In May of this year, Greek Orthodox priest Fr. John Peck , with the help of Antiochian priest and American Orthodox Institute Director Fr. Hans Jacobse , launched the outreach website Journey to Orthodoxy . Knowing how difficult the inquirer's search for historic Christianity can be, Fr. John and Fr. Hans also premiered the "Welcome Home" network, which connects web readers in real time to other Orthodox who at one time traveled the same journey of discovery and struggle. In its short existence, the website has already run the gamut of stories; a quick glance at the home page reveals stories from former Amish, Catholic, evangelical, and Episcopalian converts who hail from Tanzania, Illinois, Australia, and points in between. Antiochian.org interviewed Fr. John Peck about the website and its impact.
1. What was the inspiration for your new website, Journey to Orthodoxy?
There is a large gap (several actually) in the outreach and evangelism of the Orthodox Church in the United States, and indeed, around the world.
As a convert myself, I know very well that there are plenty of books to read, but inquirers aren’t looking for ‘another book to read.’ Inquirers into the Orthodox Church often are paying a heavy price for even considering the Orthodox faith.This move towards the Orthodox faith sometimes alienates friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, former pastors, and spiritual friends. It’s a heavy price to pay. This is either misunderstood (and underappreciated) at best, or completely ignored, belittled and marginalized at worst, by many Orthodox Christians.
This process is especially painful for some heterodox clergy who know the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church of Christ, but must contend with personal, professional and financial strains and anxieties in making such a move. We want to ease that burden from the beginning.
It is, for some, indescribably lonely. We established “Journey To Orthodoxy” specifically so that inquirers could see that others from their background or circumstances have made the journey successfully (and are happy about it), to help them establish personal connections with others who have been down that path, and to make the transition into a local parish (some of whom are not particularly welcoming or friendly) that much easier.
2. What is your vision and purpose for the site?
We are building a real network here, across the country, and beyond. We want local contacts for inquirers to correspond with, and share their stories and concerns with. I’d like to add a forum with specially trained moderators to meet, greet and answer the questions of inquirers. This can’t be done in a haphazard way.
I want “Journey to Orthodoxy” to offer to inquirers what they cannot find elsewhere – a way to connect with others. Not all Orthodox parishes are friendly to visitors. Not all Orthodox parishes even care that a visitor may have come through fire and water just to enter an Orthodox Church and attend a Vespers service. Regardless, the newcomer will have many friends, and prayers, in the JTO staff.
3. Where do you find your stories?
Mostly, from those who have made the journey themselves, of course! We started by pulling them off the internet or anywhere else they’ve been published over the years. Many people have written their stories of coming to the Orthodox faith, but they’ve been published in a haphazard way, and with no real central location for finding them. Now, of course, we are getting them from our readers, and they, in turn, are drumming up more.
These are the most inspiring things for inquirers, I think. Sure, they read books about Orthodoxy, and there is no shortage of them, but inquirers aren’t interested in just another book. They want to make personal contact.
This is why JTO has its own Facebook group, to make connecting with others that much easier. I wish I had the support and location to do a television show, to put a face on these conversion stories. Such things make connecting that much easier, that much more real.
4. What kind of feedback are you receiving? What has been your most popular post?
The feedback has been very positive, both from clergy and laity, from converts, inquirers and life long Orthodox Christians. The most popular posts so far are about celebrity conversions, for instance Bob Marley being baptized before his death. This was very popular.
Apart from such a ‘celebrity’ story, the stories about Fr. Meletios Webber’s conversion story “Through Oxford To Orthodoxy”, and Hannah Hunt’s “In Search of the Bride” have been the most viewed. Hannah’s story has generated a wonderful amount of support email. She really connected by telling her story – obviously a story that echoed in the experience of many others.
All in all, considering the site has been active for about 3 months now, it has been a definite success.
5. One of your Orthodox readers says, "Sometimes, when we caught up in the ethnic whirlpool or burdened by the struggles of Ortho-praxis, we forget why we became Orthodox." Do you find that you are reaching an Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox audience?
Without a doubt. Not only those who have become Orthodox from other traditions, but those who have been Orthodox their whole lives are visiting and their support is wonderful.
Like Bishop Kallistos Ware said, (and I’m paraphrasing here) eventually we will have a Church not of those who are Orthodox by accident (the accident of birth) but who are Orthodox by choice. Those who are making that choice, whether in or out of the Church – those souls are our target.
6. Have there been any surprises for you, in the way folks have responded to particular pieces--and what have you learned about Orthodoxy in America via editing this site?
Mostly that the real work of evangelism is being prepared and done by individuals. By and large, ministry in American Orthodoxy is focused entirely on parish growth and parish health. Reaching out to the unchurched, the disaffected, those burned out in their current experience is not on the radar of those running the programs and Church ministries.
What surprised me most so far is that these stories, these experiences, are redefining conversations about Orthodoxy, and about converting to Orthodoxy, and this is a good thing. I’m already hearing from readers that a simple phrase has allowed them to take conversations with inquirers farther and faster. This is all good, as it is a kind of force multiplier for our apologetic.
7. Do you have any future plans to expand the site's reach or emphasis?
Yes. We have plans for a Spanish language mirror site, identical in content, that I hope will launch shortly.
We’ll also have some material on how to do basic evangelism and apologetics, how to get started in other words, so that someone, by themselves, has a step by step list to expand their comfort zone in real exercise and studies. Eventually, I’d like to have groups like this meet at a biennial convention, compare notes, and advance our common work – all based on the Great Commission.
We are planning to adjust the Parish map to indicate which parishes do services, 1) All in English, 2) Some English, or 3) No English. I think visitors have a right to know what to expect when they enter a parish liturgy, and in fact, I think it benefits the parish when a visitor is not surprised by what is going on.
Mostly, as I said earlier, we are building a network of interested individuals and inquirers, and we plan and multiplying that number many times over in the next few months. If you know someone who wants to contribute and help, have them contact me personally.