Kearney’s Apostle: A Review of Apostle to the Plains

As someone who spent the first few years of their life in Orthodox missions- one consisting mostly of converts from other Christian sects, and another consisting of a small pocket of expatriates from Eastern Europe- I was aware, to a certain extent, of how one makes do with what resources they have in the sustaining of an Orthodox community. 

And then I read Apostle to the Plains, an upcoming book by the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood that tells about the life of Fr. Nicola Yanney- a Syrian immigrant who goes from peddler to one of the most influential clergy in mid-America. It didn’t take long for me to realize how many resources my former missions truly had.

It’s difficult to picture the idea of immigrating to another nation, especially in another state in which you do not know anyone, do not speak the language, and do not have the ability to easily access your faith. When reading about how many Orthodox not only went without regular clergy visits, but would have to sometimes wait several years before being in the presence of an Orthodox clergy, I found myself struggling to imagine how hard that would be. 

Apostle to the Plains beautifully tells of the struggles involved, not only for Fr. Nicola Yanney and his missionary work as a circuit rider priest, but also for the Syrian community on the whole. The reader is easily transported to a world of frequent train rides, community struggles, absences from family and other loved ones. Even years after immigrating, the struggle continued for the communities, both physically and spiritually. Yet, at the same time, the book tells of the great joys that came amidst the struggle, including the establishment of many new church communities around the United States, the growth of what would become the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, and the spiritual growth of many Americans, whether Syrian or elsewhere. 

Overall, the book is essential reading for anyone who may be historically connected to these communities, as well as those who desire to see how the Orthodox faith can be brought to places that have no Orthodox presence. The growth of the St. George community in Kearney- a small Nebraska city- is an amazing example of how community works together for spiritual growth. Rather than larger cities of the world, such as New York, the faith sometimes stays alive in the places we least expect. Apostle to the Plains demonstrates how that is done: through the work of pious laymen, as well as clergy, who desire to connect the world with Christ.


“I’m Sorry, This is All I Have to Offer”: Notes on Embracing Lay Life

“There was a monk who, when he lived in the world, worked as an acrobat in the circus. At some point he decided to become a monk, but never seemed to find his niche in the monastery. He couldn’t cook like some of the fathers. He couldn’t chant, paint icons, or do carpentry. He felt as thought he had no particular talent to offer to the Lord. The only thing he had ever been good at in his life was acrobatics. 

So one evening while praying in the church with the other fathers, he decided–in his simplicity–to offer to God the only talent he felt he had to offer. He waited for all the fathers to leave the church and hid in a shadowed corner where he was not seen by the monk who looked after the church. 

Once the ecclesiarch left the church and locked the door, the monk came out from his hiding place and went into the altar. He lifted his eyes to Christ hanging on the cross and said, ‘I want to offer you my only talent.’ […] At this he started flipping, and jumping, and twirling. He did a whole acrobatic routine, just as he did in the circus. At the end he fell down, covered in sweat and panting, ‘I’m sorry, Lord, this is all I have to offer you,’ he said. 

This went on for days, weeks. Every night he hid and every night he offered to the Lord what he felt was the only talent he possessed.”

From The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery by Matushka Constantina Palmer (based on a story told to her by a nun, Sr. Sarah). 

It occured to me recently that I’ve been a folklorist longer than most things in my life. 16 years ago, I took my first course in the field, and we were told to call ourselves folklorists, even if we were novices. 6 years ago, Diane Goldstein, a former professor of mine who is a leading specialist in applied folklore, told a crowd of us at the American Folklore Society meeting to “do good work, and call yourself a folklorist.” She was telling us that we had no need to hide our hard work, our vocational identity, or the field that has long shaped our work. 

There are many times where I have had to remind myself of Diane’s call to us. In college, I constantly doubted my future in my own field of study, and started looking at all kinds of other ways to branch out. 

I thought about social work.

Getting a teaching license.

Becoming a narrative psychologist. 

And I’ve thought about seminary so much in my life. During my undergraduate years, I highly considered going to divinity school to do an M.Div. in peace/justice studies. In my master’s years, I thought about intercultural mission studies at another seminary. And in my post-chrismation doctoral work, I used the thought of applying to Orthodox seminary as motivation to finish my degree and start working. I became, in a sense, a “seminary fanboy,” basing my working life and dreams around the hope of someday being called to a place like St. Tikhon’s. 

Last year, I watched a film titled Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig (director of Lady Bird and the upcoming adaptation of Little Women). Frances is an aspiring modern dancer who, for all practical purposes, is not cutting it as a dancer, and she is struggling deeply with affording rent, keeping her priorities organized, and holding onto a dream of living with her roommate in Brooklyn. Her roommate moves, her dance classes aren’t reliable income, and she gets to the point of becoming an RA and event server at her alma mater. Eventually, however, she accepts a position as the office manager for her dance studio, finds an apartment on her own, and begins doing choreography for others instead. Frances’ dream morphs. She finds her way through her dream unraveling, only to see it in a different light. 

I was interviewed for an upcoming episode of We Are Orthodoxy, and in doing the interview with Christian Gonzalez, it occured to me that what I was able to give, in that taping, was my story. A part of my story of Orthodoxy is common: I’m a young adult convert from Protestantism who became Orthodox in the South, and I wanted to- like many eager male converts- dive in to an ascetical challenge that was far beyond my reach. That challenge, to me, also included a dream of becoming ordained. And as I went further into my walk of faith, that dream unraveled before my eyes, only to reveal the realization that- like you may see in my interview with Christian- my experience in the past and present is the best I can give to anyone. 

For a long time, I thought that experience wasn’t enough to make a difference. I fell into a trap of feeling like I needed to have a title behind it, or to abandon the way I make a living to go to seminary. I thought that my lay life was never going to light a candle to clerical life, and that I had no business focusing on it; I mistakenly thought all of my work had to be focused on preparing for seminary. 

A recent anecdote from The Ascetic Experience, based on writings from Daniel Opperwall, stated the following:

We often conceive of worldly life as merely a kind of default existence that anyone who is not specially called to monasticism or ordination simply ends up leading. We assume that it is only the monk, nun or priest who has a special call, while the married woman, for instance, has merely been passed by.

However, we must not allow ourselves to approach it merely in these terms. Instead, every one of us should, indeed must, treat lay life as a calling just the way we think of monasticism and ordination. We must sit down with ourselves and with God in prayer to discern if life in the world really is what we are meant for, and if we discover that it is, we must treat this call with the same seriousness with which we would treat a call to a hermit’s life in the desert. We are not lay people simply because we happen not to be monks or priests. We are lay people because God wills that we lead a life seeking our salvation through the world.

Throughout the last year, I have learned- through a lot of struggle and disappointment with my ridiculousness- to see that my lay life is no default. It’s not a default to work as a nurse, a sandwich maker, or a plumber. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his text about the Old Testament book of Numbers, states that the jobs of road builder and composer are equally important, but some working lives are physically risky, while others are risky to the soul. 

From St. Patrick, my patron saint, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to not have that risk, and there is sometimes a sense of temporary comfort in leaving what has happened behind. Yet sometimes you are able to do your best work when returning to the very place you strived to flee. So with that in mind, I’ve had to say in prayer, “Lord, I know that I have had my ideas about how I think I should serve you. But you’ve been opening doors for me for my entire life. You led me into cultural work when I thought I wanted to be a doctor. You led me to Kentucky when I really wanted to stay in Estonia, and then to Newfoundland when I had dreamed of staying in Kentucky. You’ve revealed so many paths to your creations. And You do so on a daily basis, even when that’s all I have, and even when I wish I had more to give.”

I have to remember that my work, as it is, is what I have to offer. 

It is all I have to offer. 

And that’s completely okay.

A Decade of Orthodoxy: Thai Food, Transitions and Trying Too Hard

I marked a decade of being Orthodox this month, having been welcomed in the church on July 19, 2009. 

I can remember that day because it was a very strange day, and week overall. During that time, I was living with my parents before heading to Canada, and so I would drive the 2.5 hours each weekend to attend services in Bowling Green. Before I got in the car the Sunday before my chrismation, my good friend Kevin said something really wild to me that I will never forget: 

“Watch out this week. Because the devil is going to try to get you and pull you back from this.”

I didn’t think much more about what Kevin said over the next few days, until I drove up to Bloomington later in the week to visit friends and spend time with the future Fr. Daniel Greeson, who was pursuing graduate study at IU. That night, we went and ate Thai food together, and I spent time with other friends that evening who were allowing me to stay at their place. 

And then I got sick. 

Really, really sick. 

Throwing up, can’t even drink water sick. 

And I started having night terrors about being in an indescribable, chaotic place that I could not define, nor understand, and I was going back and forth in my sleep. (Fr.) Daniel had to take me to urgent care to get me an anti-nausea shot in my hip. My parents had to come and bring me home, 2.5 hours away. I slept the entire trip home without remembering a minute of it. 

This was the day before my chrismation. And in my mind, I had to get better so that I could drive to Louisville for it. It was the only thing on my mind- I absolutely had to go to my chrismation. 

My parents, who had seen their son make this sudden shift to an ancient faith, drove me the 2 hours to Louisville for my chrismation. I’d slept the entire trip there, and the only thing I’d had in my stomach was a Waffle House waffle.

But when I got to the church, and did my first confession, it was a feeling that I had overcome this great obstacle. And suddenly all of those feelings went away. Like I had never been sick.

We were in the St. George chapel of St. Michael the Archangel Church. Fr. Theophan Buck, Fr. Aaron Warwick, and Fr. Alexander Atty- my spiritual father- were all there. (Fr.) Daniel was there, as my godfather. I had ten or so friends drive up to see me experience chrismation, and my parents as well. Fr. Atty toured them around the church and shared stories with them about the parish. My friends drove me back to Bowling Green so that I could have the experience of the Divine Liturgy as a newly chrismated Orthodox alongside people I loved dearly. 

That was a decade ago, and for some reason, AFCon got me thinking of how starting my second decade in the Church really hit me hard. I realized, in marking that anniversary, that I haven’t even scraped the surface of the faith, and in fact, I’ve done worse than I did as a catechumen. 

I’ve struggled to embrace people as they are. AFCon was where I was in community with people as they are, and I discovered that even in my tight-knit community of writers, podcasters and creators, there are things that others see that I don’t, and there are things that I understand very differently. I’ve had intense arguments with people I’m close to over secular issues, political matters, and cultural differences. I’ve tried too hard to prove my worth in the Church. I’ve pushed myself in directions in which I had no business being. And it’s been a huge wake-up call as I transition into the next part of my faith life. I was a young adult when I joined the Church, and most of my young adult formation was parallel with both my faith formation and the formation of my marriage to Jen. 

So as I mark this anniversary, I find myself at a new challenge point. 

How am I going to live the faith between 34 and 44, and beyond? 

How am I going to embrace things as they are, as I am now, and with what is in front of me?

How am I going to be the presence for others that people were for me as a young catechumen? 

I wonder if losing all that Thai food was a metaphor for everything that went away after my christmation. I left my lunch, and my past, behind me that week. 

I still haven’t eaten Thai food since that day. 

And after 10 years, the struggle continues. 

Burning Marshmallows in Silence: Thoughts on Being a Camp Dad

I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock clashing with the creak of the springy folding bed that, along with two 2” inch mattress pads and a sleeping bag, served as my place of rest in the office located in the front of the camp lodge. The only camp dad for 70 or so girls on what was, for many, their first overnight stay, I was able to have a bit of quiet and privacy to write, read and prepare myself for the next day. 

My trusty decade-old boots

After washing and getting dressed- t-shirt, long pants, boots, a red bandana, name tag and trusty flat cap- I greeted the weekend kitchen staff and began to help them put frozen French toast sticks and sausage links onto large trays for baking. The girls would be hungry, and they would need the energy to get through the weekend. I did what was needed, trying to say prayers in between each placement. 

Later that day, I would be helping girls roast marshmallows, play tether-ball, and learn how to safely hike down steep trails. And then I would wake up and do it again, with a sense of peace all the way through. 

As I drove home with my oldest daughter asleep in the back seat, I wondered why it was that I felt such a strong sense of peace in my duties. It was a peace that would carry on as I was serving during AFCon’s Divine Liturgy, and then later as I helped prepare the kitchen for 150+ day campers the week after AFCon. I would lead another hike, this time to teach Juniors how to find a good walking stick, and how to think about their strengths and areas of growth as change agents. How is it that I found this peace in working with campers, but lost it as soon as I returned to my normal duties? 

In talking to one of the camp directors, she hit the nail on the head when she said this to me:

“It’s nice not to be in charge all the time.”

In my life, I have a lot of duties and leading to do. I am responsible for providing economic stability for the people I love. I have a lot of leadership tasks and duties in making my living. I am a source of support for many people. I spend one evening a week teaching people how to become better leaders. 

I think the best lesson I got in leadership, and in being a positive presence, was from being a part of campouts. I was the one camp dad on staff, who helped make sure fires were adequately extinguished, who got sticky hands from roasting marshmallows for dozens of girls and their leaders, and who kept them safe on the trails. In those moments, all I could do was breathe, pray to be blessed with adequate wisdom, and simply serve with passion. I realize that leading is often about quietly serving with passion and enthusiasm, rather than out of control or a desire for power. 

In the days where I suffer from severe doubt about being able to make a decent impact on someone’s life, I have to remember the faces of the girls who frantically tried to blow out their flaming marshmallows, who smiled as they walked to the campfire circle with their new friends, and who came home happy, telling their families about what they learned from their leaders and aides. 

We can all fall into the trap of thinking that impact has to be something dramatic and major. 

But stepping back and being a calming presence for them, rather than a leading one, isn’t a bad way to go, either. 

After all, we’re not really in charge. 

Reflections on AFCon, #5: Home

Nearly a week after the end of AFCon, there is still a lot on my mind about it- enough to the point where going back to my day job has been challenging in terms of focus. Part of the challenge has been that it has been 18 months since I was introduced to AFCon, and the entire time, I wanted to attend and be a part of it. In ten years of Orthodoxy, this was my first trip to Antiochian Village, and I remember the initial feelings that I had as we worked our way through Ligonier and toward the camp. They were feelings of “Wow, this is happening; we are actually in Ligonier, there are signs to the camp on the road, and it is really taking place.” A lot of mental energy has gone into the anticipation of one day, someday, being able to be in a place that, for a decade, people have spoken so highly of.

I find myself longing for more of the face-to-face interaction that came from being in physical community with the people that, for most of the last two years, I have only known virtually. More chances to drink coffee and have breakfast with the table of women I met from the Southern states. More porch and couch conversations. More silent meditation walks, and more opportunities to serve in the altar.

The small-world stories of AFCon are what brings wonder. Meeting family, and seeing how they connect to the rest of your web of people. Meeting others who’ve studied what you have studied, and who’ve had experiences like yours. These had a profound effect on Jen (who met her childhood neighbor’s niece at AFCon); this morning, she said to me that the stories led her “to realize that Orthodoxy threads are through our whole life. Like the gold threads in my bookmark. It wasn’t a fluke that we are who we are.”

Even small things, like the things we bought from the Antiochian Village bookstore, had those stories. We found the same icon of Noah and the ark that adorned Mari’s preschool classroom. As this was also a couple’s retreat for us, we came back with a lot of books on family, marriage and the like.

Years ago, as a young Catholic girl, Jen’s grandmother gave her a Marian prayer book as a gift, which she has kept to this day. That weekend, she found a new prayer book to the Theotokos at the store, seeing it as a bridge between her religious past and her Orthodox life. During a medical test that frightened her deeply, Jen told me that she only had about five minutes to read amidst the fear, and that prayer book was right there. In her words, it “told me exactly what I needed to read.”

There is still a lot to read, write and process from last weekend.

And there will continue to be things to think about and write about.

Reflections on AFCon, #4: Service

Before AFCon took place, there was a call for interest to see if anyone wished to serve in the altar. Seeing an opportunity to be an altar server in a beautiful liturgical setting, I asked for, and received, a blessing from my priest to serve under Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, as well as Fr. Nabil Hanna from St. George Church in Indianapolis. I was eager, not only to be serving, but also because I would have the opportunity to serve under one of my favorite authors and podcasters. I figured that there would be others who were equally excited to serve.

When I arrived to Sts. Peter and Paul Chapel on Saturday morning, I did not expect that I would be the sole altar server for the entire Divine Liturgy. In my home parish, I am typically one of at least five acolytes each Sunday, and apart from the occasional Great Vespers, I have never served by myself. I suddenly realized that I would be in charge of incense, fellowship bread, and preparing the hot water for Communion. Having never done all of this at once, let alone by myself, I had to tell Fr. Andrew and Fr. Nabil, “Please tell me where to go, and what to do, and I will do my best.”

As the service progressed, however, I found myself going back and forth too many times to have time to worry much. Even when a few things happened- I was late getting the fellowship bread ready, and we discovered that the kettle had not been plugged in when we needed it- there was nothing but love in the altar, and support for my learning. Fr. Andrew and Fr. Nabil were patient, helpful, and willing to answer my questions, in between requests of “Incense, please” and “Fill this cup twice,” among other things. It was a simple, joyful way to learn the Liturgy more fully, and when I left the Chapel, I found myself wanting to serve more.

Ultimately, while AFCon was definitely about writing and podcasting, the Divine Liturgy, and worship on the whole, were at the core of the experience. We were all at AFCon because we wished to serve and minister with the talents that we have. We write about things that spark our interest; while some are drawn to patristics and ecclesiology, others examine the world of parenting in the Church, while others use Orthodoxy as a framework for creative projects that are for general audiences.

Frederica Matthews-Green, in her keynote address, presented us with the following question: “What is your garden plot to nurture?”

In the altar, the answer came to me: “Helping to share the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, living in a sense of wonder while doing so, and sharing that storied wonder with the world.”

Reflections on AFCon, #3: Pilgrimage

Because my trip to AFCon was my first visit to Antiochian Village, I saw it as an opportunity for pilgrimage, as well as renewal. Based off the idea of a pilgrimage as “a journey or search of great moral significance to the Orthodox belief and faith,” it felt more significant when I was asked by Fr. Fred, our priest, to visit the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn (who was re-interred at the camp’s Holy Resurrection Cemetery in 1989), and to pray for our parish.

St. Raphael’s grave is located near the graves of many other major figures in the North American Orthodox world; Metropolitan PHILIP Saliba (+2014) and Bishop ANTOUN Khouri (+2017) are both buried next to St. Raphael, and Archbishop VICTOR Abo-Assaly, who worked to unite the divided Antiochian movements during the 1930s, is buried there as well; like St. Raphael, his remains were also re-interred at the cemetery.

There was a lot of anticipation for visiting St. Raphael’s grave, not only in our family, but also among AFCon attendees; however, before we arrived at the Village, we discovered that the camp would closed off to AFCon attendees. This was disappointing to hear, as I had really looked forward to going to visit the grave; however, it was arranged for us to make a group visit. Led by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, a large group of us AFCon attendees made the walk up to camp.

Jen and I both began the walk, albeit slowly, as she has been experiencing some knee issues, among other health concerns, and was afraid that she would not be able to make it. She told me that though it was difficult, and she kept telling me to go on without her, she found that some sort of spiritual magnet- in this case, St. Raphael- kept her going. In her words, “God, through the prayers of St. Raphael, pulled me kicking and screaming.” She never turned around, and the two of us eventually made it in time to hear most of what Fr. Andrew was telling the group.

Fr. Andrew told us many stories of those who were buried there, including some of the life of St. Raphael, including his dedication to traveling around the nation- usually by train- to minister to his flock. I had read, in his biography, that he would serve Antiochian communities of any size,spending the entire day hearing confessions, performing baptisms and weddings, ministering, and sleeping very little. Sometimes it was a large group in Brooklyn; other times, it was a small group of immigrants in the Mississippi River valley communities. He worked hard and slept very little (1-2 hours a night), which would ultimately lead to his early death at the age of fifty-one.

Bearing that in mind, as we took our short journey to the camp, and our longer journey to the Village, I found myself thinking about the pilgrimages to the faithful that St. Raphael took. Much like St. Brendan the Navigator, he traveled from place to place, even though he always had a destination in mind. His ministry was also his askesis, a challenge that would test any human who is enduring a pilgrimage. St. Raphael sacrificed for the good of something bigger, demonstrating his selflessness and devotion to God’s creation.

As the line of veneration grew shorter, I found myself in a state of joy, eventually saying to myself “St. Raphael of Brooklyn, pray unto God for me, my family, and the members of our parish.”  I found myself wondering how many campers walk by his grave each day during their sessions. There are stories of St. Raphael making his presence known throughout the camp, but what about the impact of seeing the grave of a saint, or of those who strove to emulate Christ to bring Orthodoxy to the world? I wonder what it would be like to frequently be near a saint, much like I did when I saw St. John of San Francisco’s relics in San Francisco, which is visible and accessible on a daily basis.

I wondered how others- especially those who were part of the parishes he founded- felt his impact. I wondered how many would become pilgrims themselves.