One Very American Story

In 2017, Katerina Huffman interviewed Father Justin Patterson, pastor of St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. She asked him a series of questions on behalf of “Foma” (“Thomas”) magazine, a Russian-language journal that tells stories of faith and attempts especially to engage non-believers inside Russia. What follows are Katerina’s impressions from their conversation in Russian, here translated into English with some additional context provided. The original Russian-language article can be found here.

For Justin Patterson, an ordinary American boy from Florida, the USSR was always a scary country, but also terribly alluring. Some nights before going to bed, he would look at his globe and try to imagine what might be happening there, how the people there might live, and what they might be doing.

He read all the books on the history of Russia that he could find. He hungrily watched any rare television reports about the USSR. To go there became a dream of his. But never would he have imagined in his wildest dreams that this desire to visit Russia would take him to visit the relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov, and that he himself would one day become a clergyman of the Orthodox Church!

Now Father Justin has his own parish. Americans of course remain Americans, and Russians remain Russians in his parish; but the warmth and kindness between them is explained not only by their common love for Orthodoxy, but also by the great work of this cheerful priest.

Justin Patterson, rector of St. Athanasius in Nicholasville (a suburb of Lexington), Kentucky, USA

Our parish was founded by a group of Protestants, students of Asbury University. They were all interested in missionary work, especially Father David Rucker, who began things here.

David Rucker was a missionary of the Methodist Church in Hong Kong, and he was puzzled and a bit discouraged that the Chinese were not able to accept Christianity as presented by the Methodists. And so he began began to inquire about what was keeping them from accepting Christianity. He came to realize that his presentation of Christianity was perhaps too “American” for the Chinese. But he also realized that his first identity had to be Christian and then American. But how to convey that? He began to read a lot and he studied the history of the Church. In the end he became convinced that, from the very beginning of its history, Christianity was different than he originally thought: it was liturgical and conciliar.

Returning to America, David Rucker entered Asbury Seminary as a theological department, began to seriously study theology. Along the way he discovered the Evangelical Orthodox Church, a small Christian denomination established in the United States in 1979. The EOC attempted to harmonize Protestantism and Orthodoxy and restore a “primitive form of Christianity.”

From a Protestant Sect to the Church

In the 1980s, the EOC was not authentically Orthodox. Its members claimed that they were simultaneously Protestant and Orthodox. From Orthodoxy, they took the Eucharist, priestly vestments, and beards; but as true Protestants, the emphasis was on reading the Bible and sermons approaching an hour in length. It was from this kind of pseudo-Orthodox beginning that our parish first sprang.

Most of our founding parishioners were students of Asbury University. Almost all of them were neighbors from the dorm, friends who studied together, who loved theology, who were searching for true Christianity, and who found the “Evangelical Orthodox Church.” They even found their own “archbishop.” Do you know how our original icons from that time were painted? Among the parishioners there was an artist who did not understand the conventions of iconography. So he found images of icons on the internet, displayed them via a projector, and traced new images for the church! Today this man is a parishioner at our Antiochian Orthodox sister parish in Lexington. This artist, by the way, was one of the first to understand that what our people were doing wasn’t authentic Orthodoxy. But even today we keep these icons–Christ the Almighty and the Annunciation panels that adorn our narthex. This is part of our history.

[photos of parish life over 16 years +51]

One of the major events in the history of the EOC was the entrance of “Bishop” Peter Gillquist (and 5,000 people with him) into canonical Orthodoxy (in the late 1980’s.) Father David (and others in Indianapolis EOC) waited to join the Orthodox Church–more than 5 years after the mission here was formed–not quite able to make the leap into the Orthodox Church. Finally, the parishioners began to ask to unite with the real Church. And in 2002, most of them adopted Orthodoxy. This was the end of the Evangelical Orthodox Church in Kentucky.

Athanasius is a strange name!

Two priests, Fathers Ted Pisarchuk and Stephen Freeman, were sent to prepare the entire congregation to be received into the Church and to administer the Sacrament of Chrismation. They came and set aside a whole evening for Confessions and heard over 30 life-confessions in one night. At that time, our parishioners did not really understand what was happening and there were more than a few touching and funny moments. For example, Father David’s youngest son, after seeing two lines for Confession, stood in one, confessed to Father Ted, and then slipped into a second line, giving his Confession a second time with Father Stephen. It just seemed like the thing to do!

In the morning (of Feb. 2, 2002) everyone was received into the Orthodox Church, and the new, canonical life of our parish began. Father David now serves as a missionary (working with the Orthodox Church in Alaska,) and I was sent here to replace him. That was 11 years ago.

Since then we have come a long way. At first some of our people had a hard time accepting parts of Orthodox practice–things that seemed unnecessary or just optional. But now no one is asking, for example, “what’s fasting?”

Of course, not everything has always gone smoothly. For example, when our bishop selected St. Athanasius as heavenly patron of our parish, some of our parishioners were upset. For Americans, “Athanasius” is a strange name! There are some among us who can’t even pronounce it! Some of our people would have preferred that our parish name be “St. Nicholas,” since we live in Nicholasville, after all. But now we have become accustomed to the name and we love our saint.

In the early years, our parish rented a space in an old shopping center. But just a few years ago we were finally able to build a temple. And it seems to me that this accomplishment was not only important for us, but also for the whole city of Nicholasville. Why? Because the life of a parish, most certainly, impacts the area around it. We are very friendly with our neighbors. On weekdays, people drop by the church: to talk with me about their problems. They might ask me to pray with them. For me, this is a moment of opportunity, a chance to show them Christ. I sometimes light a candle, we might talk a little about the problem on the person’s mind, and then we pray together. Sometimes the visitor returns and sometimes not.

If we have the ability to help with food, we help. I do not like to send people away hungry. We teamed up with the pastors of different churches, and help support a common charitable organization (a “food pantry.”) We maintain a warehouse of products, and we help all those in need in our city. And in our parish, after the Sunday Liturgy, we also distribute bread and pastries to all those who wish.

I also belong to the local school advisory board and sometimes I get requests from teachers: “Father, we have a problem student in school: please pray for him.” And we pray.

Cultivating a culture of openness is really important. In America, for us Orthodox believers, there is often a risk that we simply live for our own clan, as if in a closed club. I know such cases (among both Protestants and Orthodox.) My uncle was a (Protestant) pastor. He created a farm, built a church and created a “perfect world” in which to safeguard a “pure” faith. He was a kind, interesting man, a war hero. But in the turmoil of the 1960’s he came to faith and became a something of a radical sectarian. Because of this whole spiritual direction, my cousins–and even my mother–left my uncle’s church. But such examples are common in our American religious tradition.

“Among us even atheists think like Protestants”

America, despite all the newfangled calls for “tolerance”, remains a country that is basically religious. But our culture is 100% Protestant, and even if an American becomes Orthodox–even in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which is the most strict branch of Orthodoxy in America!–his perception of many things remains, to a large extent, Protestant.

What do I mean? For us Americans, it is important to understand everything. We also love every word that has the prefix “self” attached to it: self-consciousness, self- control, self-determination. This is our mentality, our culture. In this sense, among us even the atheists think like Protestants.

It seems to me, then, that authentic spiritual eldership is unlikely to develop in America. True, it is said that we had one elder, the Romanian priest Father Roman Braga, who just past away four years ago. He had an amazing life: he suffered in the camps, suffered a lot. But he was not an American. He said at one point that Americans are not ready to deal with real elders because we are too self-willed.

This is a peculiarity of our national character. And it goes back to our nation’s founding. After all,  our history began with us saying “no” to the king, and “we have our own way.” If you Russians are sometimes too dependent on the opinion of your priest, then here in America we have few people who actually care about what the priest thinks. Pastorally, I rarely say “You have to do this.” In America, it is necessary to guide a person very delicately.

“I fell in love with the Church”

I myself was born and raised in a Protestant family. More precisely, my mother was a Pentecostal, and my father was not especially religious, though he was never against Christianity and even paid for my studies first in Protestant, and then in Catholic school. By the end of my studies, I knew a great deal about Christianity in general and about Christianity in America, especially, but I had no idea about Orthodoxy.

When I entered the University of Florida, it turned out that one of my dorm mates was an immigrant from Syria. One day he took me with him to his local Orthodox parish. It was first visit to an Orthodox church and, frankly, I was a bit overwhelmed and even put off. It was clear to me that the music left a lot to be desired. Then there was a completely “unsuccessful sermon.” And then the icons that were hanging everywhere kept me wondering “Is this idolatry?”

For a long time, I did not go back to my friend’s church. But he knew a lot about his Orthodox faith and was very fond of his church. All of his family members were also pious members of the (Orthodox) church. And I saw that for my friend this was just “real life.” Not just custom, not just ritual. Sometimes we would talk late into the night about God and faith. In the end, he invited me to join him on a pilgrimage.

We trekked out to a Greek monastery not too far from the university. And I was amazed!

 It was wonderful there: all the monks were surprisingly hospitable, kind, joyful, surrounded by such beauty! Later I got acquainted with an Orthodox priest of Ukrainian descent, rector of the OCA parish in Jacksonville. He had studied 30 years before at the same university I was studying at and even then he dreamed of creating a group of Orthodox students there. I began attending this priest’s theological talks.

In 1998 (somewhat unrelated to my interest in Orthodoxy) I went to Russia to study Russian language at Moscow State University. Some time after my return to America, I decided to embrace Orthodoxy. My Syrian-American friend stood as my godfather.

It was life in Russia that influenced my decision to become a priest. In 2001, I spent six months in St. Petersburg. I arrived there in January. It was a difficult time. I knew no one. And it’s cold, so very cold. But in the divine services I found myself feeling fully alive. I fell in love with the Church.

One of my favorite places (in Russia) was the St. Sophia Cathedral in Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo.) Before going to Russia, I read a lot about our “American” saints. One of them, the Holy Martyr John Kochurov, who was killed in Tsarskoe Selo, served for 12 years in America. He was shot in the first days of the revolution. The first time I came to St. Sophia Cathedral, I approached a woman at the candle desk and asked who could tell me more about Father John. And she pointed out some people standing in the church and said that they were his grandchildren. We met and became friends.

At some point before I left Russia, I realized that I wanted to be a priest. I wrote to my priest (back in Florida,) and he blessed me to enter the theological seminary.

When I first entered the Orthodox Church, my parents were upset and talked about taking me off their will. My mother cried and thought that perhaps I was rejecting her or that I might anger God. My father was more afraid that Orthodoxy was just another weird religious cult. One day, seeing my priest in a church service, wearing colorful vestments, with a smoking censer, my father asked: “Son, have you become a communist? Are you homosexual? Do you smoke marijuana? “But over time my father has come to respect Orthodoxy. And he even donated to help build our church (here in Kentucky.) And my mother now admits that she is glad that I am a priest.

But it’s true that in those first years I made a big mistake. I so wanted to tell my parents all about Orthodoxy and how I believed it was the truth! And in my conversations with them I was utterly uncompromising. I look back now and see my youthful zeal. Of course it would be wonderful if they were Orthodox. But now I leave all of that to God. It’s his business and his time.

“We need a connection with Russia”

In America, you can meet some priests who have converted to Orthodoxy who think that Orthodoxy is cut and dry: simple. I don’t see it this way. Yes, we have Orthodox dogmatics, canons, synods: and these things are important foundations. But we can’t just live as if we are in 19th-century tsarist Russia, which is something some neophytes try to do. This is not real life.

Of course, we need a connection with Russia. We must live together in the same Church. Metropolitan Tikhon, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, recently traveled to Russia to celebrate the jubilee of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, and they served together. And this is wonderful.

Yes, we have ties at the level of bishops, we have good relations. But I would like us to have connections at the level of the parishes. This would be useful for you and for us. After all, Orthodoxy is not a national church, it is the Church.

I don’t think it was by chance that I felt drawn to be a priest in Russia. In America, I did not quite feel it; but in Russia somehow my soul was opened to this possibility.

Yes, Orthodoxy is rightfully associated with a love for the Liturgy, for worship. It is very beautiful and that beauty has profoundly influenced me. But Orthodoxy is not only a rite and history: it’s life! When I got acquainted with the family of St. John Kochurov, I realized that the saints are close. This is not the past! They are right here. This is an idea that is hard for us Americans to get. We have a complicated history with saints. For me, it was in Russia that I could move beyond my head and into my heart. It’s impossible to learn only by words.

I try to convey all this to my parishioners who have never been to Russia. Thank God, most of them pray seriously and regularly: this is certainly the first and most important step. But it is still my hope that one day I can help organize a pilgrimage to Russia for my people: to the “Golden Ring,” Moscow, St. Petersburg, and–of course–Pskov, possibly my favorite place in Russia, where I felt most at home in my heart.

You may also like...