Johnny was in the prison library, looking for answers to his deepest spiritual questions, when he overheard a conversation two tables over. An Orthodox prisoner named Jesse was talking about the early Church. Johnny moved close enough to eavesdrop, an uncomfortable, even dangerous thing to do in prison. Johnny started asking him questions, which led to Johnny writing to OCPM, learning the Faith through his correspondence with Fr. Duane Pederson and Zossima Daughtery.
At first, Johnny was reluctant about joining the correspondence ministry. Remote communication of any kind, in writing or over the phone, had never felt good to him before. Why would this be any different?
But this was different. These letters were powerful. Correspondence turned out to be easier than talking face to face, where Johnny was used to being judged. “The level of love, comfort, and care that can be put on a piece of paper I had never experienced before,” Johnny says. “Another human hearing the parts about me that I hate and coming back with a response that was accepting, that was not going to allow my mistakes to be the foundation of who I am—those letters allowed me to see there was another way of seeing myself.”
Once Johnny was released from federal prison, he knew going to church was his first priority. Like Christ’s call to “seek first the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 6:33), Johnny wanted everything he needed—new friendships, a job, a car—to come only through the Church.
But what was Johnny supposed to do when his parish was over sixteen miles away from his apartment? He had no car and was barely making enough money to cover his rent. Johnny lamented to his counselor about everything that was keeping him from getting to church, but his counselor challenged him: “When the Church started, how did they get to church?” “That’s when the light came on,” Johnny says. He could walk.
For the next month, Johnny rode two buses and walked thirteen miles to Divine Liturgy in the only shoes he had, tall-heeled cowboy boots. “I was prepared to do whatever it took to be chrismated. I wanted to be a part of God’s family.” Before he was enrolled in catechism, Johnny showed his priest, Fr. John, all the Orthodox literature he’d read in prison through OCPM. “You read more than I read in seminary,” Fr. John said. “No one reads this much outside of seminary.”
Once it was finally time for Johnny to be chrismated, on Great and Holy Saturday, his whole body was shaking so much with anticipation that Fr. John struggled to light his candle, the same candle from Pascha the year prior—when Johnny was still in prison. In that candle, Johnny could see how God had been carrying him to this moment not just in the last year, but throughout his entire life.
But after all this, his years spent seeking God in jails and prisons, his thirteen-mile walk to church, there was still one last hurdle to feeling like he truly belonged to God’s family. The people at his parish wanted to know his story. “When people asked me about my journey to Orthodoxy, I was scared to death to tell people, because I had to tell them what I had done.” What if they rejected or judged him? God had embraced him, but would they?
By facing his fears of rejection and trusting his parishioners enough to be honest with them, like he had learned in his correspondence with OCPM, Johnny found the answer to this question as a resounding yes. “I’ve never been to church and left without someone wanting to come talk with me. I’m not just tolerated,” he says. “I’m wanted. And I know that’s because of the change God has made in my life.”
In a fitting symbol of Johnny’s amazing transformation, his former correspondent, Zossima, now plans to attend Johnny’s wedding this summer. “When we started planning the wedding,” Johnny says, “we thought maybe 50 people would show up. Now we’re planning on 200. Everybody from my church is coming, and everybody knows my past.”