Jennifer’s father, a Baptist pastor for some twenty-five year, was not terribly excited about our decision to convert to Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, he and the rest of Jennifer’s family were just glad to have us home for good. Our first few days at their house were a wonderful time of rest, relaxation, and getting caught up. Still, I had to start working on getting a job – and fast. On the evening of Audrey’s tenth birthday, I got on a Greyhound bus bound for Houston, headed for my parents’ house in northern suburban Houston. My mission was threefold: buy a car (we hadn’t owned one for nearly five years), get accepted into the alternative teacher certification program in my former school district, and get a teaching job in the district. I stayed there for about a week, and I succeeded in the first two parts of my mission. Unfortunately, however, I did not land a firm job offer, although I did have several leads.
While in Houston, I decided to visit an Antiochian parish that I had found on the internet: St. Joseph’s, in west Houston. Their website was excellent, and their parish priest looked even more impressive. He had a long beard, just like one would expect an Orthodox priest to have, and he looked resplendent in his vestments. It took me an hour to get to St. Joseph’s from my parents’ house, but it was worth the drive! The music was beautiful, the Liturgy majestic, and the people friendly. After the service, when the people went up to venerate the Cross, I followed. The priest greeted me warmly and asked my name and what I do for a living. A little embarrassed, I said “Well, I am a Baptist missionary…or at least I WAS! I just came home four days ago. I have come home in order to convert to Orthodoxy.” He seemed genuinely surprised and impressed. He invited me to come again. Little did I know that this godly man would become my spiritual father, counselor, and dear friend. Even less did I imagine that I would eventually serve this parish as a deacon and then become its assistant pastor.
A few days later, I returned to Texarkana to rejoin my family. By this time, Jennifer was nearly eight months pregnant, and so naturally, I did not want to be away from her if I could help it. By the first Sunday that we were all in Texarkana, Jennifer and I were eager to attend a Divine Liturgy together. Unfortunately, there is no Orthodox parish anywhere near Texarkana (God grant that this will change soon!). So, on the first Sunday in May, we piled the kids into the car and drove an hour and forty-five minutes to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. We loved the service, and the people were as friendly as those at St. Joseph’s had been. Their priest at that time, Fr. John Morris, was very kind and patient, staying after the Liturgy for more than a half hour to answer the many questions that we had. We liked it so much that we returned again the next Sunday.
A week or so after our second and last visit to St. Nicholas, I received a phone call that changed my life. My uncle had called to inform me that my mother had suffered a massive stroke, but that she was stable. By now, it was near the end of May, and I was reluctant to leave my great-with-child wife. My uncle said that he did not think it was imperative that I rush to Houston. Mom’s life was not in danger, and she seemed to be improving. A couple of days later, however, my brother called to say that Mom did not seem to be improving any more. She was paralyzed on her left side, and she could not speak intelligibly. After hearing that, I immediately left to go and be with her. Sadly, my brother’s description of her condition was right on target. I wept over the sight of my mother. She had always been active and full of life, and she had always loved to talk. Now she could neither walk nor talk. To make things worse, my father had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for over five years, and Mom had been his primary caretaker. Who would take care of him now? My uncle agreed to take him in temporarily, and this relieved our stress for a while. But my brother, sister, and I were about to face some hard decisions.
After about a week with my parents, I returned to be with Jennifer again. I was scheduled to start my classes for the alternative certification program on June 4, which was three days past Jennifer’s due date. Needless to say, we were all on pins and needles. Our mission board, on our kind former boss Ted’s urging, had granted us two extra months of medical insurance, and we also had a couple of months of severance pay. Still, I had no job. So, Jennifer and I agreed that she and the kids would stay with her parents in Texarkana during the summer. I would spend the weekdays in Houston, staying with a single fellow who was a friend of a friend, and go back to Texarkana on the weekends to be with the family. Finally, on June 9, our third daughter, Elizabeth, was born. We were overjoyed, but our joy was mixed with the sorrow of my parents’ situation, and also with the fact that I had to be away from Jennifer and the kids so much.
Soon after Beth was born, I was hired to teach seventh and eighth grade math by my former high school Chemistry teacher, who was now an intermediate principal. Although I had really wanted to teach high school, I was just thankful to have a job. A few weeks later I found us an apartment near the school. We all moved to the apartment in July, and I started teaching the next month. Now, I was facing one of the greatest challenges of my life: persuading a bunch of hormone-driven seventh and eighth graders to want to learn math! Jennifer and I had frozen in Prague, battled drought and angry nationals in Tuzla, been evacuated from Banja Luka, had nearly been snowed under in Sarajevo, and had experienced a crisis of faith that lead to the end of our careers after our return to Banja Luka. After all this, I thought that teaching in the good old U.S.A. would be easy. Boy was I wrong…
Pope Francis and missions
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