FR DAVID HUDSON: A PERSONAL STORY
Fr. David Hudson lives in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Mary, are certified public school teachers, and the proud parents of three daughters: Heidi (married to Mihai Popa, and mother of Bella, now 2 ½), Heather (married to Iosif Logigan and soon to give birth to Aaron), and Hannah, a student at Georgia State University.
Fr. David, what was it that led you to missionary work in Romania?
I was raised in a Protestant Evangelical environment which glorified missionary work as the highest calling. From my childhood I aspired to be a missionary, but only as I began to approach midlife did I make the decision to do it now. For a long time I had thought about doing missions in “Post-Christian” Western Europe, where only about 20% of the population attends church regularly. Just then the Berlin Wall fell, and we were swept up in the tide of missionaries going to former Communist countries, which we believed had been effectively “atheized”.
Please explain to us the programs in which you were involved, including your responsibilities and activities.
My own personal spiritual journey, in parallel with my missionary work, resulted in an interesting potpourri of activities. At first, I was the leader of a team sent to help provoke and organize Romanian Neo-Protestant communities to make a concentrated effort to plant a new church for every 1000 people in the country. My interest in the historical Church also led me to be involved with the Lord’s Army, a controversial personal renewal movement linked both to the Romanian Orthodox Church and other non-Orthodox groups. This was consistent with my upbringing in the “Wesleyan Movement”, a little-known, non-Calvinistic, pietistic branch of the Western Church which takes its inspiration from the Anglican priest, John Wesley, and which fosters an appreciation for holy living in any denominational setting. Unlike my missionary colleagues, I was not necessarily interested in seeing people convert FROM Orthodoxy, but I wanted to be sure they really knew Christ WITHIN Orthodoxy.
While teaching about the history of Judeo-Christian Worship at a Baptist theological institute, I had a student who had been raised Orthodox, and whose brother was a priest. Since we missionaries were not particularly welcome in Orthodox circles, I found a way to pursue my interest in Orthodoxy which was both low-profile and personal. I went out to the remote village where my student’s brother was serving as priest, and while I did not realize it would happen, I “discovered” Orthodoxy. This turned out to be a very “bumpy road”, or sometimes I call it “the long and winding road” (sorry, Beatles!). It certainly turned my responsibilities and activities upside down.
What was your own spiritual experience while there? What impressed, inspired and challenged you?
Well, I had not, up until this point, gotten to know anyone who made me think they took their Orthodox faith seriously and personally. Without that dimension I, as a Protestant Evangelical, could never see Orthodoxy as a viable faith. The family of my student was very devout, and yet open and friendly to me, and this was something I could relate to, because the measure of Christianity that I grew up with was personal piety and holy living. I had read and studied about Orthodoxy, and then I went to a humble village church, where the priest permitted me, a non-Orthodox, to observe inside the Altar during the Divine Liturgy. I was overwhelmed with the truth and beauty of the Liturgy—I was easily convinced that this was the true Christian worship. But I still had a problem: I didn’t know there were any Orthodox Christians who were living their faith. I thought all the Orthodox were “nominal” Christians, who just went to church on Sundays and then lived all week as though God were not around.
I had been to the Cathedral Square in Cluj on the night of the Pascha Vigil, with the thousands of people milling around, talking, and otherwise not engaged in worship. But now I went to the same service with a devout Orthodox family in the village, and lived the Feast for a few hours through their eyes. It surpassed anything I had known as a Protestant Evangelical, brought up in a very demonstrative, pietistic form of Christian worship. I was, I guess you could say, “hooked”. But that wasn’t enough to assure my conversion. That took three more hard years. But I’ll have to leave that for another time and place—maybe I need to write a book.
Is there any aspect of the culture or way of life in Romania that you found to be especially unique or inspirational?
We were in love with the Romanian way of life for the entire nine years we lived in Cluj. First of all, although I am thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, my wife is Italian-American, and our children were raised in New York before going to Romania, so the Latin connection was already strong. We love Romanian food, Romanian humor, the warm hospitality, the way Romanians know how to have fun, to improvise a solution to almost any problem. We love their musicality and artistic flair; and now that we’re Orthodox we also deeply appreciate the entire patrimonial heritage of the Romanian people: the churches, castles, old cities, and other architectural treasures, the iconography, the music, etc. The Romanian people have an amazing capacity for ascetic struggle, for being happy and healthy without a lot of comforts, for making what to us Americans appear as superhuman efforts for their faith, their God, and their Church.
What was this journey like for the rest of your family? From your daughters’ perspective, what do you think they learned and most benefitted from while in Romania?
We had been prepared for the cross-cultural challenge through an excellent missionary training program, and we also had previous experience as a family when we spent a summer working with Angolan refugees in Portugal, and a fall doing missionary work in India. Our three daughters went to Romanian schools, had Romanian friends, and spoke Romanian well. At home we were American, and preserved our own special family life and traditions—and we are still extremely close, now that we have two Romanians as our sons-in-law. In fact, our two oldest daughters graduated from the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. Although we made the decision to return to America for their long-term benefit, it was not an easy choice for any of us, and for the most part, we treasure our experiences and friends and relations in Romania. There were negative experiences in our last few years in Romania which made it easier to leave: trials related to our conversion there, and the stress of living sort of in a fish bowl… eventually we felt we needed to return to a normal, low-profile American life.
Having returned to the United States after your life-changing experiences in Romania, is there anything in particular that you would like to remind or impress upon Orthodox faithful here?
I suppose it is not possible in North America to fully live an Orthodox life, in an organic way, as you can in Romania. My initial sense after discovering Orthodoxy in Romania and then comparing it with Orthodoxy in America was that, in Romania even the Protestants breathe Orthodox air, whereas in America, the Orthodox are too like the Protestants. After six years of learning to live in America as an Orthodox convert priest, I realize that North America and Protestantism have strong points that the Orthodox can learn from, but I still sorely miss the organic Orthodox environment, where Orthodoxy is not compartmentalized into a small segment of life, as it is here in our secularized and secularizing American environment. What I would impress on the Orthodox faithful here is to continue the fight to work out the life of Orthodoxy in America, and especially for Orthodox unity, and an organic Orthodoxy rooted in our North American realities.
Finally, what advice do you have specifically for Orthodox young people who came to North America from Romania, and then also for those who are American-born?
I have a very warm place in my heart for people who have changed their cultural identity. We learned that as missionaries leaving America for another place, we had our own culture that we could call “blue”. Then we went and embraced a new culture, which we could call “yellow”. As a result, we would no longer be “blue”, nor would we become “yellow”—we would be “green”. America embraces bi-culturalism, so there is no need to compartmentalize our Orthodoxy and consider it foreign. We must not retreat into cultural and linguistic ghettos, which keep Orthodoxy hidden from the rest of the American population. Our Orthodoxy must be what we are, bi-lingual and bi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. We must affirm, celebrate, and enjoy what we are, and continue to grow in every part of our lives, and in relation to the setting in which we were placed to do God’s work. If we are not called to embrace America, then we probably should not be here.
For American-born Orthodox youth, and especially the readers of this magazine, who are likely to be second or third-generation Romanian-Americans, the bi-cultural identity may be secondary, and that is completely normal. Whether we be immigrants, children of immigrants, or converts (another kind of foreigner), my advice is the same: Be authentic and work hard on your salvation (Phil. 2:12). Look back, to understand and appreciate what has been handed to you; look around, to assess what is good and to discern what needs to be rejected; look up, because only God will never disappoint or fail you; look within, to make sure you have enough faith to make the world a more beautiful place; and look ahead, to understand your destiny. Seize the day!
January 6, 2009
( This interview was first published on the Vatra Romanian Youth website and posted here with the permission of Fr David Hudson.)