Friday, February 12, 2010

Family (An MK Comes Home, Part 21)

James with his parents and sisters in the mid 1990s

When I was received into the Orthodox Christian Church on Holy Saturday of 2003, one of my sisters lived a two days’ drive away and the rest of my family was on another continent. My parents knew that I had been attending an Orthodox parish since returning from Russia, and in February I had sent them an email announcing and explaining my decision to enter the catechumenate. Mom needed reassurance that Orthodoxy believed in the Bible, but mostly she was just glad to see me being serious about my Christian faith.

Before St. Stephen’s, I had casually attended a handful of Protestant congregations but had not become a meaningful part of any Christian community in Florida. So there were no ecclesial ties to sever; there were few concerned friends in need of lengthy explanations. My religious friends were glad to see me attending any church at all, and my non-religious friends were indifferent. Becoming Orthodox didn’t end or weaken any of my relationships.

James with his cousin Halley in the late 1980s

And because I became Orthodox just before finishing college, the transition into the Church complemented my transition into the next phase of life. Becoming Orthodox didn’t cause much social or relational stress that moving to Korea wouldn’t have caused anyways. Indeed, the Church in Korea was an anchor that relieved stress and helped me adapt to local culture.

So the transition was rather painless, in terms of good relationships with friends and family. Being a serious Christian strengthened my bonds with my family and with my friends. My folks are enthusiastic about my vocation as a missionary—they’ll be just across the border in Kenya for several months each year and will get to spend more time with me than they would if I were in, say, North Dakota.

James with his parents, sisters, and brothers-in law in December of 2009

In other ways, my transition from an angry nonbeliever to an unworthy Christian has indeed been painful. But it has been a healthy struggle, a slow process to know my own self well enough to give myself over to God’s care and to grow closer to him. And I’ve been blessed with good family and friends both inside and outside the Church who support and encourage my life in Christ.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


You have no doubt noticed that I have barely posted anything since the first of February.  Now that I am the interim pastor at St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Spring, my workload has increased immensely.  So, both the blog and the podcast are about to go on hold for a while, probably until the summer.  I am going to try to post something on the blog from time to time, but realistically speaking, it will be little or nothing.  I just don't have time any more.  Please pray for me.  In the mean time (to quote the governor of California), "I'll be back!"

(Having said that, do be sure and check back from time to time.  The final installment in James Hargrave's series will be posted soon, and I'm sure that Clint "Slim Daddy" Hale will have a few thoughts from time to time as well).

May the Lord bless you all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Today (An MK Comes Home, part 20)

EDITOR'S NOTE: I inadvertently posted the same picture twice in installment #18. I have corrected it now, so please scroll down to that post and see the correct picture.

Calling the faithful to worship in Kasikizi (photo courtesy of

In the years that I have been slowly drawn back to Christ and his Church, far greater things have been happening to the glory of God all over the world.

While I was growing up in Kenya in the 1980s, the Orthodox Church in Uganda was beginning regular missionary work over the border in northwestern Tanzania. By the 1990s a bishop was assigned to this new flock, and in 2006 this mission church was established as the Holy Metropolis of Mwanza. Orthodox Christianity in East Africa played a significant role in my spiritual and personal development; now I get to play a role in the East African Orthodox Church.

All Saints' Church in Kasikizi (photo courtesy of

In the spring of 2009 I and four others were accepted as missionary candidates for Tanzania. You can learn more about each of these fantastic people at the OCMC website: go to and scroll down to “Tanzania.” There’s Michael, grandson of the first American-born Greek Orthodox priest. His background is in public health, and he is being sent to help the Church of Mwanza more effectively the integrate spiritual and physical healing of entire communities. There’s Felice, an RN who has spent decades ministering to the emotional and psychological needs of people on the streets of Tucson. There’s Katie, who went on a short-term trip to Tanzania almost a decade ago and decided then and there to become a nurse. And there’s Mama Stavrou, a brilliant tailor who in her eighty-first year on earth is dedicating the rest of her life to God’s glory in East Africa.

Missionary Candidate Michael Pagedas on a short-term trip to Tanzania (photo courtesy of

Preparing with these four heroes to begin a lifetime of work on the shores of Lake Victoria has given me cause to meditate on my own story, on my life in this world and my life in Christ and his Church. Ultimately, I’m going back to Africa because I’m a Christian. So I’ve had to think hard about why I’m a Christian and what that means.

Missionary Candidate Katie Wilcoxson (photo courtesy of

Two moments in the story of Christ stand out to me especially—the Incarnation and the Transfiguration. They both have to do with the meaning of our solitary lives (and the reality that our lives are not solitary). By taking on the flesh of his creation, God unites himself to us and allows us to be participants in his ultimate reality. And that ultimate reality is one where our human flesh shines more brightly than the sun, illumined by the uncreated grace of God. As a Christian, I understand that this is who I am created to be.

Missionary Candidates Felice Stewart and James Hargrave at a training in southwest Florida (photo courtesy of

As a Christian, I am forced neither to abandon this good world and good life that God has created me into, nor am I subjected to that creation as a slave. Ultimate reality is not “passing through” an alien world—rather, it is reconciling our good world to its Creator by reconciling all things in the world one to another. Real life is communion. It is an icon of the Holy Trinity.

Missionary Candidate Charita Stavrou on a short-term trip to Tanzania (photo courtesy of

And returning to Africa allows me to participate in that reconciliation in a way that is unique to my own story. My Kenyan childhood, with its joys and traumas, is reconciled to my transient adulthood. The joy of the Resurrection that I discovered in Russia is brought home to the land where I first learned of sorrow.

This story that Fr. James has asked me to tell is drawing to its conclusion (one more installment to go). But the story of my life in Christ is only now reaching the point where it can truly begin, where it can belong to the story of Christ’s life in his holy Church.

My small story soon joins the larger story of God’s glory made manifest in northwest Tanzania, and I look forward to telling more of that story in the decades to come...

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Call, cont. (An MK Comes Home, part 19)

Hiking on the family farm north of Gainesville

In the fall of 2005 I moved from Los Angeles to Gainesville, Florida with a strong understanding of my vocation: to live my life in full-time Christian service. But discerning the details of this vocation was not easy. Every bearded Orthodox guy in his twenties is asked to consider holy orders, and I was no exception. But for the time being it was important to stay in Alachua County. North Central Florida was “home” because it my dad’s family has farmed the area for more than seven generations. But I’d only ever passed through, and I wanted to make it my home for real.

St Elizabeth Greek Orthodox Church in Gainesville, FL

So I taught English as a second language to international graduate students at the University of Florida, began graduate coursework in linguistics, and plunged myself into the life of a rural Southern college town. Within a few years I found myself on parish council at St. Elizabeth, our local church, and an officer in the Orthodox Christian Fellowship on campus. Both of these experiences were rich and rewarding, and I especially appreciated the opportunity to draw the parish and OCF into better collaboration with each other.

At an OCF retreat

My priest, Father Peter Kastaris, was an elderly retiree who commuted 5+ hours each way on the Greyhound every weekend to serve our small parish. In the last year of his life he was able to move up to live in Gainesville, where he and I grew close. Fr. Peter had spent nearly half a century as a cross-cultural missionary priest from Greece to America. He knew his Scripture backwards and forwards, and more importantly he knew his God. Learning from his wisdom and witnessing his holy life were some of the richest experiences I’ve ever had.

With fellow OCF officers

At the beginning of Lent 2008 Father Peter suffered a bad fall and was unable to serve at the altar. Being just down the road from the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in St. Augustine, we were able to call in OCMC’s Associate Director, Fr. David Rucker, to serve as an interim priest for the duration of Lent and Holy Week.

Father Peter Kastaris of blessed memory

I had known the Ruckers for a few years, and witnessing them in action was impressive. I’ll just say that they came to our small, grieving parish as missionaries—learning our language and culture, loving and supporting us, and working transformation in our community not as outsiders telling us what to do, but as trusted role models.

In my capacity with the local OCF I’d developed relationships with other OCMC staff over the years, and was invited to apply for long-term missionary service in Tanzania. I had never imagined returning to live in East Africa as an adult, and the thought was both daunting and exciting. Father Peter, as he suffered and died, showed me what it meant to live a holy life to its completion. And as I learned more about the triumphs and struggles of the Diocese of Mwanza in northwest Tanzania, I realized that this was indeed a place where I could find my place in service to Christ’s holy Church.

Just as importantly, I found in OCMC a group of people who I could really trust. I’d already witnessed everyone on the Missionary Department staff in action, and had seen them bear sacrificially the burdens of those they served. I knew that if I was accepted as a long-term OCMC missionary, I’d find myself in capable and loving hands.

So it was for all these reasons and more that I began a long and exhaustive process of applying for missionary service...