Protestant Man meets Orthodoxy[i]
By: James Kelly[ii]
My first Orthodox service was Pascha. I was a guest of the girl I met in my senior year of college, Nadejda Smirnov. On a fateful night in Vineland, N.J., my Protestant background and her Orthodox ROCOR world collided on the eve of the first full Sunday after the Jewish Passover.
Holy Trinity Church was a classic gem of Russian Orthodoxy – a fact I would learn eventually. But on this night, it was a scene of confusion for me. There were no pews. It was 11:30 at night. Nadia was wearing a pretty dress and something I had not seen before – a scarf on her head. She introduced me to Clyde and Valya Washburn, and then we were told to stand on the right, and she and Valya went to the left side of the church.
I was dressed in the only sport coat I owned and tie. My shoes were spit shined because they were part of my Navy uniform. I had flown about 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor where I was stationed to be with Nadia.
The room was filled with intricate hand-carved woodwork and paintings of haloed figures. More were on a wall in the front of the church blocking the view of the altar.
People were shuffling about busily placing flowers at the center of the church which I realized was the body of Jesus. I was used to the sedate world of “Lukewarm Lutheranism.” I had met the parents … and got a hug and a kiss from her mom…then a hug and a three-side kiss from her bearded Dad. My stoic world had not prepared me for this.
People were hugging and kissing everyone. I shook hands with some, and they muttered some words I did not understand and moved on. I had never seen such activity in church. I saw people fuss with the flowers. Shortly afterward another woman would come and rearrange the flowers to her liking. That continued until the service began (in Church Slavonic I learned much later.) I thought it was Russian, of which I could say “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “May I smoke,” and, “Where is the bathroom?”
I didn’t know that this was the beginning of more than four hours of services. Nadia’s father, Protodeacon Vasily Smirnov was serving in the altar. I listened as attentively as I could but I was totally baffled. No matter where I stood, I was eventually in the way of the men who were constantly lighting candles. I was dearly coveting one of those chairs along the wall near the window which was one of the few sources of ventilation.
The only thing that kept me going was seeing Nadia smile as I looked to my left. My companion, Clyde, had more time in grade than I did. He and Valya had been married the year before, so he was an old hand at church. Well into the services, he gestured for me to follow him. We wound up in the parking lot where we sat in the car and had a smoke. I was surprised by all the activity outside the very full church, another variance from Lutheranism. But, then, I couldn’t remember a protestant service that lasted more than an hour.
Over the next 50 years I would come to know, marry (in Holy Trinity) and love Nadia – and Orthodoxy. My family of Irish, German, PA Dutch heritage had a grand time at our wedding. We invited about 125 people and more than 200 showed up. The Russian community did not know what RSVP meant, but they came bearing food galore. My family knew German as did the Russians. The bridal dance wound up being a polka.
Trinity became the home base for our family for the next 30 years. I came to love hugging and kissing my family and friends.
I am grateful to my mother, Kathryn for providing me with a church experience in small-town Wescosville, PA. She read Bible stories to me as a child; she took me to church regularly, made me sing little songs in Sunday School that she had written. I would sing them to my children when they were kids and they would marvel and laugh with Grammy and sing them with her. They sing some of them to their children now as well as Orthodox Christmas songs.
For many years we had two sets of Christmases and Easters and Paschas. But all our children grew up in Orthodoxy and I eventually converted to Orthodoxy with a great friend and priest, the ever memorable Very Reverend Archpriest Eugene Vansuch.
That fateful night in Vineland was truly a great blessing!
[i] This article is copyright © to James Kelly and is published here under licence and was first published at http://holytrinityoca.org/protestant-man-meets-orthodoxy. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written consent.
[ii] James Kelly is a retired journalist with the Lehigh valley’s Morning Call newspaper and is an active member of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Catasauqua, PA.