An Exemplary Mission and a Call for Leadership
In early 2019 a group of pious Orthodox people began a church plant next door to St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona. This was a unique struggle for these people in many ways. This is my recollection of this church family and my struggle with how it might be a model for what is needed in America.
The essence of the gospel is communion with God and His creative order. God enables us, beginning at our baptism, to be a part of His community: His Trinitarian presence, His saints in heaven, and His “saints” on earth. St. Anthony’s monastery, like many monasteries, has a foothold on this essence. Many Orthodox Christians throughout the world know about them and desire to work and grow with this community.
The elder of the monastery, Elder Ephraim, was a man of God who, according to many, was a man of spiritual discernment, one who was more about personal contact and relationship than about rightness and organization. He was a free man, one who spoke as he needed to without any known slavery. It was from this spirit that the people in Arizona came to the conclusion that they needed a church family, one which they could identify with and cherish as their own.
Because of the treacherous situation with American jurisdictionalism and a certain jurisdiction that was not supportive of traditional spirituality, these Orthodox people of Arizona decided to call upon a bishopric outside of America - in Russia. The patriarch sent an abbot to Arizona to gather with the people, and the church began.
Coincidentally, I was a part of a new church plant in another part of Arizona with the Russian patriarchate. For several months, I had no idea that the people in Florence were beginning their gathering. It seemed that God and his saints were helping many of us who were struggling through these tough times. The times were tough in various ways. Many of us in Arizona loved the monastery and the elder, but were not able to find a parish that worked closely like/with the monastery.
I was invited by the abbot to visit the church in Florence, and as I arrived, I felt something that I had not felt before in an Orthodox church. The temple was simple, made from a house, but very intentional in its form. The iconostasis, iconography, and areas for the people all spoke out to me as very robust and very confident in the holy gospel. In the front of the narthex, a place was given for the children. Many of them were standing and some were sitting on rugs. The young girls were wearing head coverings and skirts. The young boys were dressed without the typical rebellious standard. The women stood on the left side, facing the Theotokos. The men stood on the right side, facing Christ. It immediately struck me that these people knew who they were and were not afraid to practice their identity.
The prayers were, like in all Orthodox churches, prayed with the right format, etc. But they were also prayed with vigor. The men helped accomplish this by leading the choir. The women gave beautiful accent by praying at appropriate times that never seemed to overshadow the masculinity of the men.
When Fr. Peter Heers, the priest of the parish, gave his homily, it was done with both theological vigor as well as practical application. There was a feeling of both conviction and strength in what he would say.
When the Eucharist was offered, the men and women went separately, as they stood separately in the narthex. There was a very comfortable spirit in this format, not just because the monasteries do it this way, but because, I think, it gave place to proper identity. We are men, and we need to behave like men. The same with women. They need to remember themselves as women. Men and women have different roles in the church, family, community, etc. To start the week off with this format in the praying and the Eucharist, seemed right, like we could go forth into the world and be who the church told us to be.
What was called in the ancient days, the Agape feast (now Trapeza), was robust. Families brought food from their home kitchens, demonstrating the hospitable strength of community. It was truly a feast. The atmosphere was as it should be: fostering Christ-centered family that was not just “nuclear,” but ecclesial. Visiting clergy was introduced at the Trapeza and a short word of encouragement was given by Fr. Peter. During the Trapeza, the children were playing and also visiting with the parents. I never saw my daughter so happy and orderly. This mission was clearly a blessing for her soul as was expressed in both her words and changed behavior.
Half-way through the Trapeza was an open forum class with Fr. Peter. Many of us would gather in the narthex and listen to Fr. Peter initiate a conversation on spirituality and life. It often gravitated toward how we should deal with the enclosing secular world in order to protect our families and, most of all, our souls. Father was humble in this way. He was not just lecturing us; he was communicating with us. As an open forum, we were able to ask questions and seek clarifications of his initial subject that he was presenting. One would think there would be argument in this kind of forum, but there was nothing of the sort. Each of our questions resonated with him and the other parishioners. It was a domino effect, and we would often have to put a hard stop to it, so as not to go too long. An interesting thing to note might be that this was all right before Covid, and the awareness that we came to in these meetings was that many bad things were coming our way as Christians, from the secular world.
The parish was formed on the basis of a Christian school called Three Hierarchs Academy. This is a unique path for a parish to tread, but it is very sound, in my opinion. Secularism is running very wild within America, taking our children and even us into a fiery battle for our souls. The Orthodox people of Florence knew this because not only had they done their research, but their priest was discipling them in this way. Whoever has teaching authority of our children has spiritual authority of our children as well. I think that most everyone in that parish, including Father Peter, would agree with that.
Because this mission began with a proper understanding of family- how men and women are called to certain tasks and behaviors in life, how children are to be raised, and, most of all, how the Orthodox life is to be executed - this church flourished exactly like it should. It was clear, in a very spiritual way, that this was a community, and not just a Sunday service.
Unfortunately, the mission encountered a series of unfortunate events, including an attack by what I will call secular nationalists. These imposters are scattered throughout the states and are determined to stop any community action that is not in harmony with secular society. There is so much to say about this problem that the entire Church is currently surrounded by, but I will bench this conversation for another time.
The very thing that Fr. Peter’s mission was founded on was the need of a true Christian community that would help Orthodox Christians withstand the trials of modern secularism. But secularists were hiding in the corners, waiting to pounce. What can be done? How can we ensure this never happens again? How many churches will be shut down (or minimalized for secularists to run) before we raise a bishop up to stand strong for us? Who will be willing to support this bishop and possibly be mocked and excluded by probably the majority of American Orthodoxy? We must gather around our candidate! We must find him and wage war against the enemy for the sake of the Gospel and our families.
Do you have a personal relationship with a bishop are hieromonk? If so, talk with him about what we need. Even if they are not very responsive, we still have the hope of this word getting out and one day finally taking its form.
Are you a bishop? We need you. We will stand by you and support you, even to death, on this path to preserve the wellbeing of our families. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us as your people.
Glory to God!