USA OF MY HEART
Saint Herman Orthodox Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
Hannah Hunt: In Search of the Bride
From New Zealand to Alaska
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
I was raised to love God. Throughout my entire adolescent life, I, along with my three brothers, was immersed in the protestant faith and was diligently raised to live as a godly person. I always knew that God worked directly in my life and was always there for me. Even during the tumultuous teenage years, when my actions were anything but godly, my inner heart never grew cold towards my Lord and Savior. In youth groups of varying denominations, I was taught to firmly own what I believed and equipped with the weapons necessary to defend those beliefs; however, the structure of these denominations remained a mystery to me and I simply trusted that they were all the Bride of Christ.
Born in New Zealand, my first protestant churches were Presbyterian and Anglican. My mother did a lovely job raising us with Bible study, family devotionals and sweet songs which fill my childhood memories. At some point during my pre-school years, my parents experienced the Pentecostal movement. I was around the age of five when I was led to believe that I was a gifted child, a child who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that I was able to ‘speak in tongues.’ This prayer language would remain with me for years, although I never felt comfortable praying with it in public or in church services and it always seemed just beyond my understanding or comfort level.
I was nearly seven when my parents, who were US citizens, moved the family back to the United States. My Christian experience then began to become increasingly jumbled. I attended such diverse denominations as Moravian, Mennonite, Pentecostal, House Church, Church of Christ, non-denominational, inter-denominational, etc. My father, who was raised Quaker, seemed to drift into the background; leaving our spiritual upbringing in the hands of my mother.
At the age of ten, my belief in God being able to work directly through me was awakened while attending an Assemblies of God church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. One Sunday, a missionary from Haiti came to speak at our church. Her name was Eleanor Workman and she awoke within me an awareness of poverty and global responsibility which shook my young soul. Determined to do something, I ran door to door in my neighborhood requesting donations of clothing and toys. With the assistance of a friend and my mother, I collected enough donations to fill our VW Van. The joy that my small efforts would so greatly benefit the orphans in Mrs. Workman’s orphanage changed my outlook on my relationship with God. I became more and more determined that, with the help from God, I could achieve anything and do great things for His glory, and told anyone who would listen that I would personally go to Haiti before I was thirteen.
At the age of twelve, my mother joined Youth with a Mission and went through their Discipleship Training School and School of Evangelism in Tyler, Texas. It was listening to the conversations carried on by the adults around me that I began to formulate some rather strong opinions about denominations. I was accustomed to pouring through the pages of the Strong’s Concordance so I looked up denominations, learned that it meant divided in Greek, and read the related verses. Romans 16:17-18…
“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people”
Thus was the beginning of my mistrust of any denominations and my clinging to non-denominational groups.
It was during this time in Youth with a Mission that I was blessed to be part of two missionary endeavors. The first was into the interior of Mexico with a drama team. The second was to Haiti and came about in a rather interesting manner. The team my mother was assigned to was originally destined for Aruba; however, due to political upheavals, the team had to find a new destination. I, only twelve, approached one of the YWAM leaders, Jeff Johnson, and told him all about the missionary from Haiti and her orphanage that needed help. He presented the idea to the other leaders and we became the first YWAM team to visit Haiti. We returned to the States just prior to my thirteenth birthday, fulfilling what I had firmly believed since the age of ten. My mother returned to Haiti as an unaffiliated missionary and we remained in Port-Au-Prince for nearly a year.
My teenage years were a bit tumultuous. After a year and a half in a High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I moved to Australia to live with some family friends. I attended much of tenth grade in an Australian high school but returned to Florida before completing it. I dropped out of high school and was living on my own at the age of sixteen. In 1989, at the age of seventeen, I took my GED and married the love of my life, Daniel Hunt. His father was a Presbyterian minister and it was at this point that I really began to learn more about doctrinal ideas that went beyond the mere knowledge of Scripture.
Staunchly I would keep my mouth closed and refuse to pray their creed or any prayers that I considered contrived. I lacked the maturity to give credence to my convictions but knew only that Christ died for His Bride and, not being able to find the Bride, I rejected all organized denominations and the membership that ensued.
Thus, I badgered my husband into attending Assemblies of God with me as they claimed to be non-denominational.
We faithfully attended Assemblies of God communities for the next seven years. My husband being active duty in the United States Air Force, we were stationed in Nebraska and then Alaska. It was during our stay in Alaska that I began to gain a deep enough understanding of various protestant doctrines to start developing the questions that had always evaded me leaving only echoes of doubt in my heart. Two venues led to my awakening doubt; the Women’s Ministries of Assemblies of God, and the Protestant Women of the Chapel, PWOC, a military wide Bible-study organization. With the Women’s Ministries, I was asked to become a leader. In order to do this I had to officially become a member of their denomination which is not a denomination.
I was horrified to realize that they, too, had a doctrine of faith; however, I agreed to prayerfully read it and consider. I was in true spiritual torment when faced with the twists of Scripture and doctrine that I could clearly see was not founded in God’s Word but rather another man’s attempt to prove their beliefs. I stopped attending AOG and began attending the generic military chapel which was both a doctrinal void as well as a hodgepodge of Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, etc. I had already been faithfully attending the PWOC Bible Studies which were hosted by the chapel.
However, the more we studied Scripture and the more I heard the interpretations tainted by doctrinal views, the more I realized that each denomination was twisting and manipulating Scripture in order to further their own propaganda. I became an outcast in the PWOC, the annoying member who always halted their smooth lesson plans by asking questions they could not answer and arguing points they were comfortably solid on. This was my first open exposure to the numerous protestant doctrines and the first time the blinders were ripped off my face. I became increasingly restless and despondent proclaiming to all,
“Christ is returning for His Bride, not His harem; and all of your denominations act like jealous harem girls fighting for the Master’s attentions.”
I knew that Christ could not have intended this and my heart ached for truth.
Ironically it was during the most intense times of my distress that my mother began to tell me about a strange Christian group she was researching. When she first named them Orthodox, I thought she was converting to Judaism. She corrected that misunderstanding and began referring me to the internet. Being 1997, the internet was still a new concept to me and, following the Heaven’s Gate cult tragedy, I was skeptical and concerned. My mother had always been our spiritual beacon and now she was taking a sudden and unexpected turn. Soon, my older brother, Cameron Thorp, and his wife were of like mind with my mother. Out of need to understand what they were buying into and in order to debate them, I began to study the Orthodox Church. I remember the moment clearly when my husband walked into our bathroom holding my religions textbook from college.
“You’re not going to like this,” he said, “this Church actually seems to agree with everything you have always believed.”
In disbelief, we read and reread the chapter on Greek Orthodox. Next, my husband looked up Greek Orthodox on the internet. Our eyes almost popped out when the first web site we found was the Church of Cyprus, founded in the New Testament. Having been raised in the belief that the Early Church had vanished and that Christianity had reemerged in a tainted form in the renaissance, this confrontation with the idea that the Early Church survived, and was functioning in a capacity to be on the internet, truly took our breath away and awoke a thirst for more knowledge.
My mother began to send us literature on the Orthodox Church. The first book I read was Dancing Alone and confirmed my belief that I could no longer be a protestant. Desperate to find an Orthodox Church for us to visit, my mother searched and found a parish in our town, Fairbanks. I called to ask for information and was dissuaded from attending. I was told that my children would be bored and that the priest was moving. Discouraged, I resolved to keep reading and wait until we were re-stationed before attending an Orthodox service. About a month later, a casual friend, Kealani Smith, was visiting and began talking about the religious symbolism in one of my quilts. We began discussing our Christian beliefs and I opened up to her about my search. She was Episcopalian, and the first person I met who had any prior knowledge of the Orthodox Church; we decided to look into this religion together.
A short time following our conversation, Kealani was at her apartment building’s playground with her son. Another little boy was being bullied so she stepped in and offered to escort the little boy home. She immediately noticed the little religious painting hanging on the boy’s apartment door. When she knocked, the door was opened by a man with a long beard who was wearing a black robe and a cross. This demure, proper woman of German descent cocked her head to the side, looked him up and down and asked,
“What are you?”
“I am the area’s new Orthodox priest,” he replied.
Imagine his surprise when this strange woman threw her hands into the air and began to excitedly proclaim,
“My friend’s been waiting for you!”
A few weeks later, Kealani and I visited Saint Herman Orthodox Church in Fairbanks, Alaska. The little building sat several miles outside of the city in the rugged hills. It had no electricity and no heat, yet, I was spell bound. I was so confused by what was going on in the service but something resonated deep within my soul. The beauty took my breath away, the reverence touched me, and the magnificence of the worship of God rather than the focus on me and my entertainment awed me. This was real. Approached by the Matushka and Priest, Father John Peck, following the service we said,
“We know this is the truth, but what is it?”
They kindly invited us to return and begin learning more. I wept the entire drive home. My husband, who had remained at home with the children, asked what I thought. I told him that while I had no idea what I had just witnessed, I knew that I would never go to church anywhere else.
I had found the Bride.
The most humbling moment of my life was the acceptance that my lifetime of knowledge; my training as an instructor of AOG Missionettes, Sunday School, Children’s church, and VBS; my position as a Christian leader in my community; my incorrect Pentecostal beliefs, including my so called gift of tongues; my Scriptural knowledge… everything that had defined my respect and standing within the protestant community had to be stripped away. I told Father John that I was coming to him in humility and willingly setting aside all my preconceived ideas and ideologies. I came to him as an empty cup.
“Just teach me the Truth,” I asked him, “show me the Bride.”
My husband, Kealani, my three children and I were baptized on Theophany in 1998, along with two other women and Kealani’s son who were chrismated. My mother, brother, and brother’s family had been baptized in 1997. My eldest brother along with his wife and children, and many of his extended family were baptized in 1999. My youngest brother and his fiancé were baptized in 2000. The last in my immediate family to convert to the Orthodox Faith was my father, at the age of 87, in 2008. Thus began a love affair that only strengthens with each passing year.
Holy Saint Herman of Alaska, Pray to God for us sinners.