My journey to Orthodoxy began when I was born to a Pentecostal family in Miami, Florida. I grew up faithfully attending fiery, revival-loving churches and believed that speaking in tongues and passing out in church were signs that you were in pretty good standing with God. But to my dismay, I couldn’t utter one word in the angelic languages, and I couldn’t bring myself to fake unconsciousness, even when everyone around me dropped like flies. So I accepted that I was a defective Pentecostal and tried to be a good Christian anyway, hoping that God would at least credit me for being honest.
When I was 11, I was enrolled in a fire-and-brimstone, fundamentalist Christian school, where I learned to be absolutely terrified of God, the Devil and Catholics. It was the kind of place that awarded pizza parties to the class that saved the most souls that year. I probably got “saved” myself about seven times and, many nights, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and run downstairs to see if my parents had been raptured and I’d been left behind. Needless to say, I grew disillusioned with the Christianity I saw and stopped going to church when I was 15. I still believed in Jesus, but wanted an authentic church experience where I wasn’t judged for listening to “secular” music or questioning theological inconsistencies. Although I was angry at these churches for a long time, I now see that there were a lot of well-intentioned people there who were afraid and doing the best they could with the only information they had.
Four years later, for some reason, I felt a strong urge to live abroad in Sweden. My parents were against it, but I had an unshakeable conviction that there was something there waiting for me, so I exhausted them with my persistence and enrolled myself in a Swedish university for six months. I quickly became good friends with Sim, an international student from Sydney, Australia, who was Coptic. When I questioned her about her exotic faith, she lent me the Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware, which I accepted out of politeness but didn’t read. However, she never forced her theological opinions or beliefs on me, and her loving and joyful character served as a testament of her strong faith. Meanwhile, I found a Pentecostal church in town, which was very tame by my childhood standards, and happily attended while I was there. But as soon as I went back to the U.S., I stopped going to church again.
A year later, I decided to head to Sydney, Australia to stay with Sim for a couple of months. I began attending Sunday school and Young Adults at her church. However, I had no intention of becoming “one of them,” and I didn’t like to go to liturgy, so I’d sleep in or hang outside with the liturgy-avoidant youth until it was time for coffee hour and Sunday school. Despite this, everyone still accepted me as if I was one of them and never uttered a word to me about my church-going habits. Having come from a pushy, in-your-face church background, I was impressed with their quiet confidence and it kept me coming back for more. But there was one exception at that church—let’s just call him Uncle Boulos, one of the Sunday School teachers. He felt particularly riled up one day and spent most of the class warning us about the evils of Protestantism and how the Orthodox Church was THE early, apostolic church. I thought that was pretty bold and left the class in a total huff, as did several of the other Copts, who didn’t appreciate his rant against their Protestant friends and family. I never went back to any of his classes and vowed to research Orthodoxy to prove it wrong. But I am thankful to Uncle Boulos, because he truly motivated me to delve deeper into church history.
From age 16 through 21, I had lived on and off with my grandmother, a faith-filled woman, in a small town five hours north of Miami. Shortly after I moved out of her house, she was killed by a drunk driver, and her death really rocked me to the core. She was like my second mother, and I felt more alone than I already did. I didn’t know many people in our area, and I decided it was time to find a church.
I flipped through the phonebook and thought I had found what I had been looking for this entire time: a small, countercultural church where people showed up in their PJ’s and drank lattes during service! While the kind people there were definitely a blessing at the time, something was still missing. Our “pastor” (he didn’t appreciate the title) was a history professor and tried to incorporate ancient Christian practices into our gatherings. Surely, I could talk to him about the faith. But when I asked him if there was a possibility that the Orthodox teachings about the early church were true, he just shook his head fervently and said, “No.”
I normally took what our pastor said very seriously, but I had to continue researching the early church and began reading Becoming Orthodox and studying the book of Acts with a fresh set of eyes. I begged God to show me the truth for weeks, and one evening, as I sat in bed with the Bible, I came to the frightening conclusion that the Orthodox Church was right. I remember saying aloud, “I have to become Orthodox,” and bursting into (unhappy) tears! I felt like I had just discovered I was adopted and that everything I had known about Christianity was a farce. That was untrue, of course, but I experienced a deep sense of grief the next few days. This Orthodox thing was going to require some big changes in my life—and how was I going to tell my friends and family?
A short time later, my seemingly happily-married parents split up, which came as a pretty big shock to everyone. The entire family underwent a great deal of turmoil, and although the situation was completely understandable, my parents faced judgment, abandonment and mistreatment from family members, church members, and lifelong friends. I moved back to Miami to be with my family, and seven months later, began to seek out the Orthodox Church again. Most of my family was pretty disillusioned with church at this point, and I managed to attend an Antiochian parish for a few months without ruffling too many feathers. But I knew in my heart I had to leave Florida to seek out a better quality of life, so I bought a ticket to Portland on a whim and left within a month or so. Thankfully, I found St. John soon after in July 2006.
By November, I decided to go back to Miami temporarily and made my first appointment with Fr. Theodore the day before my flight to explain my situation and say good-bye. He asked me if I wanted to become a catechumen, and I said yes. “Do you want to become a catechumen right NOW?” he asked with a big smile. I nervously answered yes, but that didn’t have a patron saint or sponsor yet. Father thought the timing was just right, so Thomaida joined us as a witness and the three of us headed into the empty church for the catechumenate service.
Before I left that day, Fr. Theodore went through a mental list of prospective patron saints and suggested St. Evstathios, whose extraordinary story really struck a chord within me. He said that ‘Evstathios’ means “to be firmly rooted in what is good,” and that even if we experience painful losses in life, like the saint did, as long as we’re firmly rooted in what is good, we’ll be okay. Although life as I knew it was over, I left encouraged, knowing that God was fully in control.
I returned to Portland in 2007, and two years later, finally entered the Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday and took on the name Evstathia. It’s been a long journey, and I am continuously amazed at how God mercifully helped a Puerto Rican Pentecostal girl from Miami wander around the world to find the fullness of faith in the most unlikely ways.