From Young Life to the Priesthood
Ancient Faith Radio · October 1, 2006
The story of Fr. Anthony Karbo, a former Young Life leader who became an Orthodox priest.
Ancient Faith Radio: Ancient Faith Radio is in Colorado Springs today, and we’re talking with Fr. Anthony Karbo. Fr. Anthony is priest at Ss. Constantine and Helen OCA Church, at a brand-new, beautiful temple which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. But we want to learn a little bit more about Fr. Anthony, about his background. He is a convert to Orthodoxy, and we love to hear these convert stories. So first of all, Fr. Anthony, welcome to Ancient Faith Radio.
Fr. Anthony Karbo: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
AFR: Tell us about your early encounter with Jesus Christ. When did you first commit your heart to him?
Fr. Anthony: I grew up in a home, a non-Christian home. We never went to church. I’d never been to a church in my whole life, didn’t have a Bible. Christianity, church—none of that was part of my upbringing. I thought I was pretty normal. We just went camping. We did your normal kind of working-class [things]: watch TV, eat dinner, watch more TV, go to bed, get up, do the same thing again, including Sunday morning—[that] type of existence. That was my childhood. Didn’t think a whole lot about God, about church, anything, because it wasn’t part of anything in my family tree. To this day, I don’t know of anybody—aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews—that goes to church. I’ve kind of tried to make up for them in becoming a priest.
So that was my upbringing, and I was in high school. The young man sitting behind me in English class said, “Hey, how’d you like to go to a Young Life camp? I’m going to go to this Young Life camp.” I’d never heard of a Young Life camp, or Young Life for that matter, and thought, “I hear of camps and summer camps, that a lot of kids go to those things, and they seem like they’re pretty fun, and this is being offered to me. Sure, I’d like to go to a summer camp. I’ve never experienced anything like that.” And Young Life runs phenomenal camps, so when you watch their video as a young man, you see water skiing and parasailing and jet skis and all of these fun activities and girls that are at the camp, and you think, “Yeah, that sounds like that’s something I want to do,” and it worked.
So I ended up going the summer of my junior year to a Young Life camp, and that’s where I, quite honestly, first heard the Gospel in my life, heard about Jesus Christ, the standard “four spiritual laws”-type thing. In an incredibly beautiful and warm and loving environment, around other Christians and around Christian adults who really seemed to have an interest, a sacrificial interest, in my well-being, and I thought that, wow, this is a good thing; this is for me.
I told my Young Life leader, “I think I’d like to be a Christian.” He said, “You want to accept Christ into your life?” and I said, “Yeah, I think I want to do that.” He said, “Not now. Why don’t you go home and think about it for a month. After we get done with camp, we’ll stay in touch, and a month from now, let’s talk about it and make sure you still want to do that.” To that day, I think that was an incredibly wise thing that he did. The temptation is to accept the camp experience into your heart, and he recognized that, and he wanted to truly make sure that I understood what Christ was about, and Christ was not just Young Life summer camp.
A month later, then, I determined for myself that I was going to become a Christian. I went to a Christian bookstore, which I’d never been inside my whole life, and had to ask: “I need a Bible. Which one should I get? Can you tell me something about Bibles? I don’t know anything.” So they sold me what was brand-new, hot off the press: a Thompson-Chain New International Version. And thus began my Christian life.
AFR: Here you are, a young man, no prior understanding of the Gospel or of Christianity, embracing Christ, embracing Christianity, going out to find your own Bible, and really launching out on your own. What about church? When did you first start attending a church, and what kind of a church was it?
Fr. Anthony: Like what often is the case, I started going where my Young Life friends went. I had no concept of church. Why should I go to a Baptist church or a Presbyterian church or a Foursquare Gospel? They were all the same thing to me, because all I knew is I had heard this gospel and had received this new faith in Christ and decided to go where my friend or, at the time, my Young Life leader was going, and that was enough for me.
My Christian formation, for good or ill, took place through Young Life. I was in a Young Life Bible study, so I never… Young Life became my support group, my fellowship group, my Bible study group. I never got plugged in to any one church. Didn’t go to their youth group, because my needs and so forth, social needs and learning the Gospel were being met. I’m not saying that was good or bad or indifferent; that’s just the way it was for me, so I didn’t plug into any particular denominational church. For me, it really was about Christ. In my naïvete, church was kind of irrelevant to that, except that I knew I had to go somewhere on Sundays, and so you went.
Later, when I went on staff with Young Life—and I remained a member and so forth of various churches, again, typically where my peer group went—going on full-time staff with Young Life, I was sent to western Colorado to start Young Life there. There hadn’t been any Young Life, and there was a group of adults, each members of various churches, that saw that any of their churches in this small town in western Colorado, on their own couldn’t reach kids very well, and they were concerned about the whole group of kids at the high school. So they decided that they would research and then decided on Young Life, that Young Life would be a good thing in their community. It would bring kids together. It would bring the few kids from each different church, but also, more importantly, reach the non-churched kids that weren’t going anywhere.
So after college, they brought me to western Colorado, and that was the first time I was there, as the Young Life area director, and didn’t have any peer group to just plug into their church with. I had to find my own church. Which church am I going to go to? I would meet with the Lutheran pastor, the Assembly of God pastor, the Baptist pastor, the Presbyterian minister, the Episcopalian priest who was on the Young Life staff there, and would try to learn about churches.
That was the first time I had to do that. I was 24 at the time and had to make the decision of my own: What church am I going to go to? That’s when I really began to learn that there are differences and it wasn’t just: they pray this way versus we pray that way. There were at least, for these various pastors, significant differences that defined them as Lutheran or as Baptist or as Presbyterian. Prior to that, it just didn’t occur to me to even bother with what might be the differences.
While I was meeting with these pastors and visiting their churches and taking the time to shop for which church I would finally settle into—and by the way, as the new area director for Young Life, they all had a vested interest in trying to get me to attend their church, because they knew that kids would attend with me, eventually, as well as I could certainly take over their youth group, so they had a vested interest in recruiting me—I became part of the ministerial alliance, a group of ministers that would try to do a common good, a common food pantry, a common clothing pantry, a voucher program for gas for people passing through, and so forth.
So on that ministerial alliance, I met for the first time in my life, an Orthodox priest. There just happened to be, in this small town in the middle of nowhere, western Colorado, an Orthodox church. It was a mission. An Episcopalian man had converted to Orthodoxy, and he was rather entrepreneurial, and thus had the finances. There was no Orthodox church around—he built one. He built one, and he funded it for ten or fifteen or twenty years; I can’t recall exactly what. So there just happened to be an Orthodox church there that this man had built of his own means and, as I said, funded to bring a priest from seminary to serve there.
I met that priest, and it just so happened that that priest was a convert, and he, in high school, became a Christian through Young Life. So we had this connection. He knew what I was coming from, what my experience was, and he, in his own words, said, “I’m going to become your friend.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you don’t realize how much pressure is on you. I just want to be a safe place for you.” So he and I became friends, and so when I visited various churches and had to think about “what church am I going to attend?” I determined that I would visit Tim’s church. Not “Fr. Timothy,” because I would dare call no man “father,” you see.
So I had to visit Tim’s church, this Orthodox thing that I’d never heard of, and it was quite different [from] what I was used to. It was different [from] anything I’d ever experienced in ministry, not necessarily meaning it was a good thing; it was just a different thing. I would ask him questions: Why do you do that? Why do you do this? The standard Evangelical questions that you hear time and time again: What about that? What about saints? I don’t believe you have to do that. What about Mary? You guys make an awful big deal about Mary… and so forth.
And he would, just over a cup of coffee at the local diner, just answer my questions. And he had answers to my questions. That was the amazing thing about it: he had answers, and the answers, when he gave them to me, made sense.
AFR: We’re talking with Fr. Anthony Karbo, priest of Ss. Constantine and Helen OCA Church in Colorado Springs, and we’re learning about his journey to Orthodoxy. He did not grow up in a Christian home, found Christ in high school, became involved in Young Life, went off to Christian college, came back, became a Young Life director, sent to western Colorado, and meets an Orthodox priest for the first time.
What was the turning point for you, Father? When did you start going from saying in your heart that “This is strange” to “This is possible”?
Fr. Anthony: The turning point really was visiting several churches in the local community, and having to ask myself, “Is this where I want to be?” What happened for me, when I visited that Orthodox Liturgy, is that those people weren’t… It’s kind of a classic Orthodox experience: they weren’t all that friendly. They didn’t have a vested interest in recruiting me to their church.
When they came to church, I watched them walk in, make the sign of the cross, venerate the icon of Christ, find their place, and stand, and stand attentively and prayerfully, and perhaps most impressively to me, stand very humbly before God. The service started, and this pastor had his back turned to us. He wasn’t facing us and telling us what to do and where to turn and so forth; he was there to lead these few—and there were very few in those days at this young mission—but he was there and those people were there for one purpose, which was to pray, which was to give to God in prayer, the sacrifice of prayer and their praise, and to receive from God, through the hearing of the Scriptures and the partaking of the Eucharist.
What was their prayer? This is still very significant in my memory. Their prayer was not telling God what to do. Their prayer was not the pastor telling the people what to do through the means of a prayer. Their prayer was: Lord, have mercy. For our president: Lord, have mercy. They didn’t tell God even which president to elect; they just said: Lord, have mercy. For the sick and the suffering: Lord, have mercy upon them. For the traveling: Lord, have mercy upon them. For our bishops: Lord, have mercy on them. As we know from the Liturgy, but that was all new to me. They were just there to pray, and they were all facing God, and the Gospel was read, and they were all there to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
That was different [from] anything else that I’d seen. I wasn’t from any church background, so I hadn’t seen a whole lot, but this was different [from] what I was doing. I was meeting prior to even our worship services in Young Life, and we were putting together latest, greatest tunes and how the songs that we’d sing would meld into the message we were going to give that night, and how we were going to pump people up for Jesus or we were going to mellow them out for Jesus, and it was all a production. This Orthodox service wasn’t a production.
In fact, I remember thinking to myself that we were used to 100 kids or so showing up for whatever thing we could invent for them to show up for, whether it was Jell-o wrestling or 40-foot banana splits or, you name it, we were willing to do it—but it was all a production. If only eight kids showed up, we would have unplugged our guitars and thought, “Gosh, we’re really failing,” and we would have taken those eight kids to McDonald’s—if we would have met at all—and as a leadership team we would have scratched our heads and said, “Gosh, what are we doing wrong here? We’re not… Something’s not working right.”
But if eight people showed up for this Orthodox church service, the service still took place. Or if 800 people showed up, the same service still took place, because it was all about whoever was there coming before God. It wasn’t a production and a performance before the audience. I thought, “This is why so many of us are burning out, because we get tired of performing for Jesus.” In some ways, if we’re honest, back then in those days, we had to question: Is this really about Jesus at all, or is it about building a big Young Life club rally and telling them about Jesus? Granted, there’s good in it, but that Orthodox service was so different…
When I would visit churches, I was asked, as a 24-year-old know-it-all—because, 24, you know, and you don’t have kids: you know everything about kids—invited to speak and to give the sermon, the guest homily that day, and to tell everybody about how we were going to reach the kids for Christ and the means of doing that and the benefit, and, boy, if all of you could just sign on the dotted line and support this effort, we’re really going to change this town for Christ.
At the Orthodox church, they didn’t ask me to give the homily. In fact, I’m not allowed to give the homily. In fact, they just thought I have no idea what I’m talking about if I were to give the homily. They weren’t interested in me selling my goods. They weren’t interested. They were just there to pray, and they invited me into their prayer. They weren’t cold, but they were there to pray, not to hear me, not to listen to me. They were there to pray before God and to live out the Gospel that they had heard that day. Again, a very different experience for me, and that’s what intrigued me.
I started attending this Orthodox church—my Young Life committee had to be assured that it was still Christian, and that if I were attending that church that they didn’t know anything about, they had to make sure that that was going to be okay, you see, and they realized, they finally understood that, well, that’s okay. That’s Christian, so that’s good enough. As long as he’s bringing 100 kids to the Young Life meeting, it’s all right. In other words, they discovered it wasn’t heresy or anything.
AFR: And you’re still talking about Jesus to the kids.
Fr. Anthony: Exactly. I’m still talking about [Jesus]. It was reaching a point after doing that for four or five years, while attending an Orthodox church, and then having converted to being an Orthodox Christian, that what I was doing before kids was a good thing—and I always appreciate what I got through Young Life—but that there was so much more to give kids: not just a faith in Jesus Christ, which is good, but in the Church there was a whole life in Jesus Christ to live. There was meeting Jesus Christ, and then there was meeting his whole family, including his mom, and his brothers and his sisters and his saints and his friends and his whole family, that you were invited to become grafted upon this whole tree, not just me and my faith. There was a life in the Church, and a discipline of the Church, and in the prayer and in the fasting. You could come to the worship and be filled instead of emptied, at least as a pastor.
AFR: You embraced Orthodoxy, became chrismated, a few years after your first attendance. When did the thought of actually becoming a priest in the Orthodox Church enter your mind?
Fr. Anthony: I had, just by the mystery of God, received a small inheritance, and I had to decide… I was married at that time. My wife converted with me. We waited until after we were married to convert, because we thought nobody will understand if we go through this Orthodox wedding service, so we thought, “Oh, we’ll put that off.” We got married; we both converted together as husband and wife.
A couple of years went by, we were attending an Orthodox church. I had two children at that point, and it began to occur to me that maybe I don’t know a whole lot about kids after all, now that I have them. Having received this inheritance, not a great sum, but something, and deciding with my wife what are we going to do with this, we couldn’t see ourselves, because now we were Orthodox Christians, our spiritual life was taking a different path than my, if you will, professional life as a Young Life staff person. The distance between those two experiences of God [was] just growing greater. Not that one was bad, but they were different, so the dissonance between what I was doing on Monday night, singing “Kumbaya” and “One Tin Soldier” for the umpteenth time, didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as the Cherubic Hymn and the Only-begotten Son.
So we thought that the best thing would be to take this money that had been given to us and invest it in education. At that point, I decided the only thing I really knew other than youth ministry was that I had a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, and I already had numerous credits at Fuller Seminary through my involvement with Young Life, and a master’s toward youth ministry, that I could easily get into Fuller because I was already enrolled, and apply to get into the graduate school of clinical psychology, get a Ph.D. So that’s what we did. We left Young Life, went to get a clinical psychology degree at Fuller Seminary, and did that for some time.
The thought occurred to me to go to seminary, but then, in my kind of youthful zeal and arrogance, I thought: Ph.D., clinical psychologist, parish priest wearing a black robe? Ph.D., clinical psychologist—that sounds important. Besides, I can make a living doing that. A priest… Who’s ever going to think a priest is anything? That’s what I thought. It’s probably still true today. But to have a Ph.D. and to be important, not to be a youth pastor any more, but to be a somebody and to have a degree and be a professional, that sounded good to me, so I kind of talked myself into not going to seminary, which I struggled with, but that this would be good.
I went and—for all the good that’s there and all the good people that are there at Fuller, especially in the school of psychology, and all the good they do in the world and my classmates wanted to do—I didn’t like what I was doing. I did well in school. I was top of my class at the time, but I didn’t like it. I felt dishonest. I felt like I wanted something more. I felt like I was selling out. Christ said, “Sell all you have and follow me,” and I said, “Well, I want to be a Ph.D. clinical psychologist making $150,000 a year, and then I’ll give you my good tithe, but let me do this.” And I felt this sense that I was being dishonest, that I really needed to go to seminary and not pursue, even though a good thing… I should pursue a greater thing.
I didn’t want to. I wanted God to tell me to go to seminary, and God wouldn’t tell me to go to seminary. Looking back on it, I see it as: God wanted me to choose seminary. He won’t violate our free will. He wants us to choose him. Having gone to get the Ph.D., in the middle of the semester one year, I just decided: I can’t do this any more. I don’t believe in what I’m doing. If I’m really going to heal the soul, or to be a participant in the healing of a soul—that’s what psychology is all about—that I really ought to get to know my own Orthodox faith; that real healing comes from the Church in the whole life of the Church, with a spiritual father, with the Eucharist, in a discipline of truly confessing and being taught how to confess by a spiritual father who loves. That’s where the healing was really going to come from, not from a 55-minute session once a week. It had to come from a community in Christ.
So I finished the fall semester, and I went and rented a U-Haul truck and filled all my stuff in it, with my wife’s permission. We loaded a truck and drove from Los Angeles to northeastern Pennsylvania in the middle of winter. I showed up at seminary and said, “I have to go to seminary.” They said, “You can’t go to seminary. It’s the middle of the year,” and I said, “But I don’t have anywhere to go. Here’s my story… You need to let me start classes.” They said, “Well, start in the fall.” I said, “I can’t wait until the fall. I’ll die if I have to wait till the fall. I need to do it now.” And they made a concession to me, because I was a begger, and they threw me a crumb and said, “Okay, you can start in the spring, but it’s going to be hard, because everybody else has already started and has finished 101, and you’re going to have to jump right in on 102.” I said, “Just anything. I’ll do it.”
So we went to seminary, and I didn’t know that I would become a priest. No seminarian is even particularly allowed to think that he’s going to become a priest. You just go, one step at a time. And, by God’s infinite mercy and filling that which is lacking, somewhere in that process I was ordained a deacon and then later a priest and miraculously, providentially, sent back to Colorado, to rebuild a parish that had been struggling for many, many years.
AFR: We’re talking with Fr. Anthony Karbo, priest of Ss. Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs. You’ve been with Ss. Constantine and Helen, then, for how long?
Fr. Anthony: Ten years.
AFR: So this is your second parish?
Fr. Anthony: No, this is my first parish. I came here right out of seminary.
AFR: So this is the struggling parish that you came to help rescue.
Fr. Anthony: This is it.
AFR: I’m looking now… We’re sitting in what was the sanctuary, the nave and the sanctuary and the temple, but across the parking lot there is now a beautiful new temple, which has just been built in the last year, right?
Fr. Anthony: It was built three years ago. It was completed three years ago, we’ve been in it three years, and we’ve just consecrated it October 6, the feast of St. Innocent.
AFR: This is a beautiful temple. If you are ever in Colorado Springs, do stop by and see Ss. Constantine and Helen. It’s just gorgeous. The iconography is done in large part, if not in all part, by the parishioners themselves. Is that right?
Fr. Anthony: That’s correct.
AFR: And a wonderful chandelier in the middle. Fr. Anthony, part of being a beggar, and looking for the right moments, went to Russia, and was able to pick up a beautiful chandelier and some other materials for the church.
Fr. Anthony: That’s correct. We got the chandelier, the altar table itself, which has a beautiful metal riza around the altar, the candlestands, and so forth from Russia. In Bulgaria we made a connection with a master woodcarver who carved the whole iconostas. Just to give you a hint, he was able to carve the iconostas—it’s all hand-done—and ship it over here cheaper than I could buy the raw wood for. It’s all out of walnut. Just have been given these opportunities of connections around the world that made, by the grace of God, this new Orthodox temple a reality, in very amazingly cost-effective ways.
AFR: Tell us about the people of Ss. Constantine and Helen. How many families, and what percentage of them are converts to Orthodoxy?
Fr. Anthony: I’m not sure… I don’t have a good way of telling you how many families. I can tell you there’s about 150 in attendance on a Sunday. There’s about 70 or so in attendance on Saturday evenings for the evening services and for the weekday services, so it’s a healthy participation of the parish. But on Sunday, which is the biggest day for any church, about 150 in attendance; about 50 of them will be under the age of twelve, so it’s quite a live, noisy, you might even say distracting parish. 50 of them under the age of twelve.
Out of that 150, about two thirds of them, about 100 of them are converts that have been received into the Church. The vast majority of them are people in Colorado Springs that I was graced to be able to receive them into Orthodoxy myself.
AFR: Many of our Ancient Faith Radio listeners are former Evangelicals, and they know Colorado Springs is the home for many Evangelical ministries, including Focus on the Family, HCJB, Compassion International, Navigators… The list just goes on and on and on. So here we are, right in the middle of the “holy city” for Evangelicalism, and here is this beautiful temple that just stands and shines right off of the interstate. It must be quite a spectacle to those Christians who are not familiar with Orthodoxy. Do you get a lot of visitors?
Fr. Anthony: We get an awful lot of visitors. I wrote an article once about Orthodoxy in Alaska, and I said, “Could you imagine busloads of people showing up at your door in Alaska, in Juneau, and asking you about your church? What an opportunity.” We don’t have that here in Colorado Springs, but we are quite an intriguing phenomenon. The church is built according to a 12th, 13th century Byzantine style. It’s got a large copper dome that shines in the sun, and it’s right off the freeway, as you mentioned. So lots of people are interested in: what is this thing that looks kind of like a mosque but has a cross on top of it? So we get a lot of visitors that inquire. They just simply want to know: what is this? Tell us something about your faith.
We get a lot of interest from the local colleges, [e.g.,] Colorado College. Today I gave a presentation to a religion class at Colorado College and today a presentation on Orthodoxy to the Pike’s Peak Community College, a comparative religions class. When they call me, because they see the church and they hear about it and we’ve got some kind of a reputation in town, every time I make them come to the church to see it, as opposed to Orthodoxy being an abstraction, I make them come here for the lecture, and they’re willing to do that. That way they can actually see, and I light the incense and they can smell, and they can get a feel for the iconography, and we can talk about Orthodoxy in its organic context. That happens a lot.
There’s a Nazarene Bible College here in town. I’m good friends with the History of Dogmatics professor, and he brings his classes, so every year about 150 Nazarene Bible College students hear about the Orthodox faith. There are a lot of seeds planted. None of the Nazarene Bible College students have converted yet, but I have great hopes that, somewhere along the road, that seed was planted, and they won’t be able to deny it. It takes root in their hearts, because it’s a very popular… The church is very beautiful, as you said. It just is a very beautiful church, and it’s intriguing for them. When it reveals the depths and riches, not of our art and architecture, but of our Orthodox faith, they’re really moved by that. So we get lots of visitors, lots of inquiries. Mostly they just come seeking, wanting to know what this thing is.
Colorado Springs, for all of its Evangelical fervor, it’s an interesting place to minister as an Orthodox priest, because what you find is that the Evangelicals are more and more becoming unchurched themselves. They have a faith in Christ, but they’ve been disappointed or disillusioned time and time again with the latest thing out there. Usually by the time they come to Orthodoxy, they’re tired and they want a place that fills them, not a place where they have to perform and run harder.
This place has become a refuge. At one point my adult catechism class named it “E.A.”: “Evangelicals Anonymous.” It was a place to recover, you see. It was a place, therapeutically, to spiritually recover for them. The church is simply built on that. The good thing is that these are God-fearing people. These were God-fearing, God-loving Evangelicals. That means that there’s a parish that’s full of people that want to serve, that are willing to give, that want to pray, that want to do missions. We do mission trips every year in the parish, every year that we’ve been here, either to Mexico, or twice we’ve gone to Alaska. We’ve done service projects, and we’re trying to get out there in the community, just doing what we always knew we wanted to do as Evangelical Christians, and now we do it in the fullness of the context of the Church. And we’re filled when we come to the Church. It strengthens us, and it nourishes us to go out, back into the world, and do good works, that they might see that and glorify our Father in heaven.
AFR: Fr. Anthony Karbo, priest at Ss. Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs. A delightful conversation, Father. I want to thank you for your time, and what a treat to be able to see your beautiful temple as well.