UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE USA
CONSISTORY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Subdeacon John Charest Ordained to Deaconate!
By Deacon John Charest
I’m very blessed to have been brought up in the Orthodox Church, or to be “cradle Orthodox” as it’s sometimes called. If I weren’t brought up with the beautiful traditions that worked there way into my life I’m not sure if I otherwise would have found the Church or my calling.
The first step in my journey was to become an altar boy. Once my brother Gregg had received his first Holy Confession and started to serve in the altar, I “decided” that I was also old enough. My parents, Sunday school teacher, and priest weren’t so easily swayed. Fr. Myron has a daughter about the same age as me he knew all too well that a three and a half year old wasn’t capable of serving in the altar every Sunday. So for two more years I watched my brother and the other boys serving in the altar, certain that I could be doing just what they were doing. The time outside the altar afforded me the opportunity to appreciate things outside the altar. For instance, the candles in front of the icons are too far away to be blown out by someone in the first pew or that if you keep your hands directly in front of your body your Sunday school teacher won’t know that you’re playing games on your fingers. My most vivid memory is of when the priests would incense the Church. The pews are very close to the wall at Holy Archangel Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Woonsocket, RI and I loved the way the priests’ phelone (outer most cape-like vestment) would slide over each pew as he passed by. I would sit as close to the end of the pew as possible in hopes that I’d get to feel the silky underside of the beautiful brocade and receive some of the Grace that the priest possessed…
When I was finally given the blessing to serve in the altar I became even more fascinated with the clergy and so I had many more questions. “Why was the priest the only one who could stand in front of that “big table”? How come he said so many prayers while the choir was singing, everyone keeps telling me to pay attention? How come he can put his vestments all by himself but we altar boys have to get his blessing?” When I was young it was hard to wait for appropriate times to ask these questions but the more answers I received the more I knew I loved this special place and was in no rush to go back to sitting in the pews.
In the year 2000, His Eminence Archbishop Antony ordained me to the rank of subdeacon. He told me that I was to remain a student and to remain humble. With great emphasis he explained that I shouldn’t feel as if I have rank or power over anyone or anything in the church but instead that this new title was to set me aside as a student and to learn from everyone in the parish not to try to teach them. He said the first thing I needed to learn was humility, and went on to explain that I was to serve not to be served. Unfortunately it wasn’t until years later that I even began to know what he was talking about. I loved having a cassock, wearing a different vestment from the other boys, and that I now had ‘rights’ (I didn’t understand them as privileges or duties) within the altar.
His Eminence and I stayed in touch throughout the years and I specifically remember one phone call that was the beginning to a more fulfilling life. Archbishop Antony had just come back from Ukraine with a group of adults with whom he’d visited a number of monuments dedicated to the victims of the Artificially Created Famine in Ukraine of 1932-1933, but most notable were the orphanages he saw. In our phone conversation he told me that a group of college age kids were going to be visiting these orphanages and I should apply to go on the trip. I had no idea what I was signing up for. I proudly put on my application that I was a subdeacon in the Church, had experience as a rehabilitation aide, along with a plethora of other skills. When my group arrived in Ukraine and I was brought children with deformities that I’d never even imagined, I began to learn what Archbishop was talking about. The nanny in the orphanage began treating me like I was a doctor, taking notes on what I had to say about each child she brought to me. She would mimic all the motions I made and practice the stretches with me watching to make sure she was doing them right. This only inflated my ego for the first three children but when she began to bring me children whose deformities might not be cured by even multiple surgeries I hit my breaking point. She didn’t think I was a doctor; she wasn’t impressed that I’m American; she thought I could perform miracles. My first dose of humility. It doesn’t matter what I write on an application, or what I tell myself I’m capable of, it all boils down to what God has given us. I felt useless as I could do nothing physical for those children.
Back in the United States I was coming around to understanding what Archbishop Antony had said. I began to spend time with the people of the parish and learn from them as people instead of trying to convince them I should be given the same respect as the priest. When I finally opened myself up to the people I was able to see a new side of myself, and I liked it. I liked serving in the altar but was beginning to love serving outside of the altar. So I decided that I was going to be a priest. I called His Eminence and told him this great plan and he told me that I could decide if I was going to apply to seminary but I couldn’t decide if Holy Priesthood was for me. He explained that the seminary is a great place to learn about our beautiful faith but not everyone who goes gets ordained. I was blown away further when he went on to explain that some people went to seminary only with the intention of getting the seminary education without wanting to get ordained! This seemed very impractical to me as American customs teach that we only get education to further our lives and expand our bank accounts. I was relieved when he, along with my parents, gave me the prerequisite of completing college before entering into any kind of seminary program.
While finishing my college degree I was able to travel on 3 more mission trips to Ukraine and interact with and learn from a variety of people. The subsequent trips were even more influential than the first because I had a better understanding of what I was getting into. What I was getting into was being totally vulnerable and relied upon both at the same time. This is what a ministry is all about and this is what I am thirsty for. After finishing college I tried to live my own life and avoided my calling. I thought that working on a cruise ship would be a glorious life and selfishly hoped for lots of personal gain – see the world, learn about other cultures, and get paid to play games (I worked in the youth activities department). The Lord had other plans for me and reminded me of my calling by putting, my now wife, Laryssa Tschaikowsky, on some of the same mission trips as me. We became friends while on the trips and more than friends when we returned to our respective cities. However, I had signed papers to be on the cruise ship. So while I was on the cruise ship, she was on land, and our relationship was difficult at a time it was supposed to be growing. I decided to leave the cruising life and move to Chicago to be closer to her.
My move to Chicago finally pushed further the thought of being active for the Lord. I was now part of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago, IL, enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Theology program, and regularly serving with His Grace Bishop Daniel. Having access to Bishop Daniel on a regular basis was such a blessing. I got to see the different avenues he explored with his ministry and realized that outside of the mission trips I hadn’t done anything with mine. I heard his stories of being an Army Chaplain and I wanted to join the Army (Matushka Laryssa was quick to remind me how tough our relationship was when I was on the cruise ship). I see the pictures he brings back from his trips to the orphanages and wanted to make that my ministry too. I heard wonderful sermons about how he ministers in hospitals and looked into being a hospital chaplain. Finally, at the beginning of my third year, His Grace Bishop Daniel asked me quite seriously where I saw myself in 1, 5, and 10 years and I didn’t have an answer. Up to that moment I hadn’t given this question any thought. I had just moved from one idea to the next. I traveled to Ukraine, graduated college, worked on a cruise ship, and I had dreamt about a whole bunch of things but I hadn’t DONE anything.
After much consideration of His Grace’s question, I began to think of how I could best minister. The answer was all over the TV, Internet, in magazines, and newspapers. Teenage kids were killing themselves. And I thought, as suicide becomes more prevalent in our media it’s going to seem like a more viable option for the vulnerable. So I decided to make this my final project for the St. Stephen’s program. I spoke with His Grace Bishop Daniel about my idea and after some direction from him I began to produce a workshop for the youth of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America that would be presented at All Saints Camp during the Teen Conference encampment. With the blessing of His Grace Bishop Daniel and the approval of my seminary teachers I began to work on a series of interactive lectures for Orthodox teenagers in America.
In the summer of 2011 I traveled to Emlenton, PA to All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Camp to give my presentation. One of the ideas I had to drive home the fact that 1 in 8 kids between the ages of 15 – 24 has considered suicide was to have all the kids stand up, count off in 8’s and have all the 1’s through 7’s sit down. This idea proved to be very effective. As the kids looked around the room at just how many people were standing they were astounded, and I was too. I had been looking at the numbers on paper and all of a sudden, when there were faces looking back at me, I realized how much our youth were struggling. When I spoke with the kids, not to them or at them, I felt a great connection. There was an energy, the Holy Spirit, connecting us.
Feeling the Holy Spirit was very exciting and I was pleased to have finally found my calling to ministry. Then slowly I became overwhelmed with thoughts. “What if one of these kids is in trouble and reaches out to me and I don’t know what to say/do?” The idea that I might misdirect someone is terrifying. But this is what happened in the orphanages, I was being depended on and vulnerable at the same time. This is the idea of ministry, allowing others to depend on you while still being vulnerable yourself. I received passing marks on my project and final exams, I’ve got my certificate of completion, and Bishop Daniel had called me about the ordination to the Holy Deaconate. Just when everything had seemingly begun to fall into place was the time that I’m became most petrified.
For the next few months I was ashamed to tell anyone that I wasn’t ready to be a deacon. On paper I’d fulfilled all the requirements; I’m a subdeacon who has completed a three year theological course of studies, I’ve completed three ministry based projects, and I’m active in my local parish. However, I don’t live on paper; I live in the real world where I could be the one to make or break someone. The responsibility really frightens me. On Facebook people are saying congratulations and “Axios” but I feel unworthy… Thoughts like this PLAGUED my mind and sometimes even brought me to tears. But this was part of my journey. I had to do a self reflection of my entire life, the good and the bad, and come up with an honest answer.
So, I am being called to serve as a deacon of Christ’s Holy Church. I needed to feel vulnerable while allowing others to depend on me. I needed to minister to the people. On the day of my ordination, His Grace Bishop Daniel reaffirmed the exact reasons that I told myself I should respond “YES” to the Lord’s call. In his sermon he mentioned that, as a deacon, I read the Gospel from the middle of the Church so that I’m among the people. He said I should always be among the people bringing the Mysteries to them. He told me that I was to work with my parish priest, Fr. Vasyl Sendeha of Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Palos Park, IL, to not only bring the Holy Mysteries to people, but to be an example of the Gospel to them. His Grace challenged me, in front of the entire parish family, to be the minister that I was so scared to be…
Finally the moment of ordination came and I am a deacon in the Orthodox Church. I didn’t expect my anxiety to slow down any on the actual day of ordination or even subside much on the following day (serving my first Liturgy with a Bishop present). What has taken my by surprise is that I’m not anxious about the mistakes I’ll make – standing in the wrong spot, going into the altar at the wrong time, or being terribly off key. Instead, I feel more anxious now about the responsibilities I carry. The ordination was the culmination to a wonderful journey. When I reflect on my journey I think all the way back to my upbringing in the Church and not just my seminary years. It was my foundation that helped me to answer the calling and I pray that my foundation will serve me well as I grow into this beautiful ministry.