From Pentecostal to Orthodox
December 24, 2009 Length: 34:31
Frederica interviews Dn. Barnabas Powell, the former pastor of a Pentecostal church, about his conversion to Orthodoxy.
Frederica: I’m here in the living room of my son Stephen Mathewes’ apartment on the campus of Holy Cross Seminary, Hellenic College, and he’s a first-year seminarian, starting just a few months ago. And we have daughter Ruthie who is almost two and son Lucas who is three months now, who might be making some sound effects in the background. My husband is here as well, and little Alexandra Powell, visiting from upstairs. And they’re watching Lady and the Tramp. We’re hoping to create a little more quiet in the room thanks to that.
I’m talking to Deacon Barnabas Powell, formerly Chuck Powell, and you just became a deacon—was it two weeks ago?
Dn. Powell: Yeah, exactly. Actually, November the 8—Sunday, November 8—I was ordained in my hometown, in Atlanta, Georgia, in Annunciation Cathedral. Pretty cool.
Frederica: Ah, that’s right. And you’ve been Orthodox since 2001?
Dn. Powell: November 2001. That’s when we were chrismated: myself, and my best friend and his family, and twenty families from the church I was pastoring. We all converted together.
Frederica: Really? Was that in Atlanta?
Dn. Powell: It was in Atlanta, northern parts of Atlanta. Woodstock, Georgia was where we were, and we converted in a little OCA parish there in the metropolitan area
Frederica: Oh really? Yeah? My son is up in Cumming, Georgia, not too far north of Atlanta, and going to a little OCA parish—St. Mary.
Dn. Powell Oh sure, yeah, exactly.
Frederica: You know that neighborhood.
Dn. Powell: I do.
Frederica: I remember—of course you pastored—but I remember you also were a radio guy. Didn’t you help somebody who had a big Evangelical radio ministry?
Dn. Powell While I was pastoring I also did some work for “In Touch Ministries”—Dr. Charles Stanley. And also I did some consulting work with some other ministries as well around the country in the Evangelical Protestant world. Evangelical Protestant media was and still is very, very big business, if you will. And consequently it was kind of interesting to be a part of that. I remember Dr. Stanley, when I was being chrismated, he found out about it and Dr. Stanley asked me about it. He said, “Now, are you becoming a Roman Catholic?”
“No, no doc, it’s Eastern Orthodox.”
“Ok, fine. As long as it’s not Roman Catholic!”
Frederica: That’s alright then! As long as it’s not Roman Catholic! ‘Cause you might pray to the saints or something. I mean, there’s no telling. You might use incense.
Dn. Powell Or light candles, for heaven’s sake.
Frederica: You had a church that was kind of one off, I guess. It was similar to the seeker-friendly churches, and the Willow Creek—
Dn. Powell: Yeah, exactly. Willow Creek Community churches, and the metachurch-growth model. We were growing, we were growing fairly well, actually. And I was pretty excited about that. And then me and my best friend, Rod Loudermilk, made the serious error of starting to get interested in church history, which we’d already been interested in. Since 1992, he and I had known each other, been dear friends. We were very interested in it. But by the time we got ready to convert, we had been, since 1992, on this journey—talking, and studying, and thinking, and meeting people that had become Orthodox—which I thought I was losing my mind because I was getting interested in liturgy and I was kind of interested in all kinds of pageantry-type things. Why—why was that interesting to me? I didn’t get it. It was about that same time that a lot of the worship music was coming in, and the pageantry with the banners. And I don’t know if you remember in that Evangelical, charismatic world where we started using banners.
Frederica: Yeah, and thinking of the guy in Chicago…Bob something?
Dn. Powell: And also in Alabama they formed a…Hosanna…Integrity’s Hosanna Music. Integrity’s Hosanna Music. They had all this worship music coming out, and I remember we went to a “March for Jesus.”
Frederica: Oh yes.
Dn. Powell: And I was still a Pentecostal pastor, but I had gotten hold of an icon of All Saints. Don’t ask me how—and it’s a fairly large icon—a big piece of wood. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to process with this icon?”
Frederica: Like a banner.
Dn. Powell: Yeah like a banner.
Frederica: Why not?
Dn. Powell: And I had a guy marching next to me in this “March for Jesus” in Woodstock, Georgia. I don’t remember what year it was—1998, ‘97? Something like that, I don’t remember. And he said, “These folks in this picture stern and so somber.
And I said, “I looked at that and I thought about that same thing.”
And he said, “Why aren’t they smiling and rejoicing and jumping up and down and being excited? ‘Wow, we’re in the presence of God! Isn’t this great?’”
I said, “I know, I really thought about that and maybe it’s because they’re grown-ups.”
Frederica: Woah, well said!
Dn. Powell: I think it’s because they really get where they are. And I don’t want to throw-off on that at all. As anybody around me five minutes knows, I’m very exuberant. I go to a ball game and I’m yelling at the top of my lungs and screaming at the TV when my football team is messing up and all this kind of stuff. But there comes a time—and one of the things I fell in love with about Orthodoxy was the opportunity to sober up. Yeah, really, it was just absolutely wonderful to just kind of be there and rest and finally find a home where I could grow up and be a full, mature Christian. And be sober. And be sober about the faith. Not—and a lot of people confuse it. They think if you get to this point where you become sober—in fact, in my own Pentecostal background, we were very suspicious of seminaries, of high education. Because—in fact, I’ve heard many preachers call them semitaries. ‘Cause that’s where faith goes to die.
Frederica: Yeah, yeah. It all becomes “book-learning.”
Dn. Powell: It all becomes “book-learning” or you learn that well, maybe all these plain things that you thought were so in the Scripture, well, maybe there are some other ideas and other ways to look at things that might leave you with some more questions. And questions, of course, are dangerous. What if you question—what if you say the wrong thing? What if you make God mad? ‘Cause you know how delicate He is. But seriously, you have this mindset that—you have this motivation to do good works. You have this motivation to obey the Lord.
Frederica: Well there’s a great love of the Lord.
Dn. Powell: A deep love. But there’s also mixed in with that a fear of disobeying Him. And there’s an ugly side, too. And that is obedience to God so that I can get God to give me things.
Frederica: Oh of course.
Dn. Powell: Now you never talk about it that way, but the whole “name it and claim it” stuff, and all of that stuff that moves through is just to—it’s a natural progression from the philosophical and theological undercurrents of saying, you know, if I make God happy, He’ll pat me on the head and say, “Good boy.”
Frederica: Unfortunately, that’s really true. And there was a survey done by the Pew Foundation a couple of years ago of Pentecostalism around the world. And one of the question they asked, “Yes or no, do you agree with this,” was “God will bless with health and wealth the person whose prayer is right.” And they found in Nigeria 97% of the people agreed with that. It’s scary, because it is the “name it and claim it” theology.
Dn. Powell: Well, it’s a soul-sickness, because what that does—that reduces Jesus to Santa Claus. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake. You know what I’m saying?
Dn. Powell: So there certainly has to be, as you mature through the faith—you know the Apostle Paul was good about “To the children I write this,” “To the young men I write this,” “To the mature men I write this.” And so there’s obviously there’s a time of maturing. And there’s nothing wrong with being in the Kindergarten of spirituality. There’s nothing wrong with that—unless you’re thirty-five.
Frederica: Right, unless you stay there.
Dn. Powell: Yeah, exactly. And so for me, at least, my journey became “How do I not reject the day of small things?” How do I not reject those precious child-like things? How do I reject childishness and retain child-likeness?
Frederica: Did this question come to you while you were still a Pentecostal pastor?
Dn. Powell: Oh yeah.
Dn. Powell: Because I had come to the end of my rope, actually. I was terrified I was going to have to stop being a Christian, frankly.
Dn. Powell: Oh yeah, yeah. I was—because, I had read enough, me and my best friend had been talking and so on and so forth. And I thought—because I had not met any Orthodox. And we’d read about the Orthodox and we thought they’re wonderful people and this is exactly how it ought to be, but is anybody—
Frederica: Do they exist?
Dn. Powell: Did they make it? I remember asking that question. Did they survive past the fourth century or the fifth century, or whatever they were? And so I was really despairing. I thought maybe I’ll look at Anglicanism. ‘Cause I couldn’t look at Rome. There was just too much prejudice in my own heart about that. Lord have mercy. God forgive me.
And so I considered Anglicanism for a while. And then I saw—well which branch? Which family? Which flavor? And I thought, you know, I’m not going to step from the frying pan into the fire. I’ve already got this where I am now. Which branch, which flavor? Which, you know, which group? And depending on what’s going to happen next week, you know, maybe they’ll shift again. I was tired of the ground shifting under my feet. So I was looking for something timeless—not old. If it was old, that’s fine but just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s old heresies. But I wanted something timeless. Something that over—that transcended the power of life and death. I remember telling my dad when I finally became Orthodox—he was broken-hearted.
Dn. Powell: Yeah. Dad’s still a Pentecostal preacher, actually. He said, “I had such hopes for you, son. You were going to have a megachurch.”
And then I said, “Dad, that’s what I was afraid of, too! That’s why I’m so thankful God got me out of there before that happened.”
But I told Dad, “Dad, I finally found a theology that is worthy of the dignity of the human soul.”
Frederica Oh, beautiful.
Dn. Powell: It’s big enough. In fact, it will always be bigger than me always. I found the borders where I was. When I was a Pentecostal, I found all the borders. I found exactly where everything came to an end. And I’m thinking, if this is it, I’m not going to make it.
Frederica: Do you think the superficiality that you found has something to do with the theology of salvation—with the idea that actually salvation is external. It’s something—it’s a mark God makes in His book in heaven. When you say the dignity—
Dn. Powell: Or a contract, even.
Frederica: A contract, yeah. The dignity of the human soul—a beautiful phrase, but that acknowledges that Orthodoxy addresses the entirety of the person. Even the things we don’t know about ourselves. Our most profound…the twisted psychology deep inside. And that’s kind of glossed-over in a soteriology where it’s merely imputed.
Dn. Powell: Exactly. And that certainly true, but even there, the Holy Spirit did not leave us without hints. Because even in my Pentecostal world—the whole Pentecostal, in my opinion…(someday, God willing I’ll write the dissertation)—the reason that Pentecostalism is sweeping the globe, the fastest-growing expression of Christianity right now.
Frederica: It is?
Dn. Powell: —and the reason why is because of the failure of western theology to take into account the concept of mystery and the concept of “I don’t know.” To be able to say “I don’t know.” It’s a mystery. It’s beyond us. Because for the West at least, and those of us who are children of the Enlightenment, we don’t really do well with that idea. “Well we just haven’t learned yet. One day we’ll learn and then scientific method and…we’ll work it out. We just haven’t learned that yet.”
The human person knows that’s not true. The human soul realizes and the human soul hungers for an unexplainable intimacy. And Pentecostalism offers that—an unexplainable intimacy that says, “You know what? This is beyond my control.” I remember as a Pentecostal, I’d tell people how to get the baptism and how to speak in tongues. Just release your control. Just release your control. Just let the Holy Spirit speak though you. Who knew that was the natural way, the Holy Spirit nudging us towards mystery and profundity and amazement. Awesomeness.
Frederica: Yes. Wonder.
Dn. Powell: That’s it. And so that’s why Pentecostalism is so successful.
Frederica: And also because they’ve got the gifts, they’ve got the fruits to prove it, that the miracles and signs do follow them. And that’s been suppressed, and a source of embarrassment, I think, in much of the West, because it’s, quote: “anti-intellectual.” But when you’ve actually got miracles and healings happening—
Dn. Powell: What are you going to do with that? Exactly. You can’t pretend.
Frederica: Well I guess you can’t.
Dn. Powell: You can’t. Well, you can try. But you will find—
Frederica: Just look the other way.
Dn. Powell: But even in the rest of the Evangelical Protestant world, I mean, you’ve got Baptist churches now—when I was a kid—they’re raising their hands in worship. Baptist churches and Methodist churches keeping Advent, for heaven’s sake, and mixing these two things together. Then you’ve got the emerging church movement that’s start that’s trying to throw out everything and trying to be relational, and all this kind of stuff. And you get to the point where you think, you know, these folks are going to stumble around and find the Faith if they ain’t careful. Because God loves us and God wants to be found.
Frederica: And it’s a sincere seeking.
Dn. Powell: It really is a sincere seeking and I don’t blame them. And the thing that they’re reacting to—the things that they’re reacting to—makes perfect sense to me. I understand why they’re scared. I understand why they grieve. Because I do too. I grieve the loss that I said goodbye to, but I tell you, I’m like the Apostle Paul in the sense that I look back at that and it was valuable and I love it but it’s not me anymore. I’ve grown not beyond it but I’ve grown up around it. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’s never enough. It’s the fullness that we’re looking for.
So we became—we entered the Faith and then of course after we became Orthodox all our problems disappeared and every problem and every problem I had is gone!
Frederica: Well of course! The money’s pouring in.
Dn. Powell: Money’s pouring in. In fact you know it’s embarrassing for me to talk about it. I’m kidding! No of course, things got worse. Things got more difficult.
Frederica: Immediately, sharply.
Dn. Powell: Well I needed a job.
Frederica: And you said your friend—was it Rod?
Dn. Powell: Rod Loudermilk, my best friend—
Frederica: —discovered a brain tumor?
Dn. Powell: Three months after we converted he found out he had a brain tumor.
Frederica: Thank God you converted first. Thank God you had Orthodoxy.
Dn. Powell: Amen. It was the only salvation we had. Eighteen months we fought and right before he died I got a phone call, I was traveling with Father Chris Metropolis at OCN. I got a phone call from his wife saying, “Barnabas, Photius”—that’s what his name was in the Church—“won’t go back to the doctor. I said, “OK, darling, let me talk to him.”
So I got on the phone. I said, “Roddy, what’s up?”
And he said, “Buddy, I love you. This medicine’s not going to make me better. It’s just going to prolong things. I’m so tired. And I’m done.”
So I told him I’m on my way to see him and I came off the road, went back to Ackworth, Georgia, where he was living at the time—and he and his wife and his three sons. All grown up, thank God. They were there with their dad as well. I walked in the door and he smiled real big and he told me—he said he loved me and he said, “You know, Barnabas—you know what’s really great about all this?”
I said, “I’m confessing to you buddy, I’m looking for some brightness and I don’t see a thing. I don’t see anything good about this at all. I’m broken hearted, I’m scared. You’re not only a friend; you’re my best friend. You’re a mentor, you’re a big brother, you’re a dad, and I’m afraid.”
He said, “Son, there is something really good about all this.”
I said, “I’m all ears.”
He said, “I’m dying in the arms of the Church.” Isn’t that wonderful?
Frederica: Oh, isn’t that wonderful?
Dn. Powell: I said, “Ok.” He went into a coma on that Wednesday and he died Friday, that Friday.
He was at peace. He was at peace. He was fine. And I remember one of our Orthodox priest friends came over to the house and gave him Communion and right after they gave him Communion he breathed his last. And he was done.
Frederica: Wow. Sounds like a chosen death.
Dn. Powell: Yeah. It was very hard, very difficult, very beautiful, very wonderful, very terrible; all of those things. All of those things Orthodoxy gives me a freedom to feel at the same time.
Frederica: Yes, yeah.
Dn. Powell: And blesses every bit of that, saying, “Yes, grieve; yes, rejoice; yes, weep; yes, smile, laugh, cry.”
Frederica: That’s the great thing about arms—they can take it all in.
Dn. Powell: That’s exactly right.
Frederica: Wrap the arms around the whole thing.
Dn. Powell: It’s big enough for the dignity of the human soul. It’s big enough to deal with the human condition. That’s the faith.
Frederica: In a way, Pentecostalism is a good preparation for Orthodoxy.
Dn. Powell: You better believe it.
Frederica: Sometimes I’ve thought—having seen people convert from so many different backgrounds—sometimes I think Pentecostals have the easiest transition.
Dn. Powell: They can, yeah.
Frederica: Because they believe in miracles, they believe—and they love the Lord with a heartfelt passion. It’s not as much intellectual.
Dn. Powell: It really isn’t. The challenge that I do see is that—especially if you’re a life-long Pentecostal—if you’re a life-long Pentecostal there tends to be a period where I have even told people, “You need a 12-step program.” And all kidding aside—
Frederica: Wean you off of—
Dn. Powell: —to really just kind of wean you off of the Jesus-as-heroin model. The Jesus- or Christianity-as-drug. “I really need to pray through because I’m feeling bad.” “I really need to go to church so I can get recharged.” “I need to get my tank filled up again.” Or “I need to get my battery recharged again.”
Frederica: So faith is like a tool?
Dn. Powell: Faith is a tool for my own personal well-being.
Frederica: Right. To keep you exactly the way you are.
Dn. Powell: Exactly. And that’s death.
Frederica: Functioning as perfectly as you are right now.
Dn. Powell: Exactly. And to be successful as you possibly can be. So there is a time where you kind of have to say, yeah I understand—there’s some really things there. The other side, the weakness of not being connected to an apostolic understanding of the faith can create a model where Jesus is—and religion and faith—is basically a medication. Just one more medication in my medication of—whether I’m using money, or I’m using physical intimacy, or if I’m using prestige, or fame, or intellectual information gathering or anything else that I use to medicate myself to feel or to hide from my own poverty.
Frederica: Isn’t it an idea that we just have to get through this life. Whatever gets you through the night. And then we’ll be in heaven. So there isn’t any concept of transformation, or not an expectation of it I guess. They sort of acknowledge there’s maturity in the Bible but something like theosis—
Dn. Powell: But not transfiguration. Yeah. There is the element of sanctification in the Pentecostal world—and it comes right from the Holiness movement—the whole second blessing, holiness thing, and all of that. So there is an idea of sanctification. But even sanctification can be reduced to an almost self-centered how-is-this-going-to-benefit-me kind of mentality. Instead of saying, “You know what? I’m going to Calvary. I’m going to Calvary and I’m going to die there. And it’s not going to be fun and it’s not going to pleasant. But I will get the Resurrection but I’m not going to get to the Resurrection until I get through Calvary, get through the Garden—do this process. And I’m going to do this over and over and over in my life until the character of Jesus Christ is formed inside of me.” And the language is there in my Pentecostal past to talk like that. The tools weren’t. The wisdom, the discipline of fasting and feasting, and feasting is as much a discipline as fasting. But we don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to feast. Because we don’t’ know how to fast.
Frederica: Yeah. We know how to gorge.
Dn. Powell: We know how to gorge. Thanksgiving was just a little while ago. So—and I already made my confession so I’m not going to say anything else!
But all those things—those tools necessary to actually bring me to Mount Tabor—to the place where I can participate in the transfiguration of Jesus Christ—not for my own benefit per se but to just become who I am. You see what I’m saying?
Frederica: To restore us to—restoring the portrait, as St. Athanasius says. So as opposed to an idea that we go through all this so we’ll be better citizens, better husbands—
Dn. Powell: —better wives, how to keep your kids on your team, and let’s do all of these things. All that good stuff—
Frederica: —which is good, yeah it is good stuff. Wonderful things.
Dn. Powell: It’s not bad stuff. The problem is if you don’t get to the root of the problem, you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. You’re just kind of trying to put a new varnish of paint on things.
Frederica: Putting snow on a dung hill.
Dn. Powell: Exactly.
Frederica: Luther’s phrase.
Dn. Powell: Exactly. So what you have to do is you have to kind of—at least from me, I came to the point where I said, “I am no longer capable of being a Christian by myself. I can’t do this. And if I try I’m going to make a mess of things even more than I have.” So I have to find a place where I can learn how to be Christian with the widest number of influences that will help me to see things in as clear and as wide a range as possible, and not limit myself. So that I can not just hear the people who are living, but to the people who are already in Christ—to what G.K. Chesterton said—“the radical democracy of giving our ancestors a vote.” So I think when I came to that point, Rod and I both did, we said, “We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do this work.” So here we are.
Frederica: And do you find that this is something that—when you’re talking to people who are Pentecostal—do they get this? Do they have this hunger, the deep hunger of the soul, which is obviously there in everybody? But can they make that leap to understanding that here is a way, a path, whereby they can be profoundly transformed? Or do they think it’s just sort of all nice, you know, pietistic words?
Dn. Powell: Yes and no.
Frederica: Or do they see what you’re saying and they want to run the opposite direction?
Dn. Powell: I’ve had every one of those experiences and seven more. It’s just, it’s—
Frederica: It’s person by person.
Dn. Powell: It really is person by person. It depends on how the Holy Spirit has formed a person and what they’ve said yes to throughout their lives. It’s just—we’re never going to get beyond the Theotokos. Where the messenger comes with good news and then the moment of truth—let it be done to me as you have said. I am the Lord’s servant. Every place where a person has had that confrontation with good news from the messenger of God—whether it be from the Spirit calling inside, or another person, or just from life’s circumstances—when they’ve been able to say, “Let it be done to me as you have said, I am the Lord’s servant—we’re never going to get beyond the Theotokos. The Theotokos is our model of Christianity.
Being with her—learning from her, this is tough for an old Pentecostal to talk about. Although, once I saw the icon of Our Lady of the Sign, all my questions were answered. It was a mystical, instantaneous clarity that no one else in the journey had but me. And I was by myself for eight years! Everybody was saying, “We just don’t understand why this comes so easy for you.” I don’t understand it either. It really bugs me a lot. But I get it.
Frederica: Just that arrow into the heart.
Dn. Powell: Yeah, it was just like, “Ok.”
Frederica: Of course, yeah.
Dn. Powell: There it is.
Frederica: Isn’t that wonderful? Why the icon of the Sign in particular?
Dn. Powell: I think because—
Frederica: Or was there a particular icon of the Sign?
Dn. Powell: No, no, it wasn’t a particular icon—just the concept. When I saw the Theotokos with arms outstretched, and her inside larger than her outside, containing—the icon had stars around Christ. Here He is Christ, Christ is a baby, He’s blessing—
Frederica: The whole cosmos…
Dn. Powell: —the whole cosmos is inside her. And it was like somebody just flipped a switch. Of course she’s Theotokos. She can’t be anything else but Theotokos. To call her anything else but Theotokos puts everything at risk.
Frederica: Yes, yes. The whole foundation of Christianity.
Dn. Powell: You must call her Theotokos. You must call her blessed. It’s not an option. It’s not an option.
Frederica: Oh wow that’s—Mary is the biggest hurdle for a lot of Protestants.
Dn. Powell: She is, but I’ll tell you what—but she becomes the dearest intercessor and friend. When we are able to make this leap to say—to put to ease the Protestant fears that oh, well, they’re trying to make her into co-redemptrix; or they’re trying to make her you know, another member of the Godhead and blah blah blah blah blah. All that kind of stuff. I understand those fears.
But there is a reason why, centuries before Christianity—that there was this whole idea of mother goddess and all this stuff already being built into the human race in every tribe and every place, everywhere you go in anthropology you find this picture. And so it isn’t so much an expression of our holding on to paganism as it is a clear indication of the Holy Spirit preparing humanity to see this profound truth that one of our race, one of us, became the gateway that let the Uncreated into the created.
Frederica: Ah, yeah. That’s so great.
Dn. Powell: He took flesh from one of us! One of our folk. I mean, I’m a good southern boy. I know what it means to say, “One of my kin did well.” And that’s—to get that—to think—there’s a prayer I learned to pray, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we might also conceive in us the body of Christ, an that we might also attain unto God.” So she becomes the human model of what Jesus plans to do with every one of us. That’s who we’re supposed to be. It’s wonderful.
Frederica: That’s pretty terrific.
Dn. Powell: It’s wonderful.
Frederica: I’ve never seen the icon of the Sign that way before. It really transforms my way of looking at that icon.
Dn. Powell: It blew me away. It blew me away.
Frederica: And where was this on your journey? Before your chrismation?
Dn. Powell: This was about—oh yes, many years before my chrismation. I was the only Pentecostal church in Woodstock, Georgia, that had an icon of Christ and the Theotokos behind the pulpit! Trust me. It’s hilarious.
Frederica: I can believe that!
Dn. Powell: It got to the point where, on our journey, we had several families—we’d bought a building, we were doing well and all this kind of stuff—and I got to the point where I’d tell folks, “Folks, I know you hear me preaching and I know this sounds kind of strange, but don’t leave skid marks in the parking lot, we’re trying to sell the building. Let’s at least preserve the real estate value.”
But it was a long time after—it was a long time before our chrismation that this really kind of came home to me.
Frederica: And then you were waiting for your people to come.
Dn. Powell: Waiting for my—and you know what? And my best friend was so wise, because, if it were up to me, after my initial connection with Orthodoxy in 1992, I’d have converted then. I really would’ve. But Rod reminded me—and I was pasturing this church, and we were growing and doing well—and he said, “You know, Barnabas, you need to probably remember the story of Jacob and Esau.”
After Jacob and Esau reconciled, Esau said, “Jacob, just bring your people, come on, go with us. Just be with us, we’ll be a family, and just be with us.”
And Jacob was saying, “Yeah brother, I want to do this, but my folks are camped far away, and I have little ones. And if I push them, they’ll die.”
And so he reminded me of that and it was very wise. And so I remember him telling me that and I remember it really being clear to me that it was wise—it would have not been a good time for me to convert because I would have become just a Protestant Orthodox. Because I was interested in being right. I want to finally get into the right church, with the right theology because being
right is what I really need to be. You know.
Frederica: Oh boy. I’m just now discovering that’s one of the keys of transformation in Orthodoxy is being willing to not be right.
Dn. Powell: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.
Frederica: If I had known this sixteen years ago, I’m not so sure…
Dn. Powell: Amen! Amen.
Frederica: I have to what?! Not be right?!
Dn. Powell: That’s the whole point. If I’m not right, what am I? Then I’m wrong. And if I’m wrong, then God’s upset with me!
Frederica: It’s terrible! And then you have to go right back into that—
Dn. Powell: And if God’s upset with me, then I don’t get the goody, and you get—“bad boy.” What if I lose my salvation?
Frederica: Yeah, and won’t get that Cadillac you asked for.
Dn. Powell: Exactly. And I don’t be able to finally cross the finish line into Heaven and finally get this God off my back. Finally, I’ve done all the stuff you asked me to do, now would you leave me alone?
Frederica: That’s great.
Dn. Powell: So it was wisdom. It was wisdom. It was good formation, and then in 2001 we converted. It’s always been a transition. It’s always a mixture of going to Calvary and experiencing the Resurrection. But that’s the Christian life—
Frederica: Now how many were you able to bring with you?
Dn. Powell: Twenty families.
Frederica: Twenty families.
Dn. Powell: Twenty families out of two hundred and fifty.
Frederica: That’s good. You did a lot better than we did.
Dn. Powell: Yeah, well twenty families. So—
Frederica: They’re singing, singing…
Dn. Powell: Yeah, the kids are singing…
But it was traumatic and wonderful and terrible and joyous and scary and—and it still is. Still is.
Frederica: 2001. So here, eight years later you are in seminary. In fact, is this your third year?
Dn. Powell: This is my third year. In fact, I’m coming up on my last semester.
Dn. Powell: I’m coming up on my last semester, God willing. And the faculty says ok, I’ll graduate in May, and I will be in the metropolis of Atlanta with his Eminence, Metropolitan Alexios. And looking forward to that a great deal. In fact it was a joy to be ordained in my hometown of Atlanta by Metropolitan Alexios on the eight to the deaconate.
Frederica: That’s a wonderful thing. You have unique gifts, I think. Well I think you have a wonderful gift of speaking. I really enjoy listening to you. You have a wonderful singing voice. I got to hear a bit of that. And a gift for being—
Dn. Powell: Don’t tell my chant leader that. He’ll disagree with you. I can’t get my mouth around some of these Byzantine sounds. I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.
Frederica: Is that right? Too many notes. It’s like the emperor in Amadeus. “Too many notes.”
Dn. Powell: Exactly, too many. Not only too many notes, but you know what, it’s just a different language than I’m used to.
Frederica: It is, it is.
Dn. Powell: And I’m learning a lot languages, for heaven’s sake! One of them’s going to suffer and I think it’s going to be Byzantine chant, Lord have mercy!
Frederica: I’m hoping that, as you have so many more years of ministry ahead of you, that God will be able to use these gifts you have of understanding. You know a great deal about Protestantism in general, not just your Pentecostal background. Do you think you’ll be a priest in a parish, or—how do you see your future ministry? Or do you even know?
Dn. Powell: It’s a wonderful question. I know his Eminence has some plans for me. I confess to you that I said something to him at my ordination that I meant with all my heart. I basically said, “[Greek phrase],” which means, “Do with me what you will.”
Frederica: Ah that’s good, yeah.
Dn. Powell: And I really have come to have confidence in him and love him as a spiritual father and a wise leader. That’s not just politics talking. I really have been amazed at how well he’s been able to place several friends of mine in parish settings that were just perfect fits. And so it built a great deal of confidence into me and Connie’s heart to just simply say to him, “Whatever you want, whatever you need, and I’ll trust that.” And he’s got some plans. And I certainly hope to be—I want to be a parish priest. That’s what I love doing. I love being with people. I love being in a community. That’s what I want. That’s how I’m going to be a Christian is in the midst of community. It’s not going to be by doing anything else other than dealing with other human beings in community.
Frederica: Yeah, that’s true.
Dn. Powell: That’s the Faith.
Frederica: That’s how God plans to polish the stones that we are—is to use other people. I wish there was another way sometimes.
Dn. Powell: You and me both, sister. I wish there was a pill or maybe a salve you could put on. I don’t know! Anything. We’re just going to have to rub shoulders with folks.
Frederica: Wouldn’t that be great? That’s so true.
Dn. Powell: God help us.
Frederica: Alright. Thanks so much.
Dn. Powell: My pleasure.
Frederica: Deacon Barnabas Powell.
Dn. Powell: Thank you, thank you very much.
Frederica: Congratulations on your ordination.
Dn. Powell: Thanks.
"Thank you, AFR, for your ministry. AFR reaches into China, where I have twice found myself on business. It is a breath of fresh air, a connection with home, and (most importantly) the primary link I have with my faith while traveling. God Bless you all!"