with the Orthodox Church
First Visits to Orthodox Churches
by Volkert Nicholas Volkersz
In 1962, my 6th grade Protestant Sunday School class visited various houses of worship in the Seattle area over the course of several weeks. One of those visits was to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, where we were allowed to sit in the choir loft and lean over the railing to watch the service. What I remember of that visit is that the service was not in English; people were constantly moving, kissing pictures, and the air was filled with incense. As I recall, there was no explanation at the end of the service of what we witnessed, and I just assumed it was how Russians worshipped God, just as later experiences exposed us to Jewish, Buddhist, and Catholic worship practices.
In the mid-1980s, I attended the wedding of one of my fellow teachers at a Greek Orthodox Church. By coincidence, I had grown up two blocks from this church and watched it being built in the early 1960s. The wedding ceremony, as beautiful as it was, was done entirely in Greek. Again I had no understanding of what had transpired, but I remembered that there was no exchange of vows, which I thought was unusual. There was Byzantine chant and incense, and I was happy to finally be inside the church I had seen being built, but I went away thinking that this church was for Greeks only. By this time, I had studied Church History in graduate school but never put together that this Orthodox Church was part of my Christian heritage.
In 1997, I went to hear two lectures by a well-known Evangelical intellectual who had “disappeared” from Evangelicalism. I had been wondering what had happened to him. In one talk, he spoke about his conversion to the Orthodox faith, and in the second talk, he spoke about the place of Eastern Orthodoxy in Church History. Having studied Church History in graduate school, I realized that our studies had primarily focussed on developments in the West, the Catholic Church after the Great Schism, and then the Protestant Reformation. I discovered that I knew virtually nothing about Orthodoxy.
The audience was invited to attend Great Vespers that evening at a nearby Orthodox parish. When I walked in, it was fairly dark and very quiet. I took a seat in the back and watched parishioners enter silently, kissing icons, lighting candles, and standing in silence, waiting for the service to begin. I think the silence is what spoke to me the loudest. I had spent nearly 30 years in various Evangelical churches where there was constant chatter, often with coffee in hand, at the beginning of each service. Here I witnessed a profound sense of reverence.
When Great Vespers began, I heard the choir sing (a cappella) “Bless the Lord.” (I later learned that this beautiful music was composed by Fr. Sergei Glagolev.) The text was obviously from the Psalms. What also reached me was that everything was sung and chanted in English. I could understand, on some level, what was going on. While there was much I didn’t understand, the kissing of icons, the veneration of Mary, or the fact that there were no guitars in church, it was the quiet sense of reverence that drew me back.
I began attending inquirer’s classes, first at one parish and later at another, because of my commitments as a praise band leader in my Evangelical church. But over the course of 2.5 years, as I learned more, I reduced my involvement in the praise band and gradually increased my attendance at Orthodox services. I was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation or anointing of oil (since I had been baptized as a child) at the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), in 1999. A year later, I joined the choir and had lost my desire to play my guitar during worship services.
I will add that during my 30 years as an Evangelical, I tried to learn to pray using various methods. It wasn’t until I became Orthodox that meaningful prayer started to make its way into my life.