A Garden of Blessings for the Foundation and Growth of Holy Apostles
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost...." (Matthew 28:19)
Since the first days of our mission parish of Holy Apostles, up until now, I have witnessed many miracles, have experienced many blessed sorrows, and have been given many consolations, some known to God and my spiritual father alone. Many people have asked about the beginnings of the mission. It has been almost 7 years since our little parish was founded, and I, a sinner, desire to share the story of its origins. These are my personal memories and are not meant to be any more than that.
The blessing for the foundation of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church was given by Bishop Gabriel of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, on April 28th, 2001, on the eve of the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women. As long as I have my memory I will not forget that beautiful spring day. It was one of the most joyful days of my life - I felt as if I could walk on the tops of the trees. The blessing was given to dedicate the parish to the Lord's apostles. We had been given a gift of four relics for the future English mission parish. The relics were of the Holy Cross, St. Katherine, St. Jude the Apostle, and the Holy Apostle John the Theologian. Since two of the 4 relics were of the apostles, Fr. George chose the Holy Apostles as our patron saints, making use of that which we had been given. We have since been blessed to have three complete sets of relics of our patrons.
The first Divine Services at Holy Apostles were celebrated for the parish feast, the Synaxis of the 12 Apostles, on July 12th and 13th, 2001. The parish was founded with the threefold purpose of making available: 1) a full cycle of Divine Services in the English language 2) services held at normal hours and 3) a church in the Maryland suburbs.
In the spring of 1995, six years before the blessing was given by Bishop Gabriel to found Holy Apostles, on the eve of Holy Week, Bishop Hilarion gave his blessing to Fr. George and me for us to openly pray for and work towards the eventual establishment of the new mission parish. Fr. George and I wanted to start the new mission that year, but Vladika Hilarion instructed us to wait a little while. In church the next day, he gave us advice for the future mission, things such as "you'll need to have separate space for the mission. If you are in your house or in a garage, it will be hard to grow." He understood and supported our desire to pray in English, and our desire to be missionaries.
After receiving this blessing from Vladika Hilarion, for the next 6 years from 1995 to 2001, Fr. George and I dedicated ourselves to continuing our service to the Lord at St. John's, where we had been since our conversion to Orthodoxy in 1986. The English community grew, and more English services were added to the schedule. The English Sunday School program continued to grow. With Archbishop (now Metropolitan) Laurus' blessing we offered English music conferences. Also with his blessing, we began publishing an English Sputnik Psalomshchika, or Church Singer's Companion, a project of transplanting the Russian chant into the English language. On Saturdays, the 5:00 PM English Vespers was replaced with a 4:00 PM English Vigil. The Sunday 7:40 AM Hours & Divine Liturgy continued, being served an average of 3 times a month, sometimes more often. With Bishop Hilarion's blessing we published the Orthodox Family magazine, which eventually became part of Orthodox America.
The English program at St. John's grew to a point where it wasn't possible to add more English to the service schedule without at the same time eliminating Church Slavonic. One couldn't have two St. Theodore Saturdays, two Holy Weeks or two Paschas. It was time for a fully English parish, with all of the rich tapestry of the Divine Services being offered. In the greater Washington metropolitan area with close to 6 million people, there was not one Russian Church Abroad English-language parish.
With regard to the 7:40 AM time of the Sunday Hours and Divine Liturgy, we had seen some of the difficulties that exist with the early hour. I received phone calls from many people, often of college age, but also some older folks, who would ask what time the English Liturgy started on Sunday. When they heard 7:40 AM, they would say they wouldn't be able to make it. The dedicated English parishioners at St. John's were and are more than willing to awaken at dawn for the Sunday Services. However, it seemed as if some potential converts who had not yet found the Faith, and were therefore not yet dedicated to Christ and His Church, would never make it in the door of the church due to the early hour.
In July of 2001, with Bishop Gabriel’s blessing, the new parish was born, and the first services were held at Holy Apostles in Beltsville, Maryland. It was the first Russian Church Abroad parish in the English language anywhere in the greater Washington metropolitan area. At the time of its founding, Fr. George, our son Christopher, and I had been at St. John's for 15 years. There was a lot of resistance to the founding of the mission at the beginning. This was a source of great sorrow to us, and added to the burden of the effort. I think the fact that we had remained at St. John's all those years made it more difficult when it came time to leave. The Lord's apostles separated from each other and dispersed in all directions to spread the gospel and bring salvation to the world. If they had not done so, how would the Faith have spread? "Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world." (Psalm 18:4 Septuagint).
We hope that one day there will also be a mission of the Russian Church Abroad in the Virginia suburbs. We actually hope there will be several missions in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, because as of 2005, the DC Metropolitan area has a population of over 5.9 million people "in a region that extends from the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay to Northern Virginia horse country." (The Washington Post, April 15, 2005) Wouldn't it be wonderful to see Orthodox churches dotting the landscape across the whole area, across our whole country?
Glory to God, there is now a growing new group of Christians gathering in the Maryland suburb of Beltsville; praying together, working out their salvation in the new parish community. Glory to God, since the mission began, the English community at St. John's has also grown and is thriving. This is the nature of missionary work, this is how the Faith spreads unto the ends of the world.
Recently, in January of 2008, I was blessed to be able to speak again to Bishop Hilarion, who has since become Archbishop Hilarion of Australia and New Zealand. I told him about Holy Apostles; that the mission parish whose future existence he had given a blessing for in 1995 had come into existence in 2001. I remembered with him that day when he gave the initial blessing to pray for and work towards the establishment of the mission. I told him how this past May we lost about 15 people because of the reconciliation with Moscow, but seem to have gained back as many and more. He said, "A holy place does not remain empty." Then I asked for and received another blessing for our parish, and he said "May God multiply your parish.”
I give thanks to God for these blessings which He has bestowed on our parish. There was another blessing that we received in 1995, but not from a bishop. At that time, I spoke to our beloved godmother of blessed memory, Tatiana Vsevolodovna Prujan, of our desire to start an English mission parish. Tatiana Vsevolodovna, longtime candlestand lady and Saturday School teacher at St. John's, was born in St. Petersburg in 1909, and reposed in the Lord in June of 1996. She was very happy about the prospect of the mission. She said, "I give you my blessing. With both hands, I give you my blessing...." I deeply loved and respected her and receiving this blessing from her was a gift in our lives, and I believe a treasure for our parish.
I feel as if each one of these blessings is a spiritual flower in the garden of our parish - the two blessings from Archbishop Hilarion, the blessing from Bishop Gabriel, and the blessing from our dearly beloved godmother Tatiana Vsevolodovna. I am sorry that Tatiana Vsevolodovna did not live to see the little church. I think she would have loved it very much. As I light a candle for her at the Memorial table and pray for her, I often also ask for her help. She often helped me in life, and I believe we still receive her help. In a way, she is one of the founders of our parish.
We fervently hope one day, with God's help and by His grace, to build a church that we can give to Him.
We try to hold fast the traditions of our fathers in the Faith, which we greatly treasure. We follow the Church (Julian) calendar for our cycle of services, as does the rest of the Russian Church. We worship in the English language, following the long-standing missionary traditions of our Faith to offer the Divine Services to the people of a nation in their own language. We are dedicated to following the royal path, as described by Fr. Seraphim Rose:
the "royal path" of true Orthodoxy today is a mean that lies between the extremes of ecumenism and reformism on the one side, and a "zeal not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2) on the other. True Orthodoxy does not go "in step with the times" on the one hand, nor does it make "strictness" or "correctness" or "canonicity" (good in themselves) an excuse for pharisaic self-satisfaction, exclusivism, and distrust, on the other. - The Orthodox Word (Sept-Oct 1976)
Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro, a missionary to Indonesia and a convert to Orthodoxy from Islam, recently gave a talk at Holy Apostles on Orthodoxy and Evangelism. Fr. Daniel makes a connection between the nature of the Holy Trinity and evangelism. He says that the love which exists within the Holy Trinity is evangelical, that in its fullness it goes forth in an outward movement, and that this love is the source of, the reason for, the means of the creation of the universe. He says that our Faith is by nature evangelical.
The Lord says, "Look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest" (John 4:35)
. I hope and pray that the Lord will bring to Holy Apostles church workers who will give their lives to this salvific work, following in the footsteps of our holy patrons, the Lord's apostles. The work is soul-saving both for those who find the True Faith through the missionary's efforts, and for the missionary himself. "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." - James 5:19-20.
Deborah Johnson, a sinner.
The week of the Prodigal Son, 2008