How I found Orthodoxy (Elizaveta Wehrmeyer)

Between 1995 to 1997 my husband and I served as Baptist missionaries in Belorus. There I came into contact with the Orthodox faith. I also experienced some pretty difficult situations and people which led me to be disillusioned with my own Protestant faith, especially when the Baptist Union of Belorus told us that they did not consider us to be Baptists! So I began to ask: what was I then? I had been told that the Orthodox were only nominally Christians, that they idolatrously worshipped Mary and the saints and many other lies. Instead I found people that were truly devoted to God and a faith and practice that was far deeper and richer than anything I had ever encountered before.

After returning to South Africa, my disillusionment in my own faith grew, leading to my resignation from the local Baptist church. I visited the local Greek Orthodox Church, but could not identify with the unintelligible services and predominantly Greek congregation. I began to spend my Sundays at home, working on my MA, telling my family that I did not consider myself a Christian any longer, and studying Buddhism as an alternative.

However, God had not deserted me, even though I had turned my back on Him. Firstly, He began teaching me through sport. After returning to South Africa, I had started judo and was thoroughly enjoying it. So He gently asked: “Why do you not let Me be the sensei of your life? Is it just Christianity you reject, or do you reject Me as well?”

Secondly, a family friend told us about the Russian Orthodox Church starting in a house in Midrand. Deciding that it would be good practice for my Russian, I began to attend, at first very infrequently, and later about once a month. I was impressed by the almost tangible presence of God and the very powerful (5 minute!) sermons of Father Sergei.

Then, disillusionment again! Father Sergei was sent packing by the Bishop! “So they are just like the Catholics,” I thought. “It’s all just politics.” So it was back to Buddhism, judo, MA and by now Tai Chi… until my friend’s husband died. At his funeral, a Russian priest! So I cautiously began to attend again (on a monthly basis). But by now I had decided God really did exist and that I would obey Him on Sundays – the rest of the week was mine! I secretly began to read the Bible and pray.

Then came Forgiveness Sunday, 2002. It seemed an eternity of kneeling and getting up. And every time we knelt, God said: “I want you to become Orthodox.” And every time we rose, I said: “No!” When Father Filaret said the last Amen, I could not flee quickly enough. Not even waiting for tea, I jumped into my car and headed for the highway… except I could not find it… I had been attending on and off for about two years, but on this day could not remember how to get out of the suburb. Angry me, very amused God. “Well….?” He demanded. I had thousands of objections: they venerate the saints and Mary and I do not believe in that; they baptize infants; what would my family think; I am not Russian; You are a bully, what about free choice? etc. After driving around for about an hour it dawned on me: like Jonah in the whale, I was not going to get out here unless … and suddenly the fear of God also dawned. “Ok,” I bargained. “If I drive round the next corner and there is the church road, and if Danie Steyn (a South African Orthodox Christian) is still there (most unlikely by that time), then I will know that it really is Your will and I will tell Danie I need to become Orthodox. However, if I first find the road to the highway then all this is my imagination and I am going home and not becoming Orthodox!”

Round the corner… the road to the church! At the church, Danie! I tell him: “I have to become Orthodox.” He disappears inside to talk to Father Filaret. I console myself, there is still an escape: the Orthodox catechize first, it can take years before I actually have to be Orthodox. Danie returns, joyfully telling me that Father is going to chrismate Rita in a few weeks time (Lazarus Saturday) and do I have a baptism certificate? Nou ja…I confess to Danie what had happened. We cannot help but smile at His victory: He has led the captives captive! So on Lazarus Saturday, 2002, Rita and I both became Orthodox. On the highway going to the church, the car’s brakes failed … perhaps someone else was not pleased?

I have been Orthodox for about 4 years now. God is very gracious and a patient teacher. He has answered many of my previous enquiries (and disbeliefs). The Orthodox take the word theology literarily – God speaking! Often we like to reach some rational agreement before we make a decision. I am an academic, and it was a shock to be confronted by God against all my theological notions. Others like to get into a position of spiritual “readiness” before they accept a faith or a Church. Both of these reflect a desire to be in control, to be master. Orthodoxy to me is not so much a set of beliefs or practices, but rather a way of being, in which I the creature/ sinner/ servant and child am taught to relate to God who is our Creator/ All-Holy/ Master and Father through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. It is earthly participation in a heavenly Kingdom, and therein shows itself to be the True Church. I guess most people change faiths because they are convinced of the correctness of the new faith, or because they have been drawn by the example of love of somebody of that faith. But occasionally God just grabs His stubborn donkeys by the bit and demands: Are you going to obey Me or not? And I am very glad He did. To Him be the glory!

So if any stubborn donkey happens to be reading this webpage…

Elizaveta Wehrmeyer, Johannesburg, 2006