To grasp why I eventually joined the EOC, understanding their unique vision is essential. The people of the EOC abandoned church-as-usual. Church-as-usual looks like this: You go to church on Sundays, or maybe two or three times a week; maybe there’s a monthly or weekly fellowship in there. By contrast, the New Testament demonstrates a church that is infinitely more than that. The people of the EOC hungered after that New Testament church.
We routinely hear the story of Christians studying the primitive church and becoming progressively more traditional and often eventually joining a church with an apostolic lineage, such as the Catholic or Orthodox churches. A community vision set the EOC apart for me. They abandoned worship of themselves for lives together centered on Jesus Christ in his church. They started communities of young Christians radically imitating what they read in the New Testament, emptying themselves for each other: living together, sharing with each other, and generally enjoying the communion of life in Christ. They bought houses in the same neighborhoods so that they could be within walking distance of the church, both the physical temple and the living temples of each other’s lives. When I saw this in a concrete community, living and worshipping together, radically putting the orthodox and catholic faith into practice, I was hooked.
And, like many, the services of holy week and Pascha pushed me over the edge. In the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, I experienced beautiful paschal worship. In Indianapolis, however, I saw a whole community center its life around the worship of the church. It was very common to walk to church. As we walked, we joined others who were also walking to the same service. The worship was beautiful. Between services, people spent time with each other, talking about the cross and the resurrection. I longed for that community life.
In 1997, I joined Christ the Life-giver, but I never stopped pushing toward union with the wider Orthodox Church. I felt it was essential for our shared life to be authentically Orthodox. We already drank deeply from the fathers and from recent Orthodox writings; we needed to take the next step. As the world headed into a new millennium, a crisis in leadership demonstrated just how far we were from the episcopal governance of the Orthodox faith. The retirement of our bishop opened the door for us to make that next step.
In 2001, after nearly five years together, Christ the Life-giver decided in council to petition Archbishop Dmitri (Royster), then the ruling bishop of the OCA’s Diocese of the South, to accept us into communion. Initially the diocese gave us a date for our chrismations slightly after Pascha of 2002. It would be difficult, but we accepted this in obedience to our new father. In January 2002, however, the leaders of our mother church in Indianapolis met with members of the OCA’s Department of Evangelism, which included key figures from the Diocese of the South’s missions and evangelism team. After this meeting, the diocese advanced our date to February 2, the Meeting of the Lord. “You’re already more Orthodox than we initially thought,” they said, “And we can’t bear to make you go through Great Lent and Pascha without the eucharist!”
Of the day itself, my memories blurred, so much was going on. I recall we baptized one or two children. The chrismations took so long, there were so many of us, that we ended up kneeling on the floor for parts of it. I also recall it was a Saturday. We celebrated the divine liturgy together; the next day we gathered for a non-eucharistic prayer service — it may have been matins or typica; I don’t remember. I do recall the memories of that Lent, though: Finally approaching the chalice with Orthodox Christians at our sister parishes in Lexington, with whom I had worshipped so many times before, unable to participate in table fellowship.
A tiny transformation! Yet in the lives of every member of the parish, past and present, the resulting transfiguration defies description. In the last nine years, our parish witnessed many changes as it grew under the patronage of St Athanasius. Yet it remains committed to life centered on and committed to the community of the life-giving Lord Jesus Christ. We continually learn to love one another concretely. We continually grow in our common daily and eucharistic worship. Raise a toast to our first fifteen years together, with hopes and prayers for many, many more!
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