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HERE AM I

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Again Magazine, June/July, 1996, Page 16-19

“HERE AM I”

After years of wandering, a young man returns to follow God’s call

by Gregory P. Yova, Executive Director of Project Mexico

I grew up in a close-knit Romanian Orthodox immigrant community. I learned a lot, because the Orthodox Faith is so entrenched in the culture. We knew how to love and take care of each other. One person was sick and ten people were there. One person passed away and many came to help. I learned about love because I saw it every day of my life. It had a profound impact on me. My father was, and still is, a deacon in the Church. My mother was a hardworking, devout woman. I had a little Romanian grandmother who barely spoke English and had a deep faith in Christ. As a child, I had a great deal of respect for my family and the Church. I served often as an altar boy.

Then the teen years hit! Suddenly things looked different. Dad was hardheaded. Mom didn’t understand. . . I always loved Grandma because she loved me no matter what! I started questioning things, but the only answer I got was, “Just because.” I was very frustrated.

When I went off to college, I stopped going to church and, in fact, drifted away from God and got very involved in partying. I’m ashamed to say it, but I had no reason not to party, other than not wanting to hurt my family. So I was careful in a sense, but I didn’t have that “Higher Power” to answer to in my life. I didn’t know what God thought about sex outside of marriage or drinking too much. I knew these things were frowned upon, but I didn’t know why. So I did all of those things with abandon.

Certain Protestant authors also contributed to my drifting away from the Orthodox Faith. They said things that I’d heard about briefly in the Liturgy, but which no one had ever explained to me. I didn’t know that I should go to church and worship God because of what He had done for me as a person; or that I had sinned and fallen short of what God expected of me, and there was no way to bridge that gap other than accepting what Christ did for all of us. Why hadn’t anyone told me that? Eighteen years in the Church and no one had explained salvation to me! I was angry and bitter.

However, in my partying and college studies, I was still unsatisfied. I knew I was being selfish and I didn’t like myself. I moved to California, got a great job, a sports car, and a new California girlfriend! I had it all—but I still hated life and didn’t know why. I went to an Orthodox priest, thinking from my upbringing that that was the place to go. When you’ve exhausted all other possibilities, go ask God! Sadly, the priest didn’t answer my questions, either. By that point, I was at the end of my rope.

In desperation, remembering the beauty of the Pascha and Holy Week services from my youth, I went to an Orthodox Good Friday service. I was overwhelmed with the truth—that I was a sinner, that the reason I wasn’t happy was that God wasn’t a part of my life. I had pushed Him out of my life, He hadn’t pushed me out of His. I vowed from that day on to let God run my life, even though I wasn’t sure what that meant.

But that didn’t end my journey. I had been frustrated with the Orthodox Church. I hadn’t gotten answers there. So I began to go to Protestant churches and read my Bible on my own. I found a tremendous church with one of the most famous Protestant teachers in the world. I was very devoted and began to learn all that I hadn’t learned in the Orthodox Church. I was filling that hunger for knowledge.

After about two years, however, it all began to sound the same. I began to look around for a role model, someone I could aspire to be like. I was reading about the Christian life in the Bible, but I wasn’t seeing it lived anywhere. It seemed to me that the Protestant’s hero was the one who could preach the best from the Bible, but that has little to do with real life. Anyone who is a good speaker and studies long enough can do that. Where were the holy men? That’s what I was missing. Because I hungered for the truth, I had done what the Protestant leaders asked me to do, but I had reached the limit of that path—there was nowhere left to go.

The Protestant Good Friday service was another thing which really affected me. Traditionally in our family, we fasted on Good Friday. I understood that—because Christ suffered on the Cross and it was our chance to identify with Him. We skipped lunch and dinner that day and felt in a small way what He felt. So, as a Protestant, I fasted and came to Good Friday service ready for a solemn procession of Christ dying on the Cross, being buried that night in the tomb, and then the all-night vigil.

I was amazed! It was just another day. People were talking about the store sales and what they were going to do on Sunday, and I was sick. I thought, “Where is the reverence for our God? Do we revere Him? Do we understand what He really did?” The theme of Holy Week and Pascha was starting to filter back into my mind.

Another thing that drove me in search of the Orthodox Church was the idea of unity. There are over two thousand Protestant churches claiming to be Christian churches, yet they disagree on many things. Go to ten different churches and you’ll get ten different interpretations of the Bible. That’s very frustrating when you’re trying to do what the Bible says. So you spend your life chasing down new theology. All these things led to a great frustration.

Finally, I heard about some people from Campus Crusade who had formed a denomination called the Evangelical Orthodox Church and were trying to join the Orthodox Church. I said, “Why on earth would they want to do that? They must be crazy!”

I had to see it to believe it. I visited Father Wayne Wilson in Huntington Beach. California. who explained to me their journey—which sounded very similar to mine. He gave me Father Alexander Schmemann’s book, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, which talks about how the Church got started.

Later, I was invited to a retreat with Father Joseph Morris. There I saw the holiness I was looking for—a role model—a man who was humble. My pride stuck out like a sore thumb! On top of that, Father Joseph taught about The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is basically a manual for monastics. I saw a man who humbled me by his presence, and he was talking about men who humbled him!

For the first time, I’d seen something that I couldn’t do, but I wanted to try. That’s what had been missing from my spiritual life. I met with Father Joseph and started reading the Holy Fathers to learn everything the saints had to say about life, their struggles, and how to achieve holiness. Hearing about the martyrs was incredible —people who chose to die torturous deaths rather than denounce Christ. That was the kind of Christianity I was looking for! The men who achieved holiness didn’t talk about it every Sunday and then go home to a two-million-dollar house and do all the same things that you and I do. Rather, they had really come close to being what God intends you and me to be. It wasn’t just talk—it was real. I was also amazed that the Orthodox Church has one unified theology. I could go to church in California or Ohio or Romania and find the same theology. Then it was only a matter of me living it—not trying to figure it out. Further, the reverence I missed in Protestantism was there. You only need to walk into an Orthodox church to see the respect and fear for God. Finally, the continuity was there. Orthodoxy started on Pentecost and remains essentially unchanged today.

However, I still had the same struggle I had had as a teenager. I wondered how all the facts matched up with making it real in my life. I said, “God, this looks good and sounds good, but I’m really scared because it’s a lifetime commitment.”

I knew I couldn’t jump into the Orthodox Church and then change my mind six months later, as I had done in the Protestant churches. I needed something to push me over the edge. At that time, the Church decided to embrace the Evangelical Orthodox Church. It comforted me to know that so many people agreed that the Orthodox Church was the place to go. These were people who had thought long and hard and come from the same place I had.

Finally, I read the Scripture in Isaiah where God talks to Isaiah about His godless people. God said, “Whom shall I send?” to speak to these people and deal with them. Isaiah answered, “Here am I. Send me!” Now, I would never compare myself to Isaiah, but I felt that I had two choices: I could sit around, complain, be afraid, and pick apart the Church, or I could respond to God’s call and go do my part.

So I joined up for the long haul. I’m home, and I couldn’t be happier, and as you might imagine, my parents are happy too! But they also learned a lot through the process. In a sense, my searching has strengthened their faith. They had to ask themselves the hard questions as well, so it helped all of us.

It’s inevitable that we all come to the age of reason, then doubt, struggle, and fall down on our faces a few times. But I could have avoided some of the things I went through. I hurt myself and others. I still pay today for some of the things I did.

As I look back, I wonder what would have helped me. I think God’s supreme command says it all—love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We must be involved, be at worship, bring our family and friends. We need to read, we need to learn about our Faith—that knowledge doesn’t come through osmosis. We need to search the Scriptures, talk to our spiritual fathers, read the Holy Fathers, and have things explained to us.

The best thing we can do is to try to be holy people, to live as we’re called to live. That’s the hardest part, though. It’s hard to live the fullness of the Faith. Let’s strive to do that, to listen to the voice of God and do what He asks us to do. Visit a monastery, take a vacation there. Be around people who are living that life. We all need examples and encouragement. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said that if we save ourselves, a thousand others around us will be saved. So, if you’re working on saving yourself, others will be affected by your struggle. Maybe you will help some people to avoid the kind of struggles I went through, and prevent them from leaving their true home in the Orthodox Faith.

Gregory Yova is the founder and Executive Director of Project Mexico and St. Innocent Orphanage. Since 1988, Project Mexico has involved over two thousand Orthodox youth from the United States and around the world in works of mercy by building homes for poor Mexican families. Saint Innocent Orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico, is being established to care for orphaned and abused teenage boys.