Father Josiah Trenham

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” Matthew 9:37. Father Josiah Trenham reminds us this word of the Savior so relevant today, when the mankind, exhausted by experiences outside of God, desperately seeks its way out of the crisis. It reminds us that our Church is apostolic not only through the continuity from the Apostles to us, but also through the apostolic life and work with which we are all indebted. However, it reminds us that the higher steps of the ladder can only be reached by going through the lower ones, just as the unit at the macro level is only reached if it exists at the micro level.

Father Josiah is the pastor of ”Saint Andrew the Apostle Church” in Riverside, California, Doctor of Patrology, founder and director of the Patristic Nectar Publishing House, a prolific author with 25 years of apostolic experience among the American people. (Tatiana Petrache)

Father Josiah, we live in times when Orthodoxy faces a great challenge – the current medical crisis – which, however, can also be seen as a chance for spiritual awakening. Are we ready to respond accordingly??

It’s true. And I do believe that this is a very unique opportunity for the Church, if we mean by opportunity that we’re looking at the world through the eyes of our Savior. Our Lord looks at the world as a harvest. That is what He desires. He wants to reap these souls and draw them near to Himself and cure them and save them, and be their Champion, and be their Savior. This is how He looks at the world. The indifference to our neighbor that exists in us, the indifference that we have to the portion of the world that is not Orthodox is not shared by Christ. He has no indifference, and He gave us a very aggressive call to make disciples of all of the nations, and to baptize every single human being, to wash and purify from the inside by His grace every human being, and then to make the world a catechetical center for His glory. We have to teach the world to observe everything that He has commanded so that we can recover the dignity of being a human being. That is the Apostolic agenda for the Church. And this moment is a moment for us, I say it is unique and ripe because we’ve had, especially in the West . . . I can’t speak well for Eastern Europe; I can’t speak well for Asia and Africa. I watch those countries. I’m interested in those countries, and I do see opportunities, but that’s not my world. My world is the West. The West is tired, the West is exhausted. We’ve had a half a century of zealous immorality, all in the name of freedom, and it has produced the highest levels of suicide, the highest levels of depression, the greatest breakdown in family that the West has ever seen. And for this reason, many people have, you know, they’ve eaten the meal that secularism prepared and they find their stomachs full of pain and without health and the Church.

If the Church cares, and if the Church is interested in helping those people simply because it’s getting darker, even if our light isn’t that bright, even a shimmering light when it gets very dark becomes bright and we have the opportunity. You know, my spiritual father, his name is His Grace Bishop Basil. He is the Antiochian bishop, in the center part of America, in a city called Wichita, Kansas. If you were to take the United States and you drew a perfect cross over it, the very center where the cross beams meet would be Wichita, Kansas. And when he ordained me back in 1993, he told me, he said, “Father, these days, if your heart is disposed to people outside the Church, all you have to do is keep your door open, and people are going to become Orthodox.” It was a commentary of how desperate the circumstances are in the West. He wasn’t suggesting not to do proactive things, but for churches in the West, not to grow, you really have to work hard not to grow. You really have to work hard, really. It’s that sad. Of course, there are many Orthodox churches that are dying, which is a tremendous commentary on us of our disinterest in converts, our disinterest in people who don’t look like us or don’t speak like us. It is sad, it’s a catastrophe and a complete betrayal of what we are and who we are. This is a great moment.

How do we answer to this challenge?”

And I think that besides the banal nature of secular culture, and it’s vacuousness with regards to meaning, and being able to produce something that the human spirit views as meaningful, on top of that, the COVID crisis has brought the weaknesses of secularism to the floor. So now, the great unanswerable question of death has been placed before people’s faces, and there is no answer. You know, the developing of a vaccine is no answer to death. None of our political leaders were able to speak in any sort of transcendent way. They only used the secular verbiage, which was extremely dissatisfying to people.

And then on besides, the reality of death that people can’t avoid. You know, for decades in the West, we’ve been hiding the dying in homes or in hospitals. People have been dying alone, not in their family homes. Many people where I live don’t even have funerals, or if they have funerals, their bodies are not there. They’re just so-called celebrations of life. It’s tragic. It’s absolutely tragic. Many people are being burned, being cremated, and just scattered here and there. There’s no abiding witness to their presence or to their humanity. And besides all of that critical emptiness that comes from the threat of death, there’s also the really grotesque appearance of tyranny. You know, when people are nervous, and they have no answers. This is a natural movement. They try to control circumstances that are beyond their control. And that also has scared many people in the West. The thought that they could be told for over one year that they can’t leave their homes, or they can only go here and there, or they’re told that they can’t go to their business, or they can’t make a living and provide for their family. These are such radical decisions.

How do we answer to this challenge? I have been in my parish for about 25 years now, it’s a large parish, and it’s very outward oriented, it’s very friendly to visitors. One of the reasons is that many of the parishioners themselves at one time were outsiders. So, they are sensitive to that. And we have a very developed and committed team of catechists and we have a process of catechism that is quite detailed. And so we’re used to having 20-25 catechumens every year. And during COVID, without altering anything, except just living our normal life the number of catechumens went to 72. I think it is a commentary. If you’re looking for a local stat, at least where I live here in Southern California, that tells you something that that was an absolutely unusual movement. We did nothing externally different, except Covid.

I think that this crisis also exposes the weak foundations of heretical and schismatic forms of Christianity which fill this area, many of whom are already deeply impacted by a non-sacramental, gnostic worldview. And so, many of them completely shut their churches. They just went to video streams for months and months, as though personal face to face, koinonia is not necessary, or is not essential in Christian faith. Or as though somehow you can worship without tangibly receiving the sacraments. I think that it was also a factor, it wasn’t just the threat of death, but also the exposure of weak foundations and an inability in their religious communities to face death. You know, for us, Orthodox every day is about death. We try to think about death. Our Fathers have taught us that you can’t live a day well, unless you consider it to be your last day. So, for us thinking about death, I mean, this is the sixth step in the ladder of Saint John of Sinai, that’s how fundamental it is. I mean, it’s a basic spiritual life to be able to be thinking about that. But that’s not shared by other forms of self-help Christianity. And I that that also was exposed during Covid.

Disciples at the School of Christ

Please tell us a few words about the missionary work you are doing. How do you achieve, practically speaking, the catechism of catechumens? In the traditionally Orthodox countries, unfortunately, at present there is a great lack of catechesis. Even if we are baptized, most of us are far from the Orthodox ethos…

This is a wonderful question. I’m glad you’re asking it. I agree with you that we need to ask this question, and answer this question much more than we have been doing all over the world. Catechism is not just about fulfilling our Savior’s call to win the world and to teach them. Remember when our Lord gave the great commission, he said, “Go into all the world, make disciples of all the nations, and baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity” Matthew 29:19. And then, he said “Teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded” Matthew 29:20. So, the teaching He places after baptism, not just before baptism. Catechism being in the Church means you’re in the School of Christ. In fact, the basic word that we use for a follower of Chris, is disciple, μαθητής. Μαθητής is someone who sits at the foot of the teacher. No worse students. Every Christian is a student. Every person who has been baptized has entered the School of Christ. Of course, the church, which is much more than a school, but it’s not less than a school. Yes, it’s not less than a school and many of our brothers and sisters, many orthodox Christians do not take their role as students in the school of the church seriously at all.

So, the catechism has to have a double focus. Part of Catechism is working on bringing people, preaching the Gospel to people who are outside the church, and preparing them for baptism. And then another focus has to be on nourishing faithful Christians, so that they can continue the life that we see the apostles living, right? If you see the Book of Acts, in Chapter two, it says that the apostles and their early community was dedicated to the apostles teaching, to the prayers, to the breaking of bread, and to κοινωνία, to fellowship. Those four things are at the core of Christian living, and we can no more abandon dedication to the Apostles teachings, then we can’t do the liturgy. There is no Orthodoxy without the liturgy, there is no Orthodoxy without the Eucharist, there is no Orthodoxy without fellowship, and there is no Orthodoxy without learning. It doesn’t exist.

So, the way that we, in our parish have lived that is, we established at the beginning of our life here, a catechetical school that is dedicated to St. John Chrysostom. It meets every Wednesday night. Usually the evening starts with the Paraklisis to the Mother of God in the Church, and then our ladies make a full meal for us. Everyone gets their meal, and then they come to the hall and I give a lecture. It’s an hour long. I try to stick to that hour long, and then we have maybe 10- 15 minutes of questions and answers. And we’ve been doing that for decades now. Usually the course is about 8-10 weeks long, and it varies between exposition of Scripture, study of Church history, aspects of worship, contemporary issues, moral issues, outreach, that type of thing.

The unity that bears witness to the truth of our faith”

Do you think that the lack of unity among us Orthodox, especially in the diaspora, can be a stumbling block in the way of those who would like to convert?

There’s nothing that is a pain in my heart for the Church more than this, and it’s not just a problem in the so-called diaspora. Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, don’t worry, this is going to work itself out”. There is no prophecy that has ever been given that I know of where Jesus said that for sure, Orthodox Christians will work out their problems and stop lacking love for one another. If we want to be sinful, if we want to be indifferent to our neighbor, our brothers and sisters, if we want to continue to scandalize the watching world and make mistakes, we are a scandal to Christ in our disunity.

He prayed, our Lord prayed so sincerely to His Father. It’s recorded in John Chapter 17 for the unity of His disciples, and it’ s that very unity that bears witness to the truth of our faith. It’s the love that we have for one another, He says, that will be the ultimate apologetic to win people to the faith. If we have the truth, and there’s no question that we do, I don’t have any question about that. If we have the truth, but it’s not resting on a couch of love, we are not going to do anything for the Kingdom of God. Our life is to speak the truth in love. And if we don’t love, if we don’t love one another enough to obey Christ Jesus, there are no bishops in the Church who say that Jesus says it should be this way. We all know it’s wrong, but we’re very comfortable with being wrong, and we’re very comfortable with the scandal because our love is cold. I’ve wished many times to be able to just whisper into the ears of bishops the experiences I’ve had as a pastor of beginning the catechetical process with people, and them falling in love with Holy Orthodoxy, only to discover the scandals of our disunity and to leave.

Who will account for that? I think I will, and I think the clergy of the Church who have, especially those that have the ability to make a difference and don’t, I think that we’re going to account for those lost sheep. This is a personal matter. This is not just some canonical matter. It’s a personal matter, it’s a matter of love, It’s a matter of fidelity to Christ, it’s a matter of concern for the world, and certainly in all of the Western countries, it’s on display. It’s on display as we emphasize our particularities instead of our commonalities. But after the Synod of Crete, it’s on display to the whole world. But most Orthodox just want to hide the problem under a blanket. The world thinks that we are just interested in power, worldly power and fighting. And we certainly don’t have any sort of common witness to the world at this time.

Could that change? Yes, it could change very quickly? It changed for the worse very quickly in the early decades of the 20th century and it could change very quickly. I would like to make it a little more practical and easier for people to understand how it could be done. Parishes that grow on the local level are the parishes where everyone loves one another. I mean, it’s that simple! If someone comes, I’ve told my parishioners forever that, “Look, if you want our parish to grow, be faithful to your spouse, love your children!”. If you do those things, if you do those things, those are so rare! They are so rare in our society, that the people will come and they’ll feel so beautiful and so touched, that they’ll open their hearts to God! And just like the opposite is true. If you come to a parish, and they’re fighting, and the people are divorcing, who’s going to stay? No one’s going to want to stay in that parish, and join that religious community. Just take that local and make it larger. Where would we place inter Orthodox relationship in that context? Is it a loving family, or a fighting bickering house, nearly divorced?

Christ in our midst”

I think many Orthodox Christians, and many priests feel very helpless. They feel very helpless, as though there is not much to do. And we are just kind of waiting for a change. And I would say that rather than saying some more about what’s going on at the top; for us to trust Christ, that the circumstances that exist are the ones that He has fashioned for us, that His own fingers weaved this cross for us to bear, this is a very important thought. You know, as I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at a magnificent icon of our Savior on my wall, and He’s holding the Gospel book as the Light Giver, and He has his right-hand blessing between Himself and us. And it’s important for us to remember that everything that comes into our life, it goes through those fingers, and then it comes into our life. Nothing comes into our life that isn’t blessed first by Him. When we’re depressed, when we feel very hopeless as though we can’t do something, we have to remember that. That this is no surprise for the Lord, and no one is more concerned about the state of the church than Him. No one.

You know those early chapters in the Apocalypse? He appears to Saint John, and He tells Saint John about the inner condition of all of those seven local churches. Literally he says, “I’m walking in the midst of the candlesticks” Apocalypse 2:1. He is literally Christ in our midst, right? That’s not just a figure of speech, that’s reality. And notice that He is vigilantly guarding the purity of the local churches. Those that were in good shape, he commended, that was a minority, to churches, seven. Those that were in bad shape, He spoke to them about what was wrong, He called them to repentance, and then in every case, He threatened them. He said, ”If you don’t change, I will blow out your candle stick!” Apocalypse 2:5. So, we have to be careful. I’m speaking to myself, I’m preaching to myself. I get very sad about the circumstances of the Church, but I don’t want to be sad too much and forget that this is the Lord’s Church. He’s absolutely capable of taking care of renegade leadership. He’s absolutely capable of taking care of undivided parishes and local churches, and to pursue the purity of the church. I trust Him for this. I trust Him for this. And, I’m going to continue to raise my voice against myself, when I see bad things, and to try to repent first, but also against what we see. We need to speak the truth and trust Him to clean up the mess.

I discovered treasure after treasure”

Despite all these problems, what drew you to Orthodoxy and what made you stay?

The Orthodox faith is the diamond. It’s a true treasure. Our Lord says that the man who found the treasure hidden in the field, he went and he sold everything to have that treasure cf. Matthew 13:44. And I feel very much like that. In my own experience, when I met the Church, it was like walking into a castle, and in the first room was a treasure box. And I knelt down at that treasure box, and I opened it, and it was gold and silver and rubies, crowns and necklaces. And I was just taking it out, and it took a long time because it was such a deep treasure box. And I got to the end, and I looked down, and there was there was no more. And just when I thought “Oh no! there’s no more!”, I looked up and I saw a door to another room, and I opened the door and I went into that room, and there was another treasure box. And I did the same thing. I have been doing that for 30 years. One after the other, after the other. And then I discovered that there’s actually no end. Because the Church is the Body of the Incomprehensible Savior, the Immeasurable, Uncircumscribed Lord. There literally is no end to that process. And Saint Gregory the Theologian says that that’s what eternity is, eternity is a is a sphere, a circle that presses into the heart of God. And because God has no end, it never ends the exploration, the discovery, the growth and love, and illumination. It never ends. So, this this is the Church. Despite all the all the kind of sadness we’ve been talking about, that doesn’t erase the reality that this is the Church.

I came from a form of Protestantism, called Presbyterianism. Many, many wonderful people, many great endeavors, but by definition, not the church, but human organization, a good-hearted trying to do the right thing, usually organization, but without the qualities of the presence of Christ, the Mysteries, the Sacraments. I was 19 years old and I was dating a young woman who became my wife, Presbytera Catherine. She was the youngest of six in a Methodist family, and two of her older brothers had gone off to College, and had become Orthodox Christians. And so, when I began to date her, they started to send me books. Yeah, I was very, very zealous Presbyterian. And so, I was going to, you know, begin a conversation with them in the hopes that they would also become Presbyterian. I lost that debate. Once I started attending church though, once I walked into our majestic, mystical holy temples, where God dwells, I started going to Vespers on Saturday night, every Saturday night, at a local Orthodox Church. Several months into that, I was still going to my protestant church on Sundays. But several months into that, I thought to myself, “Could I live without this?”. And I said: “Impossible!”. It was just, it had won me, it had grabbed my heart! The presence of God in the worship of the Church had just won me. And I still feel that way. I still feel that way. We have services here every day at the church, and you know, no one has to tell me go to Church. No one. I mean, I wait for the time that I can end my meetings, and end my writing, and end my calls so that I can run to be in the presence of God.

Interviewed by Tatiana Petrache

Interview published in The Orthodox Family Magazine/September 2021

Revista Septembrie 2021