I am 51 years old and my wife is 48. We have been married 29 years and have two grown daughters and two grandsons. On Christmas Eve 2017, my wife and I were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church.
My journey began as a “cradle” Southern Baptist. I grew up in the local First Baptist Church, attending Sunday school, vacation bible school, and Royal Ambassadors. I walked the aisle at age 7. Then in my junior high years, something happened. The church got rid of the pastor my parents liked. From that moment on, they never went back. My siblings were older than me and had the busy lives of teenagers and for a while I was the only person in our family attending church. My mom would drop me off and pick me up. By the time I reached high school, I had stopped attending altogether.
My sister got married and started attending a Methodist church and talked me into going with her and I attended her church sporadically from my senior year in high school to my marriage at age 21.
My wife was baptized in the First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ but attended sporadically also. After our marriage we would talk about church, but never took the steps to find one we both would be comfortable in. Time flies and before we knew it, we had been married for about 15 years and never made the effort to find a church. Then a friend invited us to a new church, which was break off of the First Baptist Church. It was still SBC, but had modern music, casual dress, and “relevant” sermons. We started attending and soon it became “our” church.
Our marriage had some rocky times, but somehow we managed to get through them. After several years we became more involved and even led a small group. Leading the small group was a pivotal time. It forced me to study more, seek more, and pray more. The more bible I studied, the more books I read, the more sermon videos I watched, the more I felt like something was wrong. Then music started to creep into our church from groups with questionable charismatic backgrounds that I did not agree with. I spoke to the pastor a couple of times and he wasn’t concerned about it. This pushed me to explore more “traditional” worship and I ended up studying the neo-Calvinist movement. I was leaning towards pastors like John MacArthur, Paul Washer, David Platt, etc. I was attracted to their zeal and straight forward ways of preaching. So I was watching these guys all week, and worshiping in a church playing trance like music with feel good messages on Sunday. The conflict was causing problems and my wife and I talked about finding another church. Two couples in our small group left the church over the music controversy.
Then some good food started something. My grandmother on my mom’s side was Syrian. My mom used to cook Syrian food when we were growing up, but as we got older, she got out of the habit. My older sister was a home economics teacher and was really into food. One day she told me about a Mediterranean festival nearby and how the food was great and similar to the things we grew up eating. My wife and I attended the festival in 2015, which was held at an Antiochian Orthodox Church. I knew nothing about the Orthodox church and just thought it was some kind of Catholic branch. I had been raised to fear all things Catholic by the Baptist Church. We enjoyed the food and that was all.
The following year, 2016, I went to the festival again, this time with my sister, and the church presented a tour with a short history lesson. This was the first time I had heard anything about Orthodoxy and it sparked my interest. That night I researched everything I could find on Orthodoxy. I watched dozens of videos and read many websites. I could “feel” something drawing me towards Orthodoxy, but my Catholic phobias would never allow me to participate in a church that prayed to saints and kissed pictures. Then one day something happened. Instead of being afraid of the practices I was taught to fear, I actually started researching why the Orthodox did what they did. I have always been a history buff, so the more I read, the more I wanted to learn. Then the week before the festival in 2017, which just happened to be the week after Pascha, I decided to attend my first Divine Liturgy. My wife was working so I went on a “recon” mission alone. I was greeted in the parking lot by a very friendly man who led me inside and introduced me to several people. One of them was a convert from Protestantism and he sat with me the entire time, explaining many of the details of the Liturgy. When I first heard the chanting and choir, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. When I saw the reverence, respect, honor, and holiness of the service, I knew I had found the right place.
I have been a martial artist most of my life, and we have a saying about the further a martial art is from the original source of the warriors that practiced it, the more watered down and ineffective it is. For the “correct” teaching, you have to get as close to the source as you can. Get close to the ones who lived the lifestyle as part of an everyday life and death struggle. When I was sitting in my first Liturgy, I knew I was at the “source.” No watered down, feel good, theology, but the actual faith of the apostles.
I went home and couldn’t wait to tell my wife about it. She came the next Sunday and it had the exact same effect on her. This was in May 2017 and we attended every week, and anxiously anticipated the inquirer’s classes. We eventually attended the classes and were Chrismated on Christmas Eve. I truly believe we have “come home” to the true original church, the faith of the apostles, unchanged for almost 2000 years.
By Cliff and Sara Hargrave