My journey to Orthodoxy began before I was born. It began before my parents were married; before they had even met. My journey to Orthodoxy began with a man in Anchorage, Alaska named Harold Dunaway.
In 1971, Mr. Dunaway was able to buy a large piece of property, a former Catholic Monastery in the growing town of Eagle River, Alaska. Mr. Dunaway was only able to purchase the property because of a very generous and unexpected donation. He fondly remembers that this was “how we found our home.” That home became the gathering place for a group of Christian seekers.
Soon that home established by Mr. Dunaway, now Fr. Harold, and his wife was where my parents dated and later married. A little over a year later, I was born into this evolving Christian community. Gradually we established a school, newly married couples built homes, and eventually a graveyard was needed. In 1984 every member of this large community donated their Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend check towards the building fund. We needed a cathedral.
Three years later, on April 1, 1987 this growing group of Evangelical Christians made the ultimate leap. En masse we were received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Philip. That spring, I was one of about 2000 Evangelical Orthodox Christians in North America chrismated into Orthodoxy by the Metropolitan. Metropolitan Philip’s words to all the faithful on that day were, “Welcome Home.”
Although the decision to become Orthodox was made by my parents, by the time we were officially accepted into the church, one of my parents was not there physically. Six months before we were chrismated, my father, Russell, was flown from Anchorage to Seattle for emergency surgery. He never recovered and died a few days later.
One of the last things my mother remembers my father telling her was that he was going home. She looked at him, holding his hand and agreed. “Yes!” she cried, “we will go home. You will see the children soon.”
“No, Annie. Not that home. My real home,” was his reply. My father knew he was leaving this life. He knew he was going to see his Creator soon. And he fully accepted that. It took me much longer to accept.
Home can mean many different things to different people depending on personal circumstances. To Fr. Harold, a home meant a place to educate young people, to teach people about God, and to begin a life-long journey. To my father, home was his final destination. To Metropolitan Philip, home was the church that he was introducing to hundreds of families. In my life, I have come to associate church, specially the Orthodox Church, with home. Throughout my short life, I have seen that the church has given me what I needed, whether I realized it or not, which is the exact meaning of home.
Many converts to Orthodoxy—and I do consider myself a convert—mark their chrismation or baptism as a focal point in their life. Many people see their life changing on the day they married, or on the day their first child was born. Not me. My life is separated into two parts by one day: September 30, 1986. This was the day my father died.
Losing a father at an early age was not easy. I was the oldest of four children. I was old enough to remember my father and to rebel against my new one, but young enough to still need a father. Two years after my father’s death, my mother met a man at work who had recently read about the Orthodox Church on his own. When he discovered that my mother was Orthodox, he immediately was drawn to her. Not long after their first date, they were engaged.
When my mother and step-father were dating, my priest, who also happened to have been my father’s best man, took me on a drive. We went to McDonald’s and just talked. He was very frank about death and about how strong a man my father was. We were all new to Orthodoxy, so looking back, I imagine that many of the things he was telling me were just as new to him.
When my mother married my stepfather I protested as good as I knew how: I refused to stand during the entire wedding. I was a mean and harsh daughter to my new father. I set a horrible example for my younger brothers and sisters, as well as for my two new brothers. I struggled during the rest of my childhood.
Gradually the layers began to melt away. I slowly learned that life resumes, good things continue to happen. I learned how to pray for my father. I learned how to timidly ask him to welcome newly departed friends and family into the Kingdom of God. Asking him to pray for my family and me was a powerful lesson. When I graduated from high school I was given an Orthodox Study Bible by all the faithful from St. John’s in Eagle River. My priest had taken the time to highlight one passage in my Bible: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). This verse still gives me comfort.
My husband, Joshua, and I were married at my home church in Eagle River. The next day we packed all of our belongings into an ocean freighter and moved to Everson, Washington. Over the years we have attended four parishes. Joshua’s job soon took us to Everett, Washington where our son, Levi, was born and Joshua attended Western Washington University. When Joshua was accepted to the University of Washington Medical School, we decided to move to Seattle, where our daughter Claire was born. About three months before graduation, Joshua’s residency schedule was revealed.
The process for applying for residency is a bit crazy. Basically each medical program ranks the applicants in the order that they want them, while the medical students rank the programs they want to attend. On one day, every medical student in the country finds out where they are going. Joshua and I fought a lot during this ranking stage. We both wanted different things out of residency. He wanted a reputable hospital while I wanted to buy a house. He wanted the Pacific Northwest, I did not. Thus, we did what most couples do, we compromised; we spent long hours battling over the
ratings of each program, over each city’s merits and potential lifestyles until we both felt that at least some of our desires were represented in our final ranked list.
In March 2009, we found out we would be spending one year in Spokane, Washington and four years in Portland. Let’s just say this was NOT what I wanted! But upon hearing our assignment, a deacon at our church in Seattle came up to us beaming. He said his two favorite parishes where in those cities! How blessed we were to be going to these two magnificent places! He was the catalyst behind our family finding St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church.
Time and a positive attitude, but most importantly faith in God, has shown me just how right our deacon was. After a year in Spokane, we moved to Portland in order for Joshua to continue his residency at Oregon Health & Sciences University. We chose a home relatively near the church and enrolled our children at Agia Sophia Academy. The community of St. John the Baptist shares so many of the positive characteristics that I idealized and romanticized about my home parish in Alaska. Qualities that I thought could never be duplicated or re-created.
In short, I have found a new home.