The season for change
In spring of 2002, I was finishing my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary and I received phone call from my Presbytera’s close friend who is a priest within the Greek Orthodox Diocese of the West. He asked if we would consider serving a mission church in a small city in Northern Arizona called Flagstaff. I had just recently been ordained six months earlier in the Orthodox Church of America and we were still waiting our assignment from the bishop. Because of the trust we felt from my wife’s friend, Fr. Timothy Pavlatos, we accepted Metropolitan Anthony’s invitation to serve the community site unseen. It has been one of the largest blessings in my life. Over the past nine years I have witnessed the community grow, my family grow, as well as myself. Now we enter into the tenth nativity season as the full-time priest here in Flagstaff, and I must announce in sorrow that I will be leaving Northern Arizona to serve the Church in a different capacity. Through the guidance of our bishop, my family and I are going to serve the Church by ministering to the only Orthodox Orphanage in North America, which is located outside of Tijuana, Mexico. Naturally the feelings are extremely mixed. Flagstaff being my first assignment as an ordained Orthodox priest, my family and I are struck with a large sense of loss. We are leaving so many loved ones here. At the same time we are overcome by a sense of gratitude having had the opportunity of being a part of such a loving Orthodox community for the past nine years. We will miss the Holy Cross community while knowing that God is sending us to continue to labor by caring for His little ones at the St. Innocent Orthodox Orphanage.
The Only Orphanage?
This pan orthodox orphanage has asked me to be the spiritual director for the lives of over 30 Mexican orphan boys. These young ones are truly orphans because their parents will never come and retrieve them. Their mother or father have either died, are incapacitated due to an addiction or they have lost all sense of caring for their biological children. Orthodox Christians have the obligation to minister to the little ones as described in the bible. (James 1:27) The St. Innocent Orphanage is the only Orthodox Orphanage in North America and the first of two in this hemisphere. This philanthropic orthodox movement began in 1988 with the zeal of a small group who wanting to help the vulnerable of the 3rd world country with which United States shares a border. In addition to helping small children, the St. Innocent Orphanage is under the umbrella of Project Mexico, which runs the largest orthodox youth home building program in the world. For these reasons they have their work cut out for them and need plenty of help. Not all are called to sell their home and move their family to a foreign country to spread the good news of Orthodoxy and this decision was not arrived at easily. Knowing my background of doing development work in Latin America for more than six years and being a bilingual Orthodox priest it is no surprise that Project Mexico came looking for me to minister to the faithful in the rural hills of Tijuana. As a family we have committed to several years service in helping the children at the Orphanage but also we will be spreading Orthodoxy in Mexico and spreading the news of the great work throughout America about the St. Innocent Orthodox Orphanage in Tijuana. The harvest is plentiful and the labors are growing. Pray for a fruitful ministry.
We have come so far!
In 2002 I was received by the orthodox faithful in Northern Arizona as their first full-time Greek Orthodox priest. The original group of faithful were very ambitious to commit to supporting a clergy man fulltime so as to allow the Orthodox faith to grow at 7,000 feet. In the past nine years much has been accomplished. We have seen our church double in size, establish a full schedule of liturgical worship and a continual effort in reaching out and helping the needy. We have fed hundreds of people annually and maintained monthly visits to the elderly at the most impoverished nursing home in the region. We have had more than 50 baptisms and Chrismations, a dozen weddings and continual 40 day blessings of babies. The Flagstaff community also became the center for reinvigorating the All Saints church youth camp, which has touched hundreds of youth throughout the state. We have lead the learning of our little ones with weekly youth education programs and the church in Flagstaff has been a refuge for so many college Orthodox Christians (OCF), several of which have pursued the calling to serve the church.
In this time our community received it’s name of Holy Cross. It was a process of a year and a half but through God’s grace our church now is known for being the highest (at 7,000 ft.) Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in the Country. Even though 2/3 of our expenses have always been covered by stewardship we have taken advantage of many opportunities to share Orthodoxy with Flagstaff at the same time generating funds in order to continue the ministries in the community. Whether it be our annual Glendi Greek Dinner Dance or selling Gyros at the county fair we worked together to keep our church going here in Northern Arizona. Adult education has been a constant with weekly bible studies, classes on iconography, spiritual asceticism and Orthodoxy fundamentals. One of the largest blessings has been the outpouring of generosity toward the building of the first Orthodox Church in Flagstaff. In 2002 there was only a few thousand dollars in a building fund. Now almost ten years later we have over $300,000, which is a sizable amount in today’s market in order to establish a permanent place for Orthodox worship. The history is vast and I, as the priest, have been just one part of it. The movement to start a church in Flagstaff began over 40 years ago and as the first Greek Orthodox priest for the community I took advantage of that momentum and fertilized the soil so it could grow and grow it did. I will be leaving the Holy Cross community in the near future but the community will not stop growing and flourishing rather it is primed for a harvest of abundance.
The commitment of growth
A significant issue that concerned his Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos over me leaving is the pastoral and liturgical attention of the Holy Cross community. For this reason he has assigned Fr. Virgal Suciu to serve the community every Sunday until the Holy Cross church is given another full time priest to minister to the faithful. The Nativity of the Theotokos church on 16 W. Cherry Street will continue to be the location of the Holy Cross worship and church office until a permanent home is found. Wednesday night Paraklesis service and Saturday Great Vespers will continue to happen and will be lead by the faithful of the community. The Church is founded on Christ and we are all the living stones. St. Paul emphasized this when he pointed out that no one was ever baptized in his name but in the name of Jesus the Lord. (1 Cor. 1:13) God’s church is not dependant on any one dynamic pastor or member of the parish council but on the Messiah who came for our salvation. Yes, when we are separated from our brothers and sisters in the Lord this brings sorrow as seen when St. Paul departed from the Ephesians in the book of Acts and they wept in the sadness of his departure.(Acts 20:36-38) Let us realize this and at the same time let us proclaim that the Lord is watching over all of us so that his Kingdom will continue to flourish here in the Holy Cross community