The Retirement of Fr. Peter Gillquist
Ancient Faith Radio · December 27, 2011
John Maddex visits the home of Fr. Peter and Kh. Marilyn Gillquist to talk about the recent announcement by His Eminence Metropolitan Philip of Fr. Peter's retirement as Chairman of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese. Joining them is their son, Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist.
John Maddex: We’re sitting today in Bloomington, Indiana, at the home of Fr. Peter and Khouria Marilyn Gillquist. Perhaps some of you have been aware of an announcement made not too long ago about his retirement as the chairman of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese. We felt that this was such a significant event and the passing of such a significant era that we wanted to come down here and chat with Fr. Peter and even some of his family about what this means and maybe even reminisce a little bit about the past.
Today we’re privileged to have Fr. Peter, Kh. Marilyn, and son Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist. Fr. Peter Jon is the priest at All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church right here in Bloomington, Indiana. We’re going to talk a little bit about what has taken place over these many years of service and ministry to the Church.
Fr. Peter, thanks for welcoming us into your home. What led to your decision to retire at this time?
Fr. Peter Gillquist: At my age, I’d hoped to make it to 75, and after having turned 73 last July, I realized, physically, I just couldn’t run at the pace that I had over the years. Things like getting on planes, hauling luggage through hotel lobbies: somebody younger needs to step in and do this stuff. I said to Sayidna Philip, “To be honest, you’ve not gotten your money’s worth in the last year, because I feel, physically, I’m slowing down to the extent that it’s interfering with my productivity.”
Mr. Maddex: Some people may not realize the work that is involved in chairing a department like this, because as missions and church groups and individuals learn about Orthodoxy, and they want to know what the next steps would be, that’s where you come in, right?
Fr. Peter: That’s right. I’ve often said the first word in the Great Commission is “Go.” You cannot do missions and evangelism sitting at a big oak desk. You’ve got to be out there, which involves extensive travel. It also involves being a quick first responder, that when I get a call, for example, from a pastor who says, “I believe I and my wife want to be Orthodox. We’ve got a number of the people in our current church that are very interested. Would you come see us?” It’s the old story: you strike while the iron is hot. To put these guys on a six-month waiting list just doesn’t work. They want to know that I mean business every bit as much as they mean business. So there have been many days I’ve gotten a call and started packing that afternoon, and get on the plane maybe the next day, and follow up on a situation that looks promising.
Mr. Maddex: For most of those years, you did that from Santa Barbara. Is that right?
Fr. Peter: Right.
Mr. Maddex: When did you move to Bloomington?
Fr. Peter: We moved about two and a half years ago, which would be the June of ‘09. It was an interesting thing: it was Great and Holy Monday, the year before, that I was in the services of our parish there at St. Athanasius, Santa Barbara, and sometime during that service, I felt the Lord speak to me. The context of it was that for years, we’ve wanted a full-time mission staff person in the Midwest. Fr. John Finley and I both lived in the Santa Barbara area, our third staff member, Fr. Michael Keiser, lived in Florida, and there was nobody in between. Basically, what I sensed that night was the Lord saying, “I want you to go and do the Midwest work.”
On the way home, I said to Marilyn, “Fasten your seatbelt.” She’s always been incredibly willing. In fact, she made the mistake of putting that verse from the Book of Ruth in my wedding ring, the reference for it: “[Whither] thou goest, I will go; [where] thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). She’s been tested on that a number of times…
Mr. Maddex: We’re going to ask her about that, actually.
Fr. Peter: ... in our 51 years of marriage. And then I called the one I confessed to, my spiritual father, Fr. Jon Braun, and said, “What do you think?” He said, “I like it.” Then I think I talked next to Fr. Richard Ballew, and he said, very interesting, “Congratulations.” Then I wrote Metropolitan Philip and got it, so that’s how it happened.
Mr. Maddex: We’re sitting next to Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, your son. I just have to ask him at this point, what has it been like having your father now in your parish and serving with you?
Fr. Peter Jon: Well, it’s been wonderful. We didn’t expect it. We just assumed that they were going to stay in Santa Barbara, and we knew when we got out of the seminary that wherever it was that we went, if it wasn’t California, we weren’t going to be living near family. We definitely felt called to Bloomington, and so we came. It’s hard, you know. My wife’s, Christina’s family, is on the East Coast, my family was on the West Coast, and we were right in between. So when we got the call that they were considering moving out here, to say that we were surprised would be an understatement, but it’s been wonderful having them here. They’re literally a mile away, so any time the kids want to come over, they can come over. It’s a great joy: we get to have dinner together and all those things that we just didn’t think that we were going to be able to do.
Mr. Maddex: Father, most people know the story of the large group of Evangelicals who came to Orthodoxy as the result of a rather long journey, of searching for the New Testament Church, so we’re not going to rehash that story. We would encourage anyone who’s interested in that story to pick up the book, Becoming Orthodox, published by Conciliar Press, and you’ll read one of the most fascinating journeys that you’ll ever want to read, particularly those of you who are exploring Orthodoxy and want to know what were the questions and what were the answers, as this group of Christians made that very significant journey, and really was the door that was opened to the rest of us who came later, asking those same questions and found our way to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
So we’re not going to talk a lot about that journey, but there are some things that our listeners would not know about you and about Marilyn: some of your family past and your history, and particularly your relationship with Marilyn, and I’m going to turn the microphone over to Kh. Marilyn at this point, and ask about her remembrances of first meeting you. How old were you and where were you at the time, Marilyn?
Kh. Marilyn: Well, it was in Minneapolis where I’d grown up, and I had a good friend in school, and at the end of our eighth grade year, she had a get-together at her house and invited a neighbor-friend named Pete Gillquist. So we had a little party at her house, and I remember when I first met him, I thought, “Oh, he’s so tall!” He was 6’4”, and very skinny. I just remember the fact that I loved the fact that he was so tall. We hit it off, became boyfriend and girlfriend before too long, so that was the beginning of a long relationship that started at the end of my eighth-grade year.
Fr. Peter: I was going to say you were just going into ninth grade. That sounds so much better!
Kh. Marilyn: I was going into ninth grade.
Mr. Maddex: Some would say robbing the cradle?
Fr. Peter: Yes.
Mr. Maddex: Fr. Peter, I remember you telling some of the stories of meeting her, and you had kind of a sly way of meeting women, as I recall, in high school. Something about “arranged parties”?
Fr. Peter: She referred to her friend Carolyn. Carolyn lived a half a block down the street from me, and we were “neighborhood friends.” She was two years younger, which in the junior-high/high-school years is quite a gap, especially the junior-high years. But I noticed she ran around with a really good-looking bunch of friends, so one day I said to her, “I’ve got an idea. You’re probably looking to meet somebody. I’m looking to meet somebody. What if we had a party this summer, every Friday night at your house. I’ll bring the records; you furnish the Coke and the chips and dip. I’ll line you up with a friend of mine; you line me up with a friend of yours, and we’ll just keep doing this till we meet somebody we like.”
I really double-crossed her. Every Friday night, I lined her up with the kid across the street that she’d known all her life, named Bruce. She, on the other hand, the first week, lined me up with her cousin from Duluth who was in town, a lovely girl, absolutely no chemistry, and I honestly don’t remember who girl number two was. But her dad had gotten one of the first television sets in our neighborhood. It was one of those big old brown-screen things with a lot of snow on the black-and-white screen. So Bruce and I went over a half-hour early just to watch TV, which was a huge treat back then. The doorbell rang, and in walked this gorgeous, green-eyed, blonde-haired sweetheart with a ponytail. And I looked up and I said to myself, “That’s the girl.” And it was.
Mr. Maddex: Was that the boy, Marilyn?
Kh. Marilyn: I didn’t know that at that point. I did have a ponytail.
Mr. Maddex: That’s all you’re going to vouch for at this point.
Well, I wish we could go into all of the details of your dating and your marriage, such a beautiful story. At some point, as a young Christian woman yourself, Marilyn, you started learning about the interest your husband and another rather large group of friends were having in finding the original New Testament Church. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you talk about your process of that search. Were you right along with him that entire time with the same interest, or a little ahead, a little behind? What do you remember about that?
Kh. Marilyn: I would say that my spirit was always eager to be learning more, and as we were on this journey, it became apparent that it was a journey. We were looking for the Church, and we went through many stages, part of it being a small group meeting in our living room; we called it a house-church. And then when the men would get together and study, they would come back and share with their wives and families what they’d been learning in this study, trying to pursue the New Testament Church.
I would say that I was following along. It wasn’t like it happened overnight. This took a long period of time. It was many years. But as the men would learn things and be excited about them, they’d come back and share them with their families and with the group that was meeting in their home, so it was like it was a journey that we all took together, and it had an incredible ending. As we know, it’s not really ended; it’s still continuing, but anyway it was a very positive experience.
Mr. Maddex: Did you ever have that feeling: what in the world are we doing? Will we ever get there?
Kh. Marilyn: Definitely. That was a very strong feeling, wondering, “What are we doing and where are we going?” I’ll never forget the first morning that we were going to church—this is when we were living in Grand Junction, Tennessee—and he came into the room with a clerical collar on. I said, “Are you going to be wearing that from now on?” It was kind of shocking. He said, “Well, I think so, but it’s okay.” That was one of the surprises along the way, because he had gone from ... at one point in Grand Junction, he was referred to as “the red-haired hippie preacher,” and he wore overalls. So to move from being “the red-haired hippie preacher” to the man in a clerical collar… it was quite a switch.
Mr. Maddex: I can just imagine. Marilyn, not only did you make that journey, but you had six children that you were trying to help understand the process of looking for the New Testament Church at various ages, and I’m sure sometimes they would wonder, “What are we calling church this week?” and “What is our worship experience going to be like?” So I thought that maybe Fr. Peter Jon, sitting next to me, could help us remember, help all of us learn, about the journey from the standpoint of the children growing up. What do you remember about those years, Father?
Fr. Peter Jon: I remember a lot about those years. I loved growing up in the midst of “the movement,” “the journey.” I remember when we moved to California, the first church that we met in out there was an old bank, and shortly after we went in there, the woman who eventually became our iconographer, Jan Isham, had painted this giant mural of a lion and a lamb the size of the side of the bank; I mean, it was huge. So immediately we had this introduction to iconography, which was pretty amazing. The children loved it. As we went on in the journey, the icons moved from outside the building to inside the building.
But that was how the entire journey went: we started with one thing, and then we watched the movement. We watched the vestments go from being the simple white robes with the hoods over the back to becoming more and more Eastern. Even though I remember when we were told that we were going to start taking communion together instead of breaking out into house-churches. We were going to take communion together in the bank, in the church building. Just watching: they were asking for volunteers to go up and show: this is how we’re going to cross our arms and come forward. You could just look around the room and see people scratching their heads. Just this whole transformation of this group with trumpets and guitars—we used to sing these Protestant songs that just sounded great when you had trumpets and guitars, but then moving into an a cappella form of worship and a more traditional form of worship and then a more Eastern form of worship. It was an amazing journey. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to have grown up in the middle of it, because it gives me an advantage when I explain to some people along the journey…
Fr. Peter: Did you ever feel unsettled or uncomfortable or ambivalent, or were you able to lock in?
Fr. Peter Jon: No, I felt confident that, as we went along, that everything that you found made sense, everything that, as you and the other bishops at the time were discovering, it made sense. You could point to Ignatius of Antioch—and I remember as a child, hearing, “This is what Ignatius of Antioch wrote,” and I thought, “Boy, he was not long after Jesus!” And then the rest of the Church embraced that, and it’s been passed down for 2,000 years: well that just makes sense to me.
As a kid we heard those things, and I always felt very stable, and I felt very excited every time something new happened in the church. I felt very excited because it was like we were archaeologists, because we were uncovering this amazing Truth, and every time you see something new, you say, “Did you know that was there?” So, yeah, it was a joy of childhood.
Mr. Maddex: You were and are a musician yourself. Were you old enough to play in some of the worship services as a musician, or was that before you were able to do that?
Fr. Peter Jon: I was asked to, but I’m kind of an original musician. I don’t do… I mean, I suppose I could, but I never really got excited about sitting down with a group of musicians and leading worship in the church. We did have youth group meetings on Wednesday nights, and I’d bring my guitar to that and play a few songs there, but never in the church setting, no. I played for the Easter feast a few times, and people were kind enough to listen.
Mr. Maddex: As a musician, did you ever feel a sense of loss as you moved into a more liturgical, prescribed form of worship, and now any opportunity for creativity is now out the door?
Fr. Peter Jon: Not at all. No, I was never… I appreciated coming together and worshiping God whether we had guitars or trumpets or whatever we had, but I was never particularly a fan of that style of music. I didn’t dislike it, but I would never go home from the liturgy and turn on praise music like that; it just wasn’t my preference. For me, I grew up on John Michael Talbot’s “Lord’s Supper” album, which was phenomenal. What was that? That was acoustic guitar and a choir, and mostly choir. So that was a lot more my style. No, I appreciate the Byzantine music, the Russian-style music. I love the Znamenny chant in the Church, and there’s just so many different forms in Orthodoxy itself, that you don’t get tired of them.
Mr. Maddex: Do you remember, Fr. Peter Jon, when you really first felt a calling to the priesthood or to life in the clergy?
Fr. Peter Jon: The only thing I can do to kind of pin-point is this: I had a friend, Verne Gish, who was one of the ones who taught me to play the guitar when I was little. He was 10 or 15 years older. I remember walking down Pasado Road in Santa Barbara, not far from our house, and one day he was asking me. He said, “What do you want to do for a living?” And I said, “Well, I either want to be an engineer or a carpenter.” He said, “Oh. Well, why?” I said, “If I’m an engineer, I can invent things, and of course carpenters can build things.” He said, “Oh. Wouldn’t you ever think of being a priest like your dad?” And I just remember, like I said at the age of nine, I think my response was something like: “Of course. Why couldn’t I do both?”
Apparently, very early on, it was just assumed that was where I was headed, and I never remember saying, “Yes, this is what I want to do.” It just felt like it was what I was called to. There was no great movement, no lightning, no clouds, no nothing, just simply: yes.
Mr. Maddex: What was Fr. Peter like as a father, growing up in his home?
Fr. Peter Jon: That’s a good question. Good question. Let’s see. Fr. Peter is and was a good role model, and I appreciated, I think probably more than anything, the hunger for truth—and that’s contagious. I appreciate the sense of order, right and wrong. “There’s black and white. This is the way it is, and this is the way it isn’t, and you’re going to do the way it is or else.” And again, that is an incredible gift, because, growing up in a relativistic society, you need somebody to say, “This is what we’re doing and this is what we’re not doing.”
It was good. He, unfortunately, had to travel, but I knew why he was traveling, and I knew that the reason he was traveling was important. It was at least as important as being home as a dad. And the great thing is, when he was home, he didn’t have to go to the office 40 hours a week or 60 hours a week; his office was in the house. So when he was in the house or when he wasn’t traveling, he was at home. I came home from school, and I knew he’d be there. It was wonderful.
Mr. Maddex: And, Fr. Peter, how, as you look back on all the travel that you did, but you also raised a wonderful family; they are all faithful to the Church and to the Lord, how did you pull that off? What are the keys to that?
Fr. Peter: Enter God’s mercy. So much of my life, and I think Marilyn would say the same thing, we’d launch out into something and, like Abraham of old, not know where we were going; knowing we were called, not knowing how we’d get there. The first time I ever laid eyes on my first daughter, Wendy, I just thought, “Man, I’m in this for the long haul, and I don’t know how to be a dad yet.” A lot of it was: if I were the kid, what would I want my dad to do? It was like a Golden Rule thing. So with, for example, the travel, which I’d done previous to being a priest in a church, I was the senior book editor at Thomas Nelson Publishers, and that was travel, because you can’t find authors sitting behind a desk; you’ve got to go out there.
So [there were] a couple things that really helped. Number one: as often as possible, I would take one of the kids with me, so each of the kids has memories of a one-on-one time with dad on the road, and those were some of the… The kids will say now, “Dad, those were the great times of my life, just being out there, seeing new cities, new places, meeting new people, and being with you, basically 24 hours a day for the length of the trip.”
And then the other thing that was helpful, that goes all the way back to Dallas Seminary and a man named Howard Hendricks. He said, “When you guys get out there in the ministry, you’re going to be inundated.” He said, “What I do is I make appointments with my children so that when Charlie Brown says, ‘Professor, can we meet at three o’clock Wednesday?’ I say, ‘No, I’ve got an appointment at three Wednesday, but I can do at three o’clock Thursday.’ ” And he said, “I never told them whom it was with. It wasn’t their business, but I had an appointment with a kid.” So mentally, I would schedule appointments, and maybe it was fishing after school, or maybe it was Friday night’s football game, or whatever. I segmented it so that nothing except an incredible, screaming emergency would interrupt that, and I think the kids learned through that that they were not tag-alongs, but next to Christ and the kingdom, they were the most important thing in our lives.
Mr. Maddex: Marilyn, you were then home for a lot that. Because of the kids, you weren’t able to travel with him a whole lot. What did you do while Dad was gone, to help maintain that same commitment and same freshness as a family at home?
Kh. Marilyn: We were very close. I loved spending time with the children. I always enjoyed reading to them. We did a lot of reading in our family, even as they grew older and could read for themselves. I remember Fr. Peter Jon and I spent a lot of time with the tales of Narnia. We had a real “together time.” It was like we’d switch gears: when Dad was home we were in one mode, and when he was gone it was another mode. We adjusted, but it was good. We were very close.
Mr. Maddex: Let’s look back over the years as the chairman of the Missions and Evangelism Department, Fr. Peter, and maybe pick out one or two of your fondest memories of those years. I know it would be hard.
Fr. Peter: Well, an early one was with a dear friend, Fr. Bill Olnhausen, who was an Episcopal priest outside of Milwaukee. He was even considered at one point for the bishop of that diocese. He had traveled to Greece, had had some experiences in the churches there and even with some of the iconography that were very seminal for him. He was also a total, sold-out traditionalist, and was not a friend of many of the innovations that began to creep into that denomination.
There was a weeping icon at a church called St. Philip’s in Chicago, back—oh, what year would that have been?—probably in the early ‘80s, and that’s where I first met him. He had come down to see this phenomenon. So we stayed in touch, and then he asked if I’d be willing to come to Milwaukee and make a presentation of the Orthodox faith to his people. I said, “Absolutely.” So he ran it by the bishop, and the bishop approved it with the condition that he, the bishop, also be given a chance to explain his position to the people, not at the same night. That was agreed to.
The night I got in, it was in early March, the state high school basketball tournament was on, and it was the final game. The snow was so heavy, they canceled the game. If you cancel a high school basketball state tournament game in Wisconsin, you know that it’s snowing, and only the people with four-wheel drive made it to the meeting, so there were probably just eight or ten people. I went through kind of the overview of the history of the Church and why it was that we, 2,000 Campus-Crusade–type Evangelicals, had become Orthodox. It was very well-received, but it didn’t blanket the congregation like we’d hoped it would.
So I would visit from time to time. Some of the neighboring clergy would make presentations to his people. Finally he came to the place where he said, “I know I want to be Orthodox. I know a number of our people will come with me, but I need to know when is it God’s timing, because as their pastor and shepherd, I’m responsible for all the people, not just the ones that are going to end up being Orthodox with me.” I said, “Well, maybe you ought to ask the Lord to show you a sign. I certainly can’t tell you when that time is.”
I was down in Oklahoma City with our dear friend, Fr. Constantine Nasr, and it was coming up on 11 at night and time to go to bed, and the phone rang, and it was Fr. Bill Olnhausen. I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “I got my sign!” He said, “The bishop is taking me to church court!” I said, “What’s the charge?” He said, “Being Orthodox!” So we had a good laugh over it, and I’m sure it wasn’t super-funny to him at the time, because any time that you’re in your 50s and there’s this mega-change coming about in your life, it isn’t easy.
But that summer, Bishop Antoun flew to Milwaukee, I met him there, and we chrismated only about 15 people. Two families were gone because of a long-standing family reunion that was being held, and they felt they simply couldn’t turn their back on their own family, but they were chrismated a couple weeks later, because they’d been catechized along with the rest. That was just, not only an encouragement at that time, but over the years, to watch this community grow. Fr. Bill is an incredibly gifted priest, a gifted teacher and preacher. He’s low-profile, low-pressure, and folks just feel comfortable following his leadership. So that would certainly be one instance that was a real highlight for me.
Mr. Maddex: Got any more?
Fr. Peter: Yeah. It’s hard to pick them out. Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green, also an Episcopal priest, also a traditionalist, though it wasn’t always so. He was kind of a flower child. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s, if I remember right, he and his wife had a kind of an outdoor garden wedding and honeymooned in Europe, and while they were there, she had an experience in front of a statue, I believe of Christ, where she was just converted, personally, to faith in him. They came back, and I think at that point went to seminary. He had been a real voice for tradition and moderation in the Episcopal Church and was totally marginalized.
So we went from this really high-profile, successful, young Episcopal priest to basically being a man without a country, spiritually. The first time I went to see them, there were two or three other young men, a Lutheran and a couple others that were more Evangelical, and we met together at their house. Ultimately, some of these other men became Orthodox as well.
Then after he was trained and catechized along with his people, the first visit I had there, they were renting a schoolroom, an old schoolroom in an old Roman Catholic school, and that was their little sanctuary. I remember walking in, and there was this cracked linoleum floor and a very humble altar, but nicely appointed, with candlesticks and Gospel book, but it was spartan. I believe I served with him that day, though; he was the lead celebrant. Of course, he had all his new vestments, and he served as though he was in a cathedral.
It’s a real gift to be aware of what’s there, and yet have the vision to look beyond that to what it could be. He served, not in a little schoolroom, but in a cathedral that just looked like a little schoolroom. I can remember being so impressed with his faith and his demeanor, and, of course, his dear wife Frederica has been a primo author and commentator for the Orthodox faith throughout North America and even overseas. So those are two memories that are just very precious to me.
Mr. Maddex: So many of us are deeply indebted to the path that you took which allowed us to open those doors, too, and start to explore the fullness of the Church, but I know down through those years as part of your journey and as part of your work in the Department, you also struggled physically for sometime and still have issues to deal with related to cancer. Tell us about that, and how you’re doing today.
Fr. Peter: Actually, it’s been a whole plethora of things. Fr. Peter Jon and I have the privilege of sharing bad backs, and, of course, his gene pool was from me. I’ve had two major back surgeries, and I’m very limited physically in what I can do. At this stage in life I cannot serve the Divine Liturgy any more, for example, which is a heartache. I sit during most of it. And then there have been other maladies, but the shocker was the cancer. That came probably 15 years ago. I had a growth on my upper arm that looked very dubious, so I went to our family doctor, and he immediately excised it, sent it to the lab, and it was misdiagnosed as being benign.
It was a year later: my arm had swelled up, and it was Christmastime. Our son-in-law is a physician, and I showed it to him. He said, “Man, I would get on the phone in the morning and get this thing looked at.” The long and short of it was that because of that misdiagnosis, it metastasized into my lymph nodes, and they gave me a 50/50 chance to live. Fortunately, the surgeon that I was referred to said to me, “This is an extremely aggressive disease, so be prepared, because we’re going to do extremely aggressive treatment.” The needle biopsy showed again that those lymph nodes were benign, and he simply said, “I ain’t buyin’ it. So I’m going to go in and remove some and see.” Some were cancerous, so he went back in, removed the entire 22 lymph nodes, with the prayer that it hadn’t spread any further, and it’s rare for it not to spread further.
I would go in every three months to the dermatologist, get a thorough exam. Several years later they found a growth on my back they didn’t like. That turned out to be melanoma, but they got it early enough so that it did not go into any of the lymph nodes. Then just a couple of years ago, they found a growth on my left leg which turned out to be melanoma. The unfortunate thing from that round of surgery is that those wounds got infected, and it was six months on the bench as far as my work was concerned, to get rid of the infection.
What I’ve learned through it, when I was first diagnosed… I’ve always been a believer in trying to figure out “what I want out of this,” and then, even more importantly: what’s God’s will in this? But I wanted to know how to pray. As I thought about it, I said, “As far as I can discern, I want two things: number one, I want to grow old with this lady here.” Remember one night in college, after we were Christians and after we knew we would be married, just unannounced we went by my paternal grandparents’ old Victorian home on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, and it was probably 8:00 at night, summertime so it was still very light, and we had to park three or four houses down the street—they didn’t see us coming. As we approached their home, they were sitting together on their front porch swing, holding hands. That was a snapshot that’s never left the lens of my mind. I thought, “That’s what I want at 72.” So I said to the Lord: “Number one, I want to grow old with Marilyn.
“Number two, I want to build more churches.” I’ve learned how to do it. I’ve learned how to relate to non-Orthodox pastors that want to come and bring their people, learned to balance in how much to encourage them and how much to back off and let the Holy Spirit work with them. So I figured, I’d like to have a few more years to do this. So that was my prayer.
But also, I was very keenly aware that, as a member of the Body of Jesus Christ, it’s not just me praying for myself. After the word got out that I had melanoma, we began to get… People would mail us, Orthodox people, icons of St. Nektarios. One priest had gone over to Greece with his wife on vacation, and had bought a small bottle of holy water that was from the fountain in the monastery that he founded. He is a fairly recent saint, 1900s, a monk, and is known as the one you ask to intercede for you if you have cancer, and there have been some remarkable healings through his ministry. I began to strike up a friendship with him, and ask for his prayers. Then I’d ask for prayers of other saints, both living and departed.
I found myself not praying a lot for myself, but rather asking for the prayers of others. I think, as I look back, that my motivation there was: I did not want to be preoccupied with this. I did not want the campaign to get rid of cancer to be the most important thing in my life. I wanted it to continue to be my love for Christ. So other people prayed.
I also felt: if all I am is focused in on me, then it won’t be long before I elect myself president of the Poor-Me Club and begin to feel sorry for myself, and I despise that. It was casting all your care upon him because he cares for you and casting yourself on the prayers and the intercessions of your friends, both in high places and here, to take up the slack and remember you.
Mr. Maddex: So today it’s a matter of going back in for checks every three months, and deal with any issues as they come up as they exist.
Fr. Peter: Every three months, exactly. And what they’ve said is that if they catch it early, I’ll be fine.
Mr. Maddex: This here really was not part of your decision to retire, the melanoma.
Fr. Peter: That, in and of itself, had nothing to do with it. It was simply that, with my back as it is, having gotten arthritis in the spine, I’m stiff. I backed my car out of the driveway. I say to Marilyn, “Look both ways,” because I can’t turn around and look. The whole thing of driving an hour up to the airport, parking the car, getting the suitcases out of the trunk, walking in the terminal, standing in the forever lines to get tickets and then to be examined through the security—well, by the time I reached the gate, I was shot. I just thought, “It’s time for somebody younger to come in and do this.”
Mr. Maddex: As you step aside, step down from your role as chairman of the Department of Missions and Evangelism, give us a challenge. What’s on your heart? What do you have to say to the next generation of people who are interested in seeing the Church grow? Just share a little bit of your heart.
Fr. Peter: Ever since seminary, I’ve had the view of leadership that leadership is working yourself out of a job. If you want a Bible verse, it’s II Timothy 2:2. St. Paul says to Timothy, “The things that you’ve learned from me and other witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who in turn will teach others also.” One of the Evangelical leaders of the past generation called that “reproducing reproducers.” Evangelism isn’t done when you’ve brought somebody to faith in Christ; rather, it’s more done when (a) that person is part of the Church and (b) when that person himself or herself is bringing others to Christ who bring others to Christ.
As I look back over the nearly 25 years that we’ve been Orthodox, the things that throw me most are parishes that were spiritually sleepy who now, there’s maybe a Bible study going for the men, Bible study going for the women, there’s prison ministry coming out of there or Skid Row ministry or soup kitchens or sponsoring the Orthodox Christian Fellowship on the nearby campus. In other words, it’s taking the Gospel outside the walls of the church, and that’s what an evangelist does.
I’ve made an effort to find other clergy and laypeople that had this burden or were willing to learn it. I can name names and name places, and that’s a marvelous thing to look back over, where this whole thing has happened.
I remember the first evangelism conference we ever had. Fr. Jon Braun said, “You better have somebody do a session on ‘Is Evangelism Even Orthodox?’ ” Because we would get that a lot from Orthodox laypeople: “That’s what Protestants do. We’re not called to do that!” And the fact is they were wrong. What I did was I found an ethnic priest who was a very gifted evangelist and asked him to come and make that presentation at the evangelism conference; he did a great job. So if a Greek or a Russian Orthodox person can argue with me, “Well, he’s just a Protestant convert; of course that’s what he’s going to say,” but when one of their own gets up and says it, it’s a whole new ballgame.
At the end of the 25 years, I look back; I see churches that have really come alive, pastors that have come alive, laypeople that have taken ownership in the work of the Church and the work of the Great Commission, and it’s satisfying. For the future, I’d just look to the day when Sayidna Philip appoints someone that is able to move in and take this job over. He won’t be like me, because there’s only one of any of us, but it’ll be somebody that loves God and loves the Church and is willing to stand up on his hind legs and make some noise out there in the world to call people to Christ. I’m actually optimistic: I know my days of doing this are gone. I’ll do it locally, but the days of getting on a plane and flying for four hours or flying overseas, it’s just gone. I hope we’ve got some young buck out there who’s ready to roll up his sleeves and keep going.
Mr. Maddex: As you’ve stepped down, how do you want your legacy to be remembered? What do you want people to remember?
Fr. Peter: To be honest, it’s a sinner saved by grace. One of the stern warnings of Scripture is “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” The scariest verse in the Bible was written by St. Paul: “But I fear, lest after having preached the Gospel to others, I myself might be disqualified.” That’s the same guy who wrote that “neither life nor death nor principalities nor powers nor anything can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”
It was an assessment passage, that we’re never overcomers retired. We are overcomers until the day we meet God. As you get old, that means something different, probably means more time in prayer, less time out causing trouble for the devil somewhere in the campus or the city, but we’re never quitters. We don’t finish the race until we finish the race.
I’m going to look to Fr. Peter Jon, if there’s something in the parish I can do. He’s asked me on a couple occasions to have lunch with someone that’s older, that’s more my age than his, that he feels I can relate to. I’d like to keep doing that. Right now we’re team-teaching catechism. I really enjoy that. I’m still active in the state with my college fraternity, SAE, where I’ve been chaplain for 15 years. Unless it’s a screaming emergency, I’m not going to fly on the plane to Seattle to help out with the suicide situation that’s occurred; somebody else is going to have to do that.
Here in Indiana, I’ve had a marvelous time with some of the guys in our local chapter here. There’s a bunch of Christian guys in our chapter down at the University of Evansville. I’ve not been down there yet, and I want to be; I’ve met some of them. What I envision is: locally, maybe getting in the car and driving down there. It’s two-and-a-half easy hours. And driving up to Indianapolis—which I did last spring—and speaking to our chapter there.
These are things that I’ve loved, that I want to continue, but it’ll just be at a pace that my body can handle.
Mr. Maddex: What about writing? Do you see any books on the horizon?
Fr. Peter: Well, I’ve got a friend that’s twisted my arm. Seriously, for years Fr. Thomas Zell and Carla, who ran Conciliar Press before you, had wanted me to do another book. We did the Becoming Orthodox book over 20 years ago. Frankly, the Orthodox Study Bible fried me. We lost two of our three full-time people to health issues in the closing months or year of that project, so I had to step in and take the place of Fr. Jack Sparks who had the final pass-through editing, which I know how to do and I’m good at, but that was his job to do, and my job was missions and evangelism. So for a year I did two jobs, and it about killed me. I’d say to Fr. Thomas, “I’m fried. Just give me some time. I’m not ready yet.”
And then, just in the last year or so, [I had] the idea of writing, probably a last book, and I’d like to call it The Memories of His Mercy, and start from my youngest memories about how the Lord has been merciful to me and now to us, through those years of searching for the Church, through those years of learning how to be Orthodox and doing the missions and evangelism work, and now through the years of retirement, to continue experiencing his mercy and to share with other people the faithfulness of God in a way that I hope will motivate them to trust in him more than they do now.
Mr. Maddex: I know work has already begun on that book, and we’re looking forward, sometime soon, to introducing that to our listeners.
Fr. Peter: Thank you.
Mr. Maddex: Well, Fr. Peter Gillquist, retiring from the Department Chair of the Antiochian Archdiocese’s Department of Missions and Evangelism, thank you for inviting us into your home. Thank you, Kh. Marilyn, Fr. Peter Jon, for sharing your memories with us as well, and we just wish you Godspeed and health, and many, many more years. We’re glad you’re doing it at this relatively young age so you can enjoy many more years with family and with a little more relaxation.
Fr. Peter: Thank you for being here, both you and Tonya. It’s always a joy to have you here, and I hope we do many more of these.