Because I was invited
excerpts from an interview with
Fr. Benjamin Tucci
Father Ben, you’ve been an Orthodox Christian from your youth, and are currently the assistant Priest and Youth Director at one of the parishes in the OCA. What is it that keeps you here? What keeps you in the Church?
Looking back, it’s hard to find a single defining moment or reason for being here. Perhaps there was such an event when I was in college – an awakening of sorts, perhaps like a revelation, which I’ll get to in a moment, but even that awakening was only possible because of my childhood familiarity with the church – by which I mean the people.
For as long as I can remember, I went to church. I went with my parents, and even after they stopped going regularly, my aunt and uncle would make a point to bring me every several weeks. It wasn’t every Sunday, but it was part of my life. This was essential, for several reasons. Of course, there was exposure to worship, to the sacraments, to the liturgy. But through the help of my family, I was connected to a broader network of people of all different ages, who worshiped together at my home parish. These people spanned multiple generations, and we formed a loose-knit ”˜family.’ I was a kid at the time, so my memories are always from a kid’s perspective. For instance, I remember playing in the kitchen amidst the pieroghi ladies. They used to chase me and try and pinch my cheeks, or give me big hugs – you know, that good-natured physical affection that old women can show to young kids. I remember these ladies. My interaction with them was not extensive, but it made the church personal to me. I have similar fond memories of church school teachers, and many other members of the community. Many of my neighbors were also Orthodox (there was a large Greek population in my home town, too), as were many of my peers – all these living examples of Orthodox Christians.
I wonder, quite seriously, how much my positive encounters with other Christians keep me around. Rhetorically, would I still be here if it weren’t for the pieroghi ladies? But there is a serious question in that lighthearted musing. I was blessed to have such good experiences. Some people have negative experiences with others in a Church environment, and how many of them stay around? We can talk all we want to about how our faith and our Church is more than just the people in it, or we can say that ”˜people are people,’ and that’s true. But saying that underestimates how important relationships are within a church community. For me, at least, I see them as foundational.
Eventually, I went off to college. College, for me, was not quite the radical environment that it is for many people today. Liberal, I suppose, but not so extreme. Not so hostile to personal experience and background. I don’t know how deep we want to go into this, but for me it felt comfortable being a Christian. I don’t recall feeling the need to defend my faith to others or to myself. The questions I wanted to explore, I felt free to do on my own terms, which was good, and in fact I was able to do just that.
One semester I took a class on World religions, trying to get a perspective on things, trying to learn what “truth” is, those types of questions. And I learned a great deal from the class. But then a strange thing happened. The week that we covered Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I received a phone call from an old acquaintance at Church. One of my old Sunday school teachers. She invited me to come help clear a field for some youth event that our parish was going to have. And so I did. And while we worked, she shared with me just the most profound knowledge and wisdom I had heard in quite some time. It was amazing. And she asked me a great deal about my spiritual life. I remember her asking once whether I pray. At first, I was evasive, but she kept pushing, and eventually impressed upon me how essential prayer life was for us. At one point, she asked me ”˜didn’t you learn this in Sunday school?’ But of course that question is a bit unfair. How many children actually understand the depth of the prayer “Lord, have mercy?” I certainly didn’t have that sense of needing help in my youth. But I did by the time I was in college. And my old Sunday school teacher that day explained that it’s OK to ask God for help. What a profound idea: It’s OK to want God’s help!
So I started praying. And I read the bible that night – no idea where to start, by the way, so I just opened it, and happened upon St Simeon’s prayer in the Gospel of Luke (2:29-32). Here was a prayer within the bible. So I prayed that prayer. And then I went to vespers – and you gotta remember, I never went to vespers. We went to liturgy on Sunday. That’s it. So I went to vespers, and what did I hear in the service, but St Simeon’s prayer! That week, it seemed like several pieces in a puzzle all fell into place. I had a bit of an awakening, you know?! I started to understand and to feel the relationship between Worship, Fellowship, Stewardship, and Education that makes up our Church experience. And I also began to realize how instrumental an invitation can be. I was invited back into church by somebody whom I identified with ”˜the Church.’ I accepted the invitation, and I’m forever thankful that I did. And ever since then, I have felt a level of stability in my faith. Always growth, of course, but that week in college was when I felt like I came to a much more mature understanding of Church, and accepted it. And especially prayer – that was so critical, finally being given permission to ask God for help! So why am I still here? Because I believe in God, I believe in Christ, and I am a part of the community of believers. I’m here because of the love shown to me by others. I’m here because I have accepted an invitation.
Father, I think that’s a profound, solid answer to the question of why you’re still here. But you were a bit apprehensive to put this in writing. Why did you initially find this so hard to express? Why did you want me to interview you?
I felt like I was having trouble giving my story some meaning beyond me, from moving from the specific to the general. But maybe that’s not possible. I’m not sure. What significance does my story have for others? That’s a serious question…do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know if there are any general points or truths can be drawn from my experience, and I would certainly hate for people to be frustrated or discouraged if their experience is different. Some people have very moving conversion stories to share, or miracle stories or stories of mystical, spiritual experiences. Mine felt profound to me – it was a powerful day that Saturday when everything fell into place for me. But how can that relate to another’s personal experience? I feel like maybe we shouldn’t be seeking signs and miracles, maybe we make too big of a deal about such stories. So I have my life experience, which includes an awakening moment in college. Thank God and move on. This is the same response I have to other people’s stories. To that person, the story is incredibly valuable, but what is that to somebody else? Do you know what I’m trying to say? On the other hand, some people find great personal value in such stories, and if that works for you, go for it. But I just don’t want my personal experience to be a stumbling block or even a distraction. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about any of us.
Much more, would I like to convey a sense of the significance of a balance between worship, fellowship, stewardship and education- and prayer – to have a healthy Christian life. I’m a priest now, so I forget sometimes exactly how much of a challenge our worship can be. Look what we put our little kids through each Sunday. Nearly two hours of mostly stationary worship, followed by 10 minutes of fellowship, and then we rush them off to a classroom for forty five minutes of religious education. How engaging is that? After a decade or more of this, will our youth feel connected to the parish? And if our youth do perceive this as a trying or monotonous way to spend Sunday morning, and if they don’t feel connected to the parish, then it’s no wonder to me that they choose not to return as adults. Not that we should change our worship – not at all! – but we should really focus on making social connections for the children and young adults as well. Church is not a building or a service – it’s a community of faithful, coming together, being together, praying and acting together. I always had a sense that the Church was alive. It was family. It was accessible. It was personal. And I was invited. And so I accepted the invitation, and I’ve wanted to be there ever since. Thank God.
Father Ben, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and as always, thank you for your continued ministry to the youth and young adults in the church.
My pleasure, deacon. This was so much more enjoyable to do this in person! I’m glad I didn’t leave you with some boring article.