September began at one of my favorite places on Earth– the little hermitage in the woods at Ss. Mary & Martha Orthodox Monastery in Wagener, SC. The sisterhood in Wagener has been part of my life for four years, and the past four years have been richer for it. If you don’t know Ss. Mary & Martha, then you should. If you’re in college (or just in your twenties), you should go to their winter retreat.
While based at the monastery, I experienced much of South Carolina– Holy Ascension in Charleston, Holy Apostles in Columbia, and Holy Resurrection in Aiken. Charleston is called the “Holy City” for its skyline of steeples. The churches of this port city are architectural landmarks, and Holy Ascension is the finest among them. With its towering cupolas and breathtaking iconography, it is unmistakably an Orthodox Christian temple built for the ages. With its heart pine floors and an exterior of stucco and bronze, it is unmistakably at home in Charleston. This stunning work of liturgical architecture has a choir to match. And the hearts of the faithful of Charleston exceed even the glory of their temple.
After a behind-the-scenes tour of downtown Charleston by a native who knows her stuff, I got to visit with the local Orthodox Christian Fellowship. The group is a mix of students from College of Charleston and cadets from The Citadel.
Student fellowship at a military academy looks a little different than it does in other schools. How does it look different? Well, we actually began on time…
From there I visited Holy Apostles in Columbia very briefly, just for Liturgy of the Nativity of the Theotokos where I was able to worship with the faithful and meet in fellowship afterwards. I’ve ended up in Columbia periodically over the years and Holy Apostles is like an old friend who you only get to see once in a blue moon. Always great to be back. After a few more days at the monastery, I spent Saturday evening Vespers with the faithful of Holy Resurrection in Aiken, SC. This is a small mission parish. When I say small, I mean that you’ve got to crowd to the back of the nave to avoid getting hit in the eye by Fr. Robert’s censer. And there is a crowd in that little building, and their vision for the future is grand.
Early on the morning of Sunday the 13th I drove through the hills of North Georgia to St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Watkinsville just outside of Athens, home to the University of Georgia. St. Philothea, like my own home parish St. Elizabeth’s in Gainesville, is a college-town church with great diversity. I heard the Our Father in at least five languages, and met parishioners from a great variety of backgrounds. After spending time with relatives in the area and visiting the local sights (Stone Mountain in thick fog and cold rain) I returned to South Carolina’s Piedmont to visit with St. John of the Ladder Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Clemson University. The hospitality of the people of South Carolina is hard to beat.
The following weekend found me in North Carolina– Holy Cross in High Point on Saturday the 19th and Annunciation in Winston Salem on Sunday the 20th. These are two very different and equally impressive parishes. Holy Cross, along with the entire OCA Carolinas Deanery, is a shining example of solid apostolic missiology applied to the twenty-first century American South. If a missiology textbook isn’t written soon on the Carolinas Deanery, then I just might have to research and write that texbook myself. I learned a lot and will continue to draw on the clergy and faithful of this deanery for their wisdom and their war stories.
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston Salem is an eighty-year-old monument to the work of generations to the glory of God. This large parish has a strong clergy and diverse congregation engaged in ministry to a large immigrant population and and even larger population of every background conceivable. Breakfast with Fr. Demetri and the men’s group was a tremendous encouragement.
From Winston-Salem I crossed the Blue Ridge and spent a week in the mountains. First in Johnson City, Tennessee, visiting with dear friends from high school and Holy Resurrection Mission. On Wednesday I was able to pray Vespers with the deacon and subdeacon and spend another hour in conversation with them about what Christian missions and evangelism mean both in Tanzania and in the Appalachians. Then on Thursday, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the University of Tennessee invited me to Knoxville where we talked about missions and shared a “Mighty Meat Pizza” at the Mellow Mushroom. A college town is not a college town unless it has a Mellow Mushroom.
To central Kentucky from northeast Tennessee I took the back roads through western Virginia and Harlan County. My mother taught elementary school in this region thirty-five years ago, and I enjoyed the brief visit to a part of the world that doesn’t seem to have changed much in the intervening decades. The drive through little coal mining towns north of Pine Ridge to Corbin was, despite heavy fog and rain, stunningly beautiful. And the all the radio stations are all preachin’ and prayin’ and singin’ all the time.
September ended among the faithful of St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. St. Athanasius is the most ethnically homogenous parish I’ve seen since my days at St. Paul’s in Korea. They have quite a story, as a group of rural Kentucky Methodists who together sought out the ancient roots of Christianity and were received as a body into the Orthodox Church in America at about the same time that I was encountering Orthodoxy myself. St. Athanasius is special to me because it has sent so many people to Florida who have played transformative roles in my life. I first met folks from this parish four years ago and have been longing to visit ever since.
And that brings me to October in Ohio. Last Wednesday the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Miami University (the REAL Miami) hosted me in Oxford, and I’m now spending quality time with relatives in Cincinnati. It was hot summertime in Tennessee, but the drive to Kentucky was an entrance into chilly autumn which is only getting chillier.
These days are full of joy, and I think what I’ve written reflects this. These days are also difficult. Staying organized, staying safe on the road, getting business done while in a different house every few days– little things add up. And being the face of Orthodox Christian cross-cultural missions, being the representative of missionary work in Tanzania, demands a spiritual maturity and strength that I do not possess. It is a scary thing, weak and unworthy as I am, to stand in front of people and ask to be sent as a missionary. Only the mercy and grace of God, through your fervent prayers, will keep me true to this calling. Don’t stop praying.