My story is in some ways typical for many in America. Throughout my life I attended many different churches, always looking for that one that would hook my heart and inspire me to choose a real Christian Life. I attended Baptist, Pentecostal, Non-denominational, and Mormon churches, and even looked into Far Eastern religions. I was influenced also by Jehovah Witness and Wicken beliefs.
However, with each church, after a few weeks when the newness and excitement dissipated, I would usually quit attending. It wasn't so much the commitment that I ran from, but most often the church theology turned me off.
This was my basic routine – a roller coaster spiritual search, which had some highs and many lows, that basically led me to give up searching…until I discovered the Orthodox Church.
That story begins when my grandfather, John Dukes, lay in the hospital dying. I was never scared for him, because he was a model of Christianity to me, and though I had zero interest in religion at the time, I never doubted he would be in heaven. It was my grandmother, Stella Dukes, who was the one to finally jostle me out of a secular mindset.
As all the family waited for my grandfather’s imminent death, my grandmother fell ill and was hospitalized in the ICU. Only a couple days later, we all knew medicine couldn't do anything for her. Since I worked at the hospital I was able to visit both grandparents often. But it was my final visit with my grandmother which sparked a need to open my heart and seek the truth of God, church, and our true purpose on earth.
It was at night and my grandmother's room was dark, the only light came from the hallway. I walked into the room and looked at my grandmother. She was asking the Lord to take her from this world. Watching her suffer, I leaned over and whispered, “He will take you,” and suddenly a peace overwhelmed her. But after a few seconds she realized it wasn’t going to happen just then, and she glared at me with anger and disappointment, and just went back to asking the Lord to take her now.
I suddenly realized there is something more to death than just dying. There was a personal God who is the Lord over life and death. Sadly, a day later my grandmother died. And incredibly, my grandfather, whom I had come to say goodbye to, recovered and live a few more years. This was a starting point for me, but still without any real direction to follow.
Some time passed and the idea of something “more” started to fade from me. Until one day I was at work and a fellow employee started telling another employee about his friend who was part of the ancient Church. Immediately I interrupted him and said, “What ancient Church?”
My friend went on to explain, as best as he could, about the Orthodox Church and how his friend’s transformation had really impacted him. I didn’t give much thought about his friend (who ironically became my son's godfather when we enter the Church in the summer of 2017). What I really wanted to know was, “What in the world is the Orthodox Church?”
So, I asked how far away the church was. I was shocked to find out it was right here (at the time) in downtown Wenatchee. I also found out the Church has a website, so I went to the computer and looked it up…it was amazing! I noticed right away Fr. Michael's personal cell number. I called him and on the other side was a humble voice as if he already knew me. He answered a few of my initial questions and then said the most amazing thing: "Come and see.”
Without any further explanation, he told me when the next service would be. I was really intrigued, but not nearly as much as when I entered the church for the first time. The service was so penitent and deep and full of passion and worship. I would later find out this was the first day of Great Lent, a more intense season of repentance. And this was the day my conversion began.
I was a little disappointed at first to realize that it wasn't going to be quick and easy! Why wasn’t it quick? Because this church is not just looking to have the appearance of growth, to put “another notch in its belt, or to get people excited and worked up for a while only to have them drift off. As in the early church, Orthodoxy seeks a real conversion of heart, mind, and soul to Christ. That’s probably what kept me coming back; because I knew I needed that. I began to learn that Christianity is a life-long struggle (with much joy along the way!) to be brought into union with God as much as possible.
I also found out it wasn’t easy. Why wasn’t it easy? Because it’s real! It deals with real people who often don’t even know themselves, and therefore don’t really know God that well. It takes some time and some humility. It really seeks to change people into the likeness of God. I really needed (and still need) to be healed of all kinds of junk in my heart that kept and keeps me from an authentic relationship with the real God.
But even in this short time, it has been very fruitful. Nearly two and a half years passed as I was slowly growing in the faith. But two things inhibited my journey. First, I still had to work on Sundays, so didn’t get to participate fully in the life of the Church. More importantly, my heart still wasn’t quite ready. I would pull away for periods of time and go back to my “comfortable,” but spiritually unproductive ways.
I realized I was acting like a lukewarm Christian and that if I really wanted to be an Orthodox Christian I needed to start committing. So, I did. I found a new job (through another seeker, now member, in the church) that allowed me to attend services on Sundays. Through the Church, God began to heal me to the point that my wife began to notice a real change in me. She and our children then began attending and learning. And we all came into the Church together.
From my own experience I can tell you one thing: Until you are ready to be honest with yourself, you can never be honest with God, friends or family, and your relationships with any of them will never grow to its true potential.
The Orthodox Church is my answer to a lifelong prayer and search. I can almost guarantee you, it’s not what you think it is. Stodgy? Harsh? Legalistic? No! No! No! It is spiritual medicine. It is filled with love and beauty, but yes, if you allow it, it will change you as it has me.
If you have any specific questions or would like to personally contact Justin, please send him an email.