They were living in a tent with 100 or so other people, all displaced by Hurricane Ike in Galveston Texas. She and her little sister and their mom had lost their home in the storm and they were being sheltered at the Red Cross tent city set up in the aftermath of the third most devastating hurricane in American history.
She couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old, blond headed, and dirty. When we walked into the tent she looked at her mom and said “Mommy, there’s the Church!” and then she looked back at us and yelled “Hey Church!” as she waved at us with all her might.
We were International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) Frontline First Responders sent in to work with the American Red Cross and help where we could in dealing with the emotional and spiritual trauma these survivors were obviously dealing with and to help them get back on their feet. As this precious little girl ran up to me and grabbed me around the leg, it struck me harder than at any time since I landed in Houston just why I was over a thousand miles away from my seminary home and my own little girl and wife back in Boston. We were there to be “Church” to hurting people.
Hurricane Ike will likely cost over $27 Billion and see more than 200 lives lost after all is said and done. Many people have commented that they haven’t heard that much about this tragedy on the news or in the newspapers and they are right. Between the Presidential election and the meltdown in the economy, the sadness and devastation in Galveston and along the Texas coast has largely been ignored.
But IOCC was there very early after the hurricane hit, becoming a “hero” to many in Red Cross shelters by providing things like refrigerators for shelters so that insulin could be kept nearby for victims of the storm. IOCC was there to help with supplies and to assist our own Orthodox faithful in the area who had lost everything. And IOCC was there to provide spiritual and emotional support for victims and rescuers alike.
This past summer IOCC, in cooperation with the Salvation Army, conducted two week long training sessions for the purpose of creating quickly deployed Frontline Responder teams, one on the east coast and one on the west coast. I was fortunate to be part of the training conducted at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. By the end of the week, the trainees had been certified in Crisis Incident Stress Management (CISM), Emotional and Spiritual Care in Disasters, and Pastoral Crisis Intervention. Everyone was very impressed with the training, but no one knew that in just a few short months, we would need to put that training to work.
I and Jim Kyritsis, a fellow seminarian, arrived in Houston on October 11 and began the process of checking in to the Red Cross Headquarters to get our credentials and to set up at our main location in Galveston. We were met by another Holy Cross seminarian, Jacob Saylor, who had been part of the previous team the week before. A local Orthodox Christian family graciously allowed us to use their home in Galveston as our staging area and a place for us to sleep while we were in Texas. From the very first moments in arriving I knew there would be a twin reality – bureaucratic red tape and amazing opportunities to help. Both proved to be true.
Our first order of business was to contact local Houston and Galveston Orthodox parishes to continue the work done by previous Frontline Responder teams. We contacted the Houston parishes and were warmly received at Vespers that Saturday night by the clergy and faithful of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian parish in Houston. Fr. John Salem and Fr. Joseph Huneycutt greeted us and introduced us to the congregation gathered for vespers. The people were amazed and encouraged by the level of support our IOCC had continued to show the people of Houston and Galveston. They thanked us just for being there and shared stories of lost power for two weeks, spoiled food, and other challenges, but each of them were thankful that Houston was spared the real devastation in the Galveston area located about 50 miles from them on the coast of Texas. While at St. George parish, Jacob began the involved process of briefing us on our work in Galveston and just what we could expect.
But nothing prepared us for what we were about to see and hear.
The story is too long to tell in this short article but let me just give you a few snapshots of some incredible stories of sadness and hope.
Our first few days in Galveston were spent doing some work with the local Greek Orthodox parish in Galveston that had been virtually destroyed by the storm. Assumption Greek Orthodox parish had been boarded up for the storm, but that didn’t keep the water out. After parishioners were finally able to get into the church building to assess the damage, they found their church home had been flooded with over five feet of water inside, and, with the power out and no air conditioning, mold had already started covering most of the surfaces of the furniture and other items in the building. The church office was ruined. The water destroyed the carpet and most of the furnishings. Previous teams had worked with another local Orthodox priest, Fr. Serge Veselinovich of St. Constantine and Helen Serbian Orthodox Church in Galveston, to remove the holy vessels and the relics out of the altar. Assumption parish has no priest assigned at this time and is currently served by the Denver Metropolis clergy.
Fr. Serge had asked if we could come and help Tony Speakman, the vice-president of the Assumption parish council, in rescuing as many of the icons as possible in the iconostasis. We met Tony on Monday afternoon and started work. While we were working in the church building, an elderly couple came by to check on their parish home. The gentleman had been a part of the parish as a small boy, and had even grown up to serve as parish council president during his lifetime. This elderly couple was heart-broken to see their parish home ruined by the flood waters and the wife wept as she saw her parish church building. It wasn’t until later we learned that this elderly couple had evacuated the island when told to and had gone to stay with some relatives. Later, when they were allowed to return home, they discovered their own home on the island had been destroyed. These precious people only had three days’ worth of clothes left to them. They had lost everything else. What was touching was to see that they cared more for their church community than their own loss.
Much of our work with the Red Cross was at the shelter in Galveston. This shelter consisted of four large tents, three were dormitories and one was a dining tent. All the tents were air conditioned and the dormitories each housed about 100-150 people. There were two semi-trailers on the grounds- one was a shower facility and one was a laundry facility. The grounds also had about 100 port-a-potties.
I was amazed at how efficient the Red Cross shelter ran. There were medical staff and volunteer staff all coordinated to offer as much assistance as possible, but no matter how hard these tireless volunteers worked, it was impossible to make a tent filled wall to wall with cots feel like anything other than a shelter.
We were not the only representatives of religious groups but we were the only religious representatives wearing the clothes of an Orthodox seminarian – our anterri and school cross. This was our standard clothing while working in the shelters and it was amazing the effect this unambiguous symbol of “church” had. The Red Cross volunteers and the shelter clients had already grown accustomed to seeing men dressed like us since we were the 4th team to be sent to Galveston, and many of the volunteers commented to us that our presence helped keep things calm and civil, which isn’t an easy thing when you get that many people in that particular situation.
We had already been “warned” at Red Cross headquarters that we were not allowed to “proselytize” and, of course, we said we understood that completely. We discovered we didn’t have to say a word. All we did was walk through the tents and the silent witness of the faith was clear. People would come up and ask for prayer, or want to tell their story, or even want to ask us questions about the faith. I was amazed that not once did our attire keep us from serving these people and not once did we run into hostility or rejection. In fact, it opened many more doors than it closed. Jim and I may have been the exception here, since both of us are former police officers.
One shelter story, of many, comes to mind. There was a lady named Margaret who was there in the shelter with her husband. Margaret came up to us and asked us if we could help her find an Episcopal clergyman, since she was Episcopalian. We started calling around until we got the number of a local Episcopal church and get the information she needed. By then Margaret had warmed up to us and just began telling her story. She was manic-depressive, she was a drug addict, and she was confused about life in general. “Would you pray for me and my husband?” We were used to these kinds of requests and Jim and I both took to the habit of keeping a small notepad in our pocket so we could write down the names of those who requested prayer, so I wrote Margaret’s name down, but she insisted she wanted us to pray for her right now. We offered a short prayer asking God to comfort her and to give her the direction she needed. But I felt there was more to do. I asked her “Have you eaten today?” During our training we learned that this is a very important question to ask since many times people in stressful situations, taken out of their regular routines, forget important matters. I also asked if she had taken her medicine today. Both answers were “No.” We got her to the medical section of the tent and then it was off to the dining tent for some food.
By the time it was time for us to leave, Margaret was asking about Orthodoxy, and wanted information about a local Orthodox church in the area.
So many more stories could be told, but I want to leave you with something an African-American gentleman told Jim on our last evening in the shelter. I was talking to another client when this gentleman walked up to Jim and asked if he could speak to him. Jim gave the man his undivided attention and the man told Jim “Thank you for being here. When we see you here in this difficult place, your presence reminds us that God has not forgotten about us.”
Our service in Galveston and Houston for 9 days in October will be something I will remember for the rest of my life, but it won’t be what I did those 9 days. It will be what I gained from people who were hurting, scared, and needy. It will be what I gained by being there with incredible volunteers giving of themselves and then needing somebody to talk to as well. I will remember the honor of simply being present to precious persons and the honor of standing there and observing Christ bring comfort to them through the presence of the Church.
I will remember a little girl excitedly telling her mom “Mommy, the Church is here! Hey Church!”
Here's a bit of a diversion from my normal posts, but having been contemplating the serious, Southern, issue about BBQ, I thought I'd share this with my friends.
Southern BBQ is one of the greatest gifts of Southern culture to the world. Regardless where you might come down on the argument about sauce or no sauce, vinegar, mustard based, or tomato based sauce, or even the appropriateness of Brunswick stew as a necessary side item for the BBQ plate (a slice of white bread, however, is simply non negotiable), a true Southerner understands that BBQ is no trifling matter, but it is a delicacy we are happy to share with the world.
So, on that note, I'm off to my favorite BBQ place i the world - Two Brothers BBQ in Ballground, GA. Oh, wait, I'm stuck in Boston! Dang!
Y'all pray for me!
Barnabas (stuck behind "enemy lines" without my shotgun!)
Well, the never ending quest to share the wonderful events and people in the Orthodox Church marches on!
Here's the premise: There are so many good things happening and so many wonderful and dedicated people working in the Orthodox Church in this present day that it is a shame that more people don't know about this! The result is that while all these wonderful things are happening, many of our Orthodox faithful are under the false impression that our Church is doing very little and they fall into such self criticism that they despair for the future. They are misinformed!
I have never been more positive and more excited about the Church and Her future here in America than I am today!
That doesn't me an that I have my head in the sand about the real and difficult challenges our Church faces here. There is entirely too much wasted effort in duplicating ministries across different jurisdiction and not enough cooperation and collaboration. There are still far too many strong pockets of Orthodox people who confuse particular nationalistic practices for the heart of Orthodox faith. There is a need for strong servant leadership in our Church that is far more committed to the Lordship of Jesus than the protection of religious "turf."
In spite of all that, I am convinced the Holy Spirit is both active and moving in our Orthodox Church. In spite of scandals, leadership weakness, uninformed and (sometimes) uninspired laity, there are a lot of good things happening. Unfortunately the old saying holds true: Bad news travels around the world before good news can even get its coat on.
One such ray of light and hope is Icon New Media. Jacob Lee, a former Calvary Chapel pastor and now Orthodox Christian, has started what I believe is just one more example of what we can do as Orthodox Christians to make our faith available to more folks. Icon is a wonderful place to hear interesting podcasts and see the new media use of the Internet that reaches out to a generation of young people who are more Internet savvy than most of their parents. This is the wave of the future of communications.
By way of full disclosure, your intrepid seminarian was recently interviewed by Jacob for a future podcast. We talked primarily about my conversion story and the unique journey of Pentecostals to Orthodoxy. If you get the chance, listen in.
Below is a response I recently wrote to an announcement about "two new Orthodox parishes" being established in the Baltimore area. It turns out that these are two Old Catholic groups wanting to advertise themselves as "Orthodox."
The reality of our current situation here in America is that of religious "entrepreneurial" chaos. In other words, every man can do what is "right in his own eyes." I prefer the chaos over government control, but that means that each of us must be diligent in knowing and living the fullness of the Faith. No automatic pilot allowed!
Here's my response. I offer it to you for your critique, response, and correction:
Fr. XXXX, please forgive me, but I spent (I won't say "wasted" but I want to) almost 10 years of my life playing "dress up" Orthodoxy in a group that desired the ancient faith without all that messy hard work of actually being in organic communion within the Orthodox Church.
I don't say that is what's happening here. How could I know? But I do know that any real and lasting work any of us do will have to be eventually brought to the Church in communion if it is ever going to be "fruit that remains." This "we are going to do Orthodoxy right" mentality is absolutely a dead end. If you and your Old Catholic group have charisms and talents, bring them to the Church. Perhaps the Church can put them to use, but more than likely it will be as it has been for me, a time when my own foolish notions of my gifts and abilities will be put to the test in the fire of the hard work of communion within the Church.
I also don't mean to engage in any lengthy discussion of the merits of this or that vision of communion and bringing America to Orthodoxy. I simply wish to share my own regrets for waiting so long to enter into the hard work of communion within the Orthodox Church. The fruit that this work has produced in my own life is worth much more than any of the perceived "gains" I thought I had outside of the organic and canonical communion within the Church. Please know that ever fear I had about the Orthodox Church was well founded.
There are many within the Church who see it as nothing more than a place to preserve yia yia's recipes and a few colorful costumes and dance steps, or some ultimately futile attempt to pretend they don't live where they live now. There are many within the Church, especially here in America, who are so narrow minded that you could put out both eyes with one bb! There are far too many who know so little about their faith that they resort to silly nationalistic (and sometimes racist) motivations for preserving the ancient traditions of the faith. The sad and overwhelmingly obvious results of these weaknesses is that these motivations will not preserve anything these folks want to preserve. These weak motivations are, after all, too small to preserve the timeless beauty of the Faith, and too irrelevant to keep any of the "old world" alive. All of these fears are well founded and certainly insist on an "eyes wide open" approach to entering the Church.
But in spite of these very real weaknesses, there is simply no substitute for the hard work of dealing with these shortcomings, especially with all the benefits that come.
Because, for every narrow-minded person I have encountered in the Orthodox Church, I have encountered a hundred sincere, faithful, and loving believers who, through patience, compassion, and love have guided me to a fuller understanding of the Faith. I have seen my initial impressions of some of the ethno-centric baggage of the Church as being too short sighted myself. I have found some of these cultural expressions (certainly not all) to be worthy bearers of deeper truths that have been helpful to me in deepening my own piety and faith. I have watched as so-called "cradle" Orthodox, grasping the deep healing given to them by the Faith, raise their children as committed believers and I've watched as so-called "converts" finally see the power of humility in living out a sense of gratitude for those who preserved the faith so they could receive it. I have watched as young men and women come to understand that if they first dwell deeply on the "sublime theology" of Orthodoxy, their children will want to keep alive those special cultural markers that allow them to display their Orthodox faith in a healthy and welcoming way. Their children want to learn the "language" not because of some foolish and shallow nationalism, but because that "language" best captures the precious nuances of the Faith they have come to love and has so transformed their lives. It has been worth the work.
My journey isn't over, anymore than I'm sure yours is as well. Here at seminary I am learning more than I ever dreamed, and much of that education is occurring not in a classroom but in the daily living with so many different people from so many different places. I have found my worst fears and my greatest hopes both confirmed in my canonical communion within the Church, and I wouldn't go back to my "dress up" days for anything!
Your absent blogger/seminarian is intrigued with some swirling thoughts of late.
First is the concept of beauty. I am of the increasing opinion that Dostoevsky was right "Beauty will save the world."
Second is the increasingly strong and alarming thought concerning the destructive and deeply heretical teachings of Calvinism, particularly the Calvinistic notions concerning sovereignty and election. I am convinced that any future Ecumenical Council will be forced to anathematize Calvinism as one of the most insidious heresies ever faced by Christianity.
Finally, what is driving both of these thoughts is the widely reviewed theological work of David Bentley Hart. It is my opinion that Hart should be more widely known among the Orthodox, of which he is a part, and also it should be appreciated that Hart's work is getting serious attention in Western Christian academic circles.
Below is a link to an interview with Dr. Hart that I recommend highly. I also recommend both of his books of late: "The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth" and "The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?" Both books are published by the Eerdmans.
Please know that I am completely unable to grasp much of what Hart writes due to my very limited philosophical training, but what I do know is that the two nagging notions above are strengthened by Hart's work.
Gentle reader, two parting thoughts: God is not the author of evil, and, God is absolutely in every sense of the word and even beyond every sense of the word, FREE.
A Shocked Barnabas Powell Finishes His Freshman Year at Holy Cross
Brookline, MA 4 June 2008: With final exams behind him, Barnabas Powell finds himself at the end of his first year at seminary at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. The school, located on a beautiful campus in Brookline, Massachusetts (near Boston and just minutes from historic Fenway Park) is the central educational facility for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is also home to the only fully accredited Eastern Orthodox Christian 4 year undergraduate college in the Western Hemisphere (Hellenic College). Go to http://www.hchc.edu for more information.
A Review of the First Year
Barnabas, his wife Connie, and their (then) 11 month old daughter Alexandra, arrived at Holy Cross in August of 2007 to Married Student housing on campus. Their apartment was actually bigger than they expected and they immediately set out to make this 900 square foot, 3 bedroom apartment, their new home for the next several years.
While Connie set up the apartment, Barnabas registered for classes and re-entered the life of a student after having been in the workforce almost 20 years since his last venture in higher education at Toccoa Falls where he received his first Theological degree. The first year at seminary is supposed to be the toughest and it certainly was. Courses in New Testament Greek, the Book of Romans, Patrology, Genesis, and others immersed Barnabas in reading, studying, and test taking that pressed him to excel in his chosen field. The first semester ended with Barnabas passing all his courses.
The second semester of this first year was filled with new challenges. Classes like Dogmatics, Canon Law, Liturgics, and Byzantine Chant would require Barnabas to examine areas of theology and prayer that called him to a serious reflection of his faith and his time management skills. On top of that, Connie had taken a part time job as a substitute teacher in the local Brookline City Schools to help the little family cover expenses while Barnabas focused on his studies. This meant a seemingly weekly struggle to find daycare for Alexandra while Dad went to class and Mom went to work. But they did it.
The highlight of the second semester was Holy Week. Each year all the incoming freshmen are tasked with serving the Campus Chapel (Holy Cross) for all the services of Holy Week. This meant serving in the altar, baking bread for the services, and clean up of the Chapel every day of this special week. With services at least twice a day (sometimes more) Barnabas and his fellow classmates were very busy. But this week was wonderful and terrible. Exhausted and exhilarated, the freshmen arrived at Pascha ready to hear the familiar cry “Christ is Risen!” It was glorious. Unfortunately, what Barnabas thought was a recurrence of kidney stones that started on Holy Tuesday turned out to be a fairly serious infection that landed him in the hospital on Clean Monday. All was well after a week of antibiotics and it was back to work.
The year ended with a flurry of activity around final exams and Graduation exercises. Barnabas was both active in coordinating the Graduation exercises and singing in the school choir. He received his grades for the second semester and found that his first year’s GPA was 3.73 after receiving all A’s for his second semester classes.
The end of the second semester doesn’t end Barnabas’ work. He is scheduled to take Liturgical Greek during the first session of Summer School and then begin his Modern Greek training in August for the second half of Summer School. In between, Barnabas will be working at the Diakonia Center in South Carolina teaching and being a counselor at the Metropolis of Atlanta Youth Camp program. Barnabas has also recently added a part time job to his schedule. He is working at Capers Catering here in Boston to help cover summer tuition and other bills.
Barnabas has also been given the honor of being one of four students selected next year to serve as an Altar Group Leader. The Altar Group Leader is assigned one week each month of the semester when his team is in charge of serving in the altar for our twice daily services and in keeping the Chapel clean. The team is made up of an Holy Cross seminarian (the team leader), an Hellenic College assistant leader, and several incoming freshmen that are to be trained in serving the Chapel. Barnabas considers this honor one of his most important tasks next year. He has also been elected to the Student Government for the Seminary and College as the Treasurer. This puts Barnabas on the “executive board” of Student Government, making him the only Married Student representative on the executive board. The second year looks even busier than the first.
Barnabas, Connie, and Alexandra are so grateful to the many friends and family who made this first year possible through their prayers and donations. Your gifts at the very beginning of this unlikely journey made this first year possible for the Powell family. Connie still plans to continue working for Brookline Schools, and Barnabas hopes to get as many hours as possible at the catering company. Alexandra continues to grow so fast and will celebrate her 2nd birthday September 22. She enjoys going to play dates with Mommy, and generally either whispering or shouting the new words she seems to learn every day. She is the apple in her mother’s and father’s eye.
If all goes according to schedule, Barnabas should graduate in May of 2010 and then, as the Lord wills, he will continue serving the Lord’s Church as God sees fit. His dream is to so grasp and internalize the beautiful and life-giving Orthodox Christian faith that he will be able to communicate at least some of that beauty to as many people as possible here in America. He and Connie hope you will remember them in your prayers.
Barnabas Powell is a former Pentecostal pastor who converted, along with 20 families from the church he founded in Woodstock, GA, to the Orthodox Christian Church in November of 2001. He is married to the former Connie Demas, and they are the proud parents of Alexandra Georgia Powell. Barnabas is a full time seminarian at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, studying for his Masters of Divinity in pursuit of ordination to the holy priesthood of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He is a grateful seminarian under the loving paternity of Metropolitan ALEXIOS of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta and a proud son of the South temporarily waylaid entirely too far above the Mason-Dixon (but he longs to get home as soon as he can).