Trinity Baptist Church

The First Month: Hit the Ground Running in a Spiritual Bond

It seems that from Day One of becoming a chrismated Orthodox Christian, I have been busy.  First of all, the services have kept me going.  I was chrismated on the day of our Theophany services.  The second Sunday was the blessing of the waters.  Last Sunday was the visit from Bishop Thomas.  My new brothers and sisters have suggested that I consider teaching an adult Sunday school class and taking up chanting (that is a thought).  A couple have even asked me about the priesthood being somewhere in my future (I ain’t even thinking about that yet).   In between all of this, I have put together a solid website/blog for the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  In my personal journey, I wake up at 4 am to read and take notes from the Early Church Fathers on top  of my pre-prayers and Matins as well as being more observant of the Hours.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children's sermon.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children’s sermon.

Actually, the adjustment has not been rough at all.  I do miss my brothers and sisters at Trinity Baptist Church.  My elders loved me like a son.  I was a big brother even to those who were a few years older than myself.  People in the community still find it odd that my car is no longer in the church yard on Sunday mornings.  Except for the Ethiopian families, I am the only black person in a predominately white church of a Middle Eastern rooted church.

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

But, I think it is because we are such a motley crew of people that I fit in at St. Basil.  I think one of the unique things about coming to such a church is that we all are bringing different stories to the table.  And the thing that brings us all together is the common union of faith in Jesus Christ.  Maybe I am weird (no … wait).  But, I think there is something incredibly spiritually unifying in taking the Eucharist from the same cup.  We aren’t all squeemish about that spoon being in someone else’s mouth before ours and vice-versa.  Because we are not just taking any old bread and wine.  We are taking the Body and Blood of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  The bread was made by someone in the church and proper sealed as holy and we all partake of it.  We kiss the same cross, icon, and hand of the priest.  So, we have a spiritual bond with each other.  With that spiritual bond established, social bonds follow suit.  Maybe closer with some than others.  But, that is how friendships go in any part of human society.  The point is not the things that separate us, but the One that brought and brings us together that matters.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 6): Wisdom for the Road

7:00 am to 12:00 pm/ 13 October/ Kansas City MO

So by using the worst form of interstate transportation, I came half way across the country to attend a Divine Liturgy at a Serbian Orthodox Church that had elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy (umbrellas over the Eucharist is cool).  St. Mary’s has three readers to give the scriptures in Amharic, English, and Serbian (or was it Slavonic).  This was a very beautiful worship experience.  If only I didn’t have to catch the 1 pm bus.  I would have loved to linger after service (and apologize for coming up for the blessings for the catechist when, officially, I am  not one) and have those last conversations and good-byes.  This inter-cultural, inter-racial fellowship was a glimpse of what heaven will look like.  If I could have, I would have decided to stay in KC and be a part of the family at St. Mary’s.

Yet, my calling is here in my beloved eastern VA and (for now) as a Baptist pastor.  But, what am I to do will all that I have experienced?  For over a year, I have grown in the knowledge and spirituality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Perhaps if I were not a pastor, I could go ahead and convert.  But even if I could afford to leave Trinity Baptist Church, would it be fair for me to up and leave one of the most appreciative and loving congregations a man could ask for?

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Having dinner the night before with Fr. Jerome Sanderson and Subdeacon Paul Abernathy shared an obvious piece of advice.  That morning Turbo Qualls reminded me of the challenge I have already taken.

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From the father and deacon:  Take your time and make good steps.  It is too easy to wish to either run away to St. Basil or try to force what little I know down the throats of my congregation (I tried by praying the opening prayer of the Trisagion prayers during the invocation.  Some of my members felt uncomfortable with springing it on them without warning.).  I can’t take the easy way out.  Bringing Orthodoxy to African-Americans and anyone else in this area who is willing to listen will be and is a challenge.  Actually, there are people I communicate with who are interested in how I came to be involved with Orthodoxy and how I balance being a Baptist pastor and yet one who practices elements of and has a deep appreciation for this ancient faith (praying the Hours, keeping the fasting rules, venerating icons).  I have set something of an idea that I would convert to Orthodoxy sometime in 2015.  Who knows, I may or may not convert then.  It may be that I remain Baptist, yet with a strong slant towards Eastern Christian thought.  Or, as some Orthodox have suggested, I will reach a point where I just can’t stand being away from the church so much and take the plunge.  In either case, I need to be very prayerful and careful of each decision I make about my journey and how I invite others to walk with me.

But this is a journey that I must share.  Turbo told me that a good pastor is someone who shares what he knows with his people.  I have not been shy about telling people about my journey.  I think that pursuing Orthodoxy has been one of the best things that has happened in my Christian journey.  I am learning about how the Bible came into being and how it was originally interpreted by the church who first established the faith.  I am learning about the church that was founded by Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  As best as conditions allow, I am practicing the faith the way it has been done for almost 2,000 years.  This is a pearl of great price!  How can I not want to share it?

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

So, what is the plan?  Right now, I see myself as a bridge builder between the traditional Black Baptist and Orthodox Churches.  My task is to interpret between both of these very different worlds.  There are some strong similarities, especially with the older manifestations of our church during slavery and Jim Crow.  Yet, there are stark differences in theology and thought.  Surely, there are people far more qualified for this task.  Yet, it has been given to me.  May the Lord lead me to lead others in love, truth, and wisdom.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day One): Forgiveness With Friends

I had a very good worship service this morning with my church family at Trinity this morning.  Plus, we had a rehearsal for our Easter program after service as well.  I ate half a  large veggie lovers cheese stuffed crust pizza and was tempted to call it a day.  I could have called it a day.  But, I knew that nothing would replace the blessing of attending my first Forgiveness Vespers service.  As a Baptist, the idea of such a prayer service was a bit daunting.  To ask everybody in church to forgive you of your sins and then forgive everyone who ask as well is pushing it.  I mean, we all have been in those services where we are told to turn around and to your left and right to say to your neighbor whatever the preacher tells us to repeat.  This was deeper.  Even the priest ask each person for forgiveness.  The gift is given and the symbolic holy kiss is exchanged. 

Yeah, now you want to talk about bringing people together, the nearness of simulating and giving three kisses to either side of one another’s face and exchanging the gift of forgiveness is deep.  I didn’t know how I was going to react.  All of this was strange to me.  Yet, the quiet warmth we shared with each other in this offering was very special.  We were all making a bold, first step into the challenge of Great Lent.  The struggle against our sinful selves and the striving to grow in God’s grace.  We were all going together as it was being done in other Orthodox churches around the world, as it was done for nearly  2,000 years. 

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

Traffic around the Jefferson Ave. interchange was no fun.  In fact, things were slow through Ft. Eustis.  Needless to Say, Satan was waiting for me.  No doubt, he will constantly await moments to distract and tempt me.  Needless to say, maintaining The Hours will be very important to me.  I may put an icon in the car as I already have a corner in the living room, bed room, and a couple of them at my desk at Trinity and York River. 

So, now it is into Clean Monday.  My wife is not joining me in the fast and has free range on the good stuff in the fridge and freezer.  But, I did find a very delicious vegetable soup mix not long ago.  That and a good, crusty bread will be dinner after Vespers.  Ah well, it is bed time.  I feel excited about tomorrow.