LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Jarrod Russell first visited an Orthodox Christian church about 20 years ago. For Russell, who was brought up in a Southern Baptist home, the worship service at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock was different from any he had experienced before.
"I was really blown away," Russell told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1hXoAz5 ). "I didn't understand a lot of things going on, but what really struck me was the sense of reverence."
Orthodox worship services are meant to be an immersive experience, drawing on all the senses. The Divine Liturgy, as the main service is known, is highly liturgical, filled with singing, prayers and Scripture readings. The priest wears elaborate vestments, and there are candles, incense and icons of saints and holy figures. Worshippers stand through much of the service while participating in a back-and-forth liturgy with the priest.
The seeds of Russell's path to the Orthodox priesthood were planted that day, but it would be years before he realized it.
A native of Blytheville, Russell began attending Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield in the mid-1990s. It was during that time that he visited Annunciation with his mother on a trip back home to Arkansas.
"I had been going to church once a month at a local Baptist church," Russell said, adding that he felt blessed by his Southern Baptist background. But that visit to Annunciation Church sparked something.
"That was my first sense that there was something else out there I was missing," he said.
After graduating from college in 1998, Russell attended law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The experience at the Orthodox church was pushed to the back of his mind, and he began attending a Baptist church more regularly while at the university.
After completing law school in 2001, Russell practiced law for five years in Pine Bluff and then for four years in Little Rock.
"I didn't really have a church home in Pine Bluff, but I started thinking about Annunciation," he said. "I hadn't been there in about eight or 10 years but it stayed with me."
At the time the church was advertising an event featuring a guest speaker who had converted to the Orthodox Church from a Protestant denomination. Russell decided to go, and if he liked what he heard he would consider driving back the next day for worship services.
It was worth the trip.
"That started me along the path," he said.
Russell embraced his new parish with the zeal of a convert, even thinking early on about the priesthood and visiting the website for Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology near Boston in 2006. But he brushed the thought aside.
"But over time my involvement with the church increased," he said. "I moved to Little Rock and right after that I started teaching senior high Sunday School class and it was an incredible experience."
Russell also became involved in leading the youth group as an adviser.
"I was always attending services," he said. "We have weekday services for feast days and with my job, if I didn't have a court appearance, I could go to the service and then work late."
His level of involvement increased when the parishioner who had been assisting the Rev. Nicholas Verdaris at the altar retired. Verdaris asked Russell if he would assume the duties. Even with no childhood experience as an altar boy to rely on, Russell welcomed his new role. He helped prepare the altar and assisted the priest during services. All the while, fleeting thoughts of the priesthood continued.
Verdaris said he could see something special in Russell when they first met.
"He was very unique in a sense that he came across as dedicated and sincere and as a very faithful young man," Verdaris said. "He immersed himself in the parish and it was clear he had a profound love for the Lord."
The fateful day for Russell came when the president of Holy Cross seminary visited the parish.
"Father Nicholas told me, 'He's going to ask you if you've ever thought about seminary,'" Russell said.
Sure enough, he did.
"I started giving him all these reasons why I couldn't go," Russell said.
The next day he invited Russell to visit the seminary, just to check it out. Russell flew to Boston, his first trip to New England, and visited the campus in early spring 2009. After returning home he sought the counsel of Father Nicholas. His advice: If the calling to the priesthood was real, it wouldn't go away. He suggested waiting a year.
"It was a big deal," Russell said. "I would be quitting my job and moving across the country. (I thought), 'I have a life here. This is my life and I've always lived in Arkansas.'"
But the calling to the priesthood didn't go away. Inch by inch Russell acquiesced.
"It was a slow process, just slowly making sure it's for real," he said. "I still remember when I first visited Holy Cross I asked the president 'How do you know you should come here,' and he said sometimes you just have to come to know if you should be here. If you come and it doesn't work out, that's fine. It's part of the process."
Verdaris said Russell's decision to join the priesthood was bittersweet for him.
"The selfish part of me loved having him as a parishioner," he said. "He assisted me in many ministries, but I could certainly see this was the kind of person the church, in a broader sense, could use. I let that take its course, but never wanted to force the issue, just let him go on his journey and through the grace of God he started to receive and recognized he had a big calling in front of him."
Russell and Verdaris met with their bishop, who gave his blessing for Russell to go to seminary.
Russell arrived at Holy Cross in the fall of 2010. His time at seminary wasn't without doubts. The first few years, Russell said, there were many moments when he thought, "Is this really what I should be doing?"
"But things kept moving me in that direction, and just when I would think maybe this isn't where I should be, something would happen that would confirm to me that I was heading in the right direction and needed to stay the course," he said. "It definitely was not a straight shot."
He persevered and finished coursework for a master of divinity degree last year. He also recently finished coursework for a master of theology degree. All that's left is to complete his theology thesis.
On a recent Sunday the 39-year-old was formally ordained as a deacon, the last step before he will become a priest in September. The service at Annunciation Church was led by Metropolitan Nicholas, the spiritual head of the Metropolitan of Detroit diocese of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The service culminated with the prayer of ordination and the vesting of Russell.
"The key point of prayer is asking the Holy Spirit to complete what is lacking in the candidate, because no one is worthy to be ordained," he said.
Russell said he was nervous — a "good nervous."
"I'm kind of in awe of what's before me," he said.
Russell said he experienced "every emotion imaginable" during the service.
"As I stood directly before the icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary during the first parts of the service, I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all," he said. "How is it possible that Christ is calling me to serve his church? During the ordination prayers, I was so present in that moment, hearing the prayers, and feeling the power of the Holy Spirit. Words are simply not sufficient to describe how the service (affected) me."
Since he was single at the time of ordination, Russell will be a celibate priest. Verdaris said the church allows for married and unmarried clergy, but the marital status must be established prior to ordination into the diaconate.
"Once you are ordained that status becomes permanent and unchangeable," he said. "That's the major stipulation."
Making that decision was a long process for Russell. He talked with his spiritual advisers and with some celibate priests, but in the end the decision wasn't difficult, he said.
"In my mind I would either be a single priest or a single layman, so in that sense it wasn't a hard decision," Russell said. "But it goes against the expectations of our society. It's countercultural in that sense, so you have to watch that in yourself. Am I questioning this because I'm really questioning this or is it influence from the outside? You have to make time to make sure it's the path for you. For me it was a natural decision."
Verdaris said as far as anyone in the parish can tell, Russell is the first native Arkansan and member of the parish to enter the priesthood.
"It really is our honor for over 100 years of faithfulness. This is the fruit of that faithfulness, when a church is able to give back and contribute toward the care of the Lord's vineyard with a new servant of the Lord," he said. "We're really excited about that."
Verdaris said the ordination was a historic event for the parish.
"It's not only historic, but sacred," he said. "It's something that will never be forgotten. As the history of the parish is written it will always remember its first ordination of a native son."
Russell will be ordained to the priesthood on Sept. 20 at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Carmel, Indiana, where he will serve as assistant priest.
Verdaris said saying goodbye has been hard.
"We loved him as part of our parish and he'll always be a part of our parish wherever he serves. We'll always consider him a son of Annunciation and of Arkansas, but it's a reminder that in following the Lord's way we sometimes have to bear our sorrows for the greater good," he said.
"You do have a sense of the fulfillment of a dream but also a closing of a chapter. Whatever altar he is in front of spiritually, it will all be connected. Faith and love transcend borders and distance, and for that we don't feel like we're losing Jarrod; just our bond will now be at a deeper level."
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette