USA OF MY HEART
From the “Church of Christ” to the Eastern Orthodox Church
by David Scott Klajic
Scott’s journey took him from Orthodoxy to the Church of Christ, to Presbyterianism, to Eastern (Byzantine) Catholicism, to Roman Catholicism right back into the arms of the Orthodox Church.
David Scott Klajic, USA:
In 2015, I “converted” to Orthodoxy, at 43 years old.
At the time, I had recently returned from my second deployment (I am an army officer) and had reached the final step in a journey that took, I guess, the entire previous 43 years. I was married, had 4 children, and a basically stable life. How did I get here?
My father was a Yugoslavian national of Serbian descent who defected from the Tito regime in 1958. He was Serbian Orthodox, but by the time I was born, his association with the church was nominal at best. I never had the opportunity to speak with him about that, because he died before I started turning towards Orthodoxy. In fact, his death had quite a bit to do with it.
In the United States, he married another Serb, and they had 2 boys—my half-brothers. They eventually divorced and my father was then remarried to my mom, an Arkansas native. They were living in California at the time. My mother was raised in the distinctly American faith tradition known as the Church of Christ, which is an offshoot of the Stone-Campbell or “restoration” movement of the early 18th century. At the time, my father apparently did not want to push the issue of Orthodoxy, and deferred to my mother on the issue of what form of Christians we would “be.” He insisted that I be baptized/chrismated in the Serbian Orthodox church to “get my name on the rolls” and then we worshipped where my mom wanted to.
So it came that I was raised in the “mainline” Church of Christ, where I remained a faithful member and held various leadership roles, later as an adult. We attended twice every Sunday and Wednesday nights. We never missed—even when we were on vacation. My mom taught Sunday school. My Dad became a deacon. My parents ran the “joy bus” ministry at our church growing up.
In my late 20’s, I attended a Baptist seminary an obtained a Master’s Degree in Christian Counseling because I Intended to enter the ministry as a church counselor. There is more to that part of the story later.
It is relevant to understand a bit of what the Church of Christ teaches about itself. At its core and early history, the restoration was a unity movement. The founders of this movement from the very beginning attempted to discern from scripture what the essentials of the faith were. Part of this meant stripping away all of what they considered to be tradition, culture and therefore not essential to salvation. Without getting into a huge discussion of how they arrived there, or discussing the history and who the key players were, what they came up with was very short list of things one needed to do to be saved. Or in another way of understanding the framework—how to identify a Christian. To wit, they decided that you needed to hear the word, respond to it, repent, be baptized and then put on the new man – that is, work out your salvation every day until you die.
In the earliest days of the movement, literally everything else was considered to be matters of personal choice. They rejected all creeds, and were specifically hostile to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is probably related to the fact that most of its original founders were former Presbyterians.
They appealed to Christians by asking “what did the very first Christians do?”
They gleaned the answers to this question from the New Testament, which like most protestants they regarded as the only source of information needed to learn this from. It would not be until much later that I wondered,
“if the New Testament was produced by the earliest Christians and then canonized by later Christians, why isn’t what those later Christians did also important?”
In the end, as the Church of Christ developed into a denomination (they do not consider themselves one, but they have all the features) the folklore became
“we are the original, New Testament church. The one true church that Christ established. We have always been around, underground while those pagan Catholics went around worshipping Mary and twisting the faith for their own purposes.”
Regardless, they are well versed in the Holy Scripture. They know what it says, and to be honest, in most cases, they know what it means. Of course, in my opinion, they are moving blindly around in the dark trying to find Jesus without the benefit of everything else the church did after the first century. But you may notice something. The thread that runs through both the Church of Christ and Orthodoxy is “originality and authenticity.” One desires it, the other is it. This is not unimportant in my own personal journey. It lead me back and further and further until I found the source.
There will always be a special place in my heart for this honest attempt to “restore” the original church. I pray that every one of them will realize it never left. It is manifest in those guys speaking the super old languages, swinging the censers and such. The members of the Church of Christ are unapologetic zealots for the truth and would make powerful assets to Orthodoxy.
In all, I spent about 30 years in the Church of Christ.
Divorce, the Army and a Decade in the Spiritual Wilderness
As mentioned earlier, I spent two years in graduate school, learning Christian counseling. I was married to my first wife at the time, another lifelong Church of Christ member.
Toward the end of my time in the seminary, I had approached the elders of our congregation about turning my internship (which I was doing there) into a full-time counseling ministry. This meant I was making my unpaid work into a full time job with the church. I had pitched it to them and they agreed. So I spent the next 6 months or so drumming up and securing the funding that would eventually be my paycheck. It was an exciting time, as I was finally going to leave the family business working with my dad and do what I really wanted to do.
Unfortunately, at that same time, my wife hit me the news that she was leaving me and wanted a divorce. This was a shock to me, and sparing the details of it, reverberated into other areas of my life—including the job I was about to start.
The elders decided that I was not qualified to be a church counselor, in light of the fact that I was going through a divorce. This is debatable, but the bottom line is, they were the ones writing the check. I was divorc(ing), and had a masters degree that was pretty much useless outside of the pastoral context—with a student loan price tag in the stratosphere.
So, I joined the Army!
At 29 years old, I left everything I cared about (I grew up, went to college and graduate school and all my loved ones lived in Southern California) for a change of scenery. The army would pay my student loans and I could see the world. I ended up seeing North Carolina.
It was during those first few years that I, for the most part abandoned the Church of Christ, because I was angry, and what the Hell? I felt they abandoned me by not pressuring my wife to stay with me. After all, I had not cheated, I was not abusive, etc. I had devoted 30 years of my life to the church and that was what I got.
It didn’t have to make sense, but it worked as a way for me enter a very dark time. I started smoking, drinking, and engaging 100% in the life of a single enlisted soldier. The reader may infer what they want from that.
Over the next four years, I would occasionally slip in to the back pews of a Church of Christ, and even led singing from time to time, but I did not belong there anymore.
I cannot say there was a moment when the fog lifted and I decided to snap out of it. It was more gradual than that. My initial time in the army was coming to an end, I wanted to go back to graduate school to get my PhD in psychology. So I applied and got in. In the fall of 2004, I entered a PhD program in the northern California bay area. Again, I would occasionally go to church, but for the most part, I just did the serial monogamy, “girlfriend” thing, which I knew was not compatible with any sort of Christian life. So rather than being a hypocrite I just did what I wanted to do. My conscience always bothered me, but clearly not enough yet to do anything about it.
In my 4th year of the program, I met my current wife. She was nominally Catholic, and a single mom. We did the usual, socially normative euphemistic routine of “dating” just like everyone else does. We were married about a year later, and then I was headed back to active duty—this time as an officer and psychology intern. We packed up our stuff and moved to Georgia.
By this time, I was beginning to feel the sting of missing a serious, stable church family. My wife would never be comfortable in the Church of Christ. This discussion was gone over several time. The Catholic Church made me feel like I was worshipping idols and Mary and calling another man “father!” Yikes!
So the compromise ended up being a Presbyterian church. They had a “high church” feel (it was for the most part liturgical) but I recognized enough of the theology and practice to be comfortable. In all we spent 2 years there, and I was even elected to the elder board. Our daughter, who was born while we were there was baptized in that church.
We moved to Texas and started worshipping at another Presbyterian church, and had our next one, a boy, baptized there. It seemed this was going to be our newly formed faith tradition. It was during this time I went on my first deployment to Afghanistan. When I returned, my father’s health was failing and we were not talking much. He was angry with me because I did not call him/write him much while I was deployed. We had one final skype conversation and he blew up at me. We stopped communicating at that point. My parents had divorced right after I graduated from high school, so I didn’t get to do much third party communication with my mom. It was a rough time. He died about a year later, with that angry skype conversation being the last time we ever spoke.
Readers should not be too heartbroken at this point. The previous 42 years of my life and relationship with him were fantastic. It ended on a down note, but we were very close my whole life. That is the part I choose to remember and dwell on. His cloak and dagger story of intrigue, bravery and escape from totalitarianism makes him a bit of an archetype/hero for me.
And the best part is, the story is true.
Get an Annulment?
The Presbyterian Church we had been attending proved to be too far for us and our little growing family. So, although it freaked me out, my wife asked me if I was OK with attending at the local Catholic Church. I was in another faith waning slump, so I figured it would be fine.
It is important to understand that I was married to a real-life woman who had her own spiritual journey to go through. You cannot be in a serious marriage and live your inner life in a vacuum. She was seeking something too, and we were both broken up about my dad. She asked me if I would be willing to speak to the priest there about an annulment (from my first marriage) for her sake. I figured
“I don’t believe in them anyway, so why not?”
It was during those conversations with the priest that 3 related things came up:
1.The Catholic Church acknowledges the apostolic succession of the Orthodox Church,
2.This meant my baptism and chrismation as an infant made me Orthodox, and
3.There was no need for an annulment because no Orthodox can marry a heterodox outside the church and especially without dispensation.
A technicality? Sure. But what did it mean for me, personally?
For the first time in my life, I felt that what might have seemed like a series of quirky coincidences to any rational, scientific minded guy like me was no coincidence at all. Those that know me as almost Spock-like in my approach to understanding phenomenon will know how out of character it is for me to write—I believe having me baptized and chrismated as an infant was my father’s gift to me from beyond the grave. I cannot prove it, so don’t ask me to.
For a brief moment, I was considering converting to the Eastern Catholic church, so I could practice the rite given to me at birth, while remaining in communion with my wife. In fact, I attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) for a bit and my wife and I even had our marriage “convalidated” by the Catholic priest. I attended a liturgy at a Ruthenian Catholic Church. I was under the impression after going to confession with the priest there that I was now, Eastern Catholic.
One More Deployment
Shortly after, I was deployed again for six months. I attended Catholic mass (they had no Eastern Catholic presence there) and tried my best to be a part of the congregation. During Pascha, a navy Orthodox chaplain came to visit and I asked the Catholic priest there if it was OK for me to attend the liturgy on Pascha. He said it was fine, and in fact appeared to know nothing about the Eastern Church. The navy chaplain (Antiochian) gave me a chotki that he told me was very special to him. It was hand made by monks in a Serbian monastery.
I started reading voracious amounts of church history. The canons, the encyclicals, the arguments leading to the great schism. It seemed, in the context of what I wrote earlier about “originality and authenticity” that becoming Catholic was simply not going back far enough.
The Eastern Catholic Church is broken down into Sui iuris churches which are aligned to an Eastern Orthodox counterpart. When an EO converts to Catholicism, they are, by canon law supposed to be enrolled into that corresponding church. In my case, this would have been the Greek Catholic Church of the Former Yugoslavia. The Ruthenian Priest who took my confession did not perform the rite properly, nor did he make any record of it, and therefore the diocese of my assigned jurisdiction did not recognize the conversion. I was still ‘Orthodox by rite.’
The entire time I was deployed, worshipping at the Roman Catholic church, I felt something was off. As if this was not the end of the story, and clearly it wasn’t. Again—I cannot explain any of this other than through my faith–that I was being pulled toward Orthodoxy and my interest in the Eastern Catholic church was my own clouded diversion. The truth is, I did not trust in Him enough to ask my wife “would you be interested in becoming Orthodox?” so I used the “I want to be in communion with my wife” excuse to convert to a facsimile of Orthodoxy to keep the peace. I should have just asked her.
There is some back story on the way things were handled in the case of my misguided attempt to convert to Eastern Catholicism. While I was deployed, my wife was in contact with the Eastern Catholic priest and was trying to arrange for things like the chrismation of our children. She kept trying to engage with him, sending him polite, serious questions about the conversion. He would never get back to her.
We did not wish to be a ‘bi-ritual’ family, so she was diligently trying to learn about the Byzantine rite. Canonically, it is appropriate for the home to be primarily identified with the rite of the husband, (it he wants it that way) and she wanted to help me raise our kids with just one ritual. The priest was a very political/social justice minded fellow and my wife and I are very traditionalist or “conservative” for lack of a better term. It was starting to become clear that he didn’t really want us in his congregation because he thought we were “mean right-wingers.” There were a few conversations on social media that made it sound like there was a requirement for us to hold certain political views in order to be in his grace.
Those issues were weighing heavily on my wife’s heart and she agreed to start looking at some Orthodox Churches in the area. And wouldn’t you know it, there was a Serbian congregation within an hour of us—in Texas of all places.
Searching for Orthodoxy
After I got back from my second deployment, we had a series of awkward conversations with the RC priest where were worshipping. When he informed me that I needed to “re-do” my conversion, I think he expected me to jump right on it. Instead, I basically said
“um, no thanks. I think this happened for a reason.”
Very shortly after that, I did an internet search for Orthodox churches in the Austin area. I found a Russian one (Fr. Aidan Kellers parish in Pflugerville), a ROCOR church, an Antiocian one and a few others.
But Holy Apostle and Evangelist St Lukes Serbian Parish, for some reason did not come up on those initial searches. We visited the Russian church where Fr Aidan is the priest and they were lovely. But several of them noticed I was Serbian and said straight out
“if you are interested in the Serbian Cultural aspects of it, why not go to Fr. Dragos church?”
So I found it and called the number, and he answered.
Right away, it was like talking to my dad. The accent was spot on. There is a lot more to that, but it is why I get a little frustrated when people accuse me “phyletism” and such. Being culturally Christian (as opposed to being a cultural Christian) is important to me, and I don’t feel like a racist for saying it. I love my Greek, Russian, etc brothers and sisters. But I wanted to celebrate Christ the way my ancestors did as well. The stories of the Turkish occupation and near annihilation of the Serbs, the Slavas, and all the rest of it actually means something to me now.
Blood and Faith
orthodox church modelIt turned out they were having their church Slava the very next week. We went to church that Sunday and it was like the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Big tent, lamb on the spit, lots of food, music, etc. It was quite overwhelming. They were thrilled that a 1st generation Serb brought his family to start this journey. They were all open arms and smiles.
My wife and I had a series of conversations with Fr. Drago. He came to our home and blessed it. Sometimes we would talk for hours after everyone else left church. I watched my wife go through her process as I did mine. Within 3 months, I was convinced to come “back home.” Our priest took me through the steps to restore me after such complicated canonical impediments as to make your head spin. He brought my wife and children in as well.
My understanding is that Orthodoxy recognizes the right of nations and ethnicities to exist, and to celebrate Christ within those cultural contexts while remaining in full communion with each other. What is wrong with that, I have no idea. It has been like putting on a comfy old baseball cap. Hearing the language, smelling the food. It has made me deeply sad that my father was not more insistent about it, but also truly grateful for how gracious St. Luke’s has been. I think my dad had a very bad taste in his mouth from the persecution he suffered in Yugoslavia, and this may explain why he did what he did.
Scott KlajicAnd now, when Fr. Drago reads the list of all the departed during the litany before communion and I hear my fathers name “Ljubivoje” read (actually sung) amongst all the others, I become tearful–every time. It is hard to explain all of this. But blood and faith have come together for me in a way that is too deep for words.
Our third child (together) is 7 months old now and will be baptized and chrismated in May.
David Scott Klajic, Ph.D. is a major in the U.S. Army.
You can read his blog here: http://morallycontextualizedromanceblog.wordpress.com