On April 20, 2006, a young woman goes into the doctor’s office for a post-operative check-up. She needs one more test to make sure that a life-changing reconstruction of her dysfunctional uterus was successful. The doctor assures her that she is healing well, and sets up a sonohysterogram at the hospital a couple of blocks away. Before they can sedate her and start the invasive test, she must first wait for the results of some preliminary blood work. The lab tells her that, among other things, they are testing for infection and pregnancy. Without much thought about that, she waits impatiently for the results so she can undergo the procedure and move on. Then the lab technician finally comes into the waiting room, calls the woman back into the lab, and gives her the news: “Congratulations, Ms. Stephens. You are pregnant.”
That was the moment that changed my life completely. On April 19th I was a twenty-five year old girl still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, major uterine surgery, and a very damaging and emotionally-abusive relationship. On April 20th, I became Mom. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. There was, at the time no one for me to talk to. I was, I realized, utterly alone, terrified, overwhelmed, and completely lost.
That evening, I went to work where I was alone in my office overnight. I typically spent most of my time on the computer, chatting and emailing with friends to get through a mind-numbing night shift. That night, I did not feel up to chatting. I just felt numb. It happened, however, that I checked my email at the most opportune moment. A very dear Russian friend had sent me an email. I will never forget the text of that email. “My beloved Katya,” it read, “I feel compelled to write to you today, though I am not sure why. I just feel that you need some sort of reassurance, and I thought this icon of the Mother of God could help you.” She had attached an image of what I later found out is the Wonder-Working Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, commonly known as the Kursk Root Icon. An overwhelming feeling came over me in that moment. It is, to this day, a feeling I cannot find words to express. What I did know, and I knew it with an overpowering clarity, is that I needed to be in the church whence this icon came.
April 23, 2006 was my first Paschal service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Biloxi, MS. In fact, it was the first time I had been into ANY Orthodox church anywhere. I had been considering Orthodoxy off and on for seven or eight years, but I had never worked up the nerve to actually go to church. Yet here I was, pregnant, alone, and terrified, walking into Holy Trinity at 11:30 PM on Holy Saturday. I was overcome by the feeling of holiness in that place. I was awed by the icons, the candles, the chants, and the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom: Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Perhaps most important on that night, I was amazed by how warm and welcoming the parishioners were. I felt that night like I believed I should feel walking into my own home. It was that, I believe, which drew me back the next day.
I was there on Sunday afternoon for the vesper service and the picnic after. Not only was I there, I was asked to read the Gospel in French. I still joke with the man who asked me that this had to be some sort of hazing ritual for new people. “Hello. Welcome to Holy Trinity. Christ is Risen! (Truly, He is Risen!) Would you be willing to read the Gospel in a language you haven’t spoken in ten years?” I did it happily, albeit with atrocious pronunciation, because I knew in the deepest parts of my soul that I had found the home I would never leave.
That afternoon, I met the man who I decided would be the first person I would tell about the pregnancy. His name was Father Jim, and he was the parish priest. Father Jim congratulated me, and when I told him that I was unmarried and that I knew the father would prefer that I have an abortion, he gave me a big bear hug and congratulated me again. He assured me that I had already chosen life for my child and that this fact, together with the miracle occurring inside me, was to be congratulated.
That day, Pascha 2006, was the day that I knew I would never be the same. In my terror, I opened my heart, and I was shown love and compassion where I knew that others would pass judgment. It was that day when I realized the things about my life which have shaped every decision, every emotion, and every action of my life even to this day: I was a mother. I was worthy of love and compassion. I was home, and soon I would be Orthodox. In the coming months, this church would become a home to me, and its parishioners would become my family and my closest friends. I have never felt the need or desire to look back on that day with anything but joy, and I will never be the same. My terror was replaced with hope, my pain with great joy, and my loneliness with love.
It was in the arms of my newfound family and friends that I made it through the next months. This small parish became, in a very profound way, my life support. My thirst for the Orthodox Church became only stronger, and I found that I spent my weeks longing for Sunday Liturgy and the weekly catechetical classes. The women at this church became like sisters and mothers to me, supporting me fully through some of the most agonizing experiences of my life. With their support and Father Jim’s, I managed to start building a life for my son and myself, and it was always with a sense of wonder I still feel today: Why would God bless me so much, when I have done nothing in my life to deserve it? The Lord used every obstacle in my life to show me great and tender mercy.
I became both disabled and unemployed at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. I lost my car when its engine seized. Our weekly catechetical classes were all but impossible to schedule because of work schedules, my lack of transportation, and pressing parish needs that strained our chronically ill priest. Yet, all of these obstacles became unimaginable blessings for me. I was offered the job of personal assistant to Father Jim. With the help of some parishioners, I was able to find a vehicle that was better suited both to my mobility problems and to the gear I needed for an infant. Even the pain of my shattered pelvis seemed manageable. With my new job as parish secretary, I discovered with great joy that the once-weekly catechetical classes to which I so looked forward became daily discussions and “hands-on” experience. Our “catechetical talks,” as Father Jim refers to them now, took place at the church, in my home, at local restaurants, and even in the hospital when my son was born. Father Jim gave me free reign of his personal library, and I read as many books as I could over the next two years. Four years later, I look back on this time as the most enjoyable time of my life.
Such a joyous time was this for me, that I was caught almost off-guard when Father Jim began discussing the schedule of Holy Week and included my chrismation in the schedule. Had it been that long? Had I learned what I was supposed to learn? Was this real? This was what I had longed for since I first attended liturgy a year prior. Now, here I was, my beloved son in my arms, a home of my own, a job that I truly loved, with friends and family by my side and tears in my eyes: Orthodox. Maria. My amazing godmother had named me for the Mother of God, telling me that I was tasked with raising a great man who would follow in the footsteps of Christ. A month later, with even more tears of even greater joy, my son was baptized.
It is now three years later, and our lives have changed once again. In the last three years, my son and I have experienced great pain and great healing. In 2008, I left the security of Holy Trinity to move to Mobile, AL where a new job as an apartment community manager was waiting for me, and where my fiancé was currently living and working. During the move, my son was sent for a two-week visit with his father. At the end of those two weeks, I drove to Atlanta to pick him up from his father’s house and found to my absolute horror that the house was empty, listed for sale, and that his father and grandparents were nowhere to be found. It took an act of God, and I mean that literally, for the local sheriff’s department to even file a report, and it took, I know, more strength than I possess myself to get through the coming months.
While I was in Atlanta trying to find my two-year-old son, I lost my job and the apartment that went with it. My then-fiancé abandoned me in favor of “hanging out with the guys.” My attorney was unable to obtain an emergency hearing so that my son could come home with me. My parents were so “overspent” emotionally and financially that they would not even allow me to bring up the subject, much less discuss my fragile and broken emotional state. I felt I had lost everything, and I now know that it was only by the grace of God that I even managed to get out of bed. Even in retrospect, it is still unimaginable to me that I was able to file the court paperwork, find a new job, move into a new house, purchase furniture, decorate my son’s new bedroom, and continue moving forward having no idea when I might see or even speak to my son again. In my desperation and isolation, it was in the Church I found counsel and in Christ I found hope. When my son finally came home with me, four months later, he came home to great celebration from the parish at Holy Trinity and the priests at Holy Trinity in Biloxi, MS; Holy Transfiguration in Marietta, GA; and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Mobile, AL – all of whom had cried with me, prayed for me, and helped me rebuild my life and my home.
Over the course of the next several months Father Jim retired, I left the fiancé who abandoned me so utterly in my need, and my son and I relocated to Atlanta to be closer both to my parents and his father. I struggled for months with depression, illness, poverty, and “functional homelessness,” moving from one friend’s couch to the next until I finally found an apartment that I could afford. It has proven to be worth it though, as I have now started, again with the help of my local parish, to forge ahead and make a life for my little family. My son is happily attending preschool, taught by my mother, and we spend our days playing, learning, and praying together as mother and child. We even have a dog – a black lab in “foster” care in our home.
Recently, I have started attending St. John the Wonderworker (OCA) in Grant Park, Atlanta, GA. Here I have experienced the same openness and love that I experienced at Holy Trinity among the small group of women within the parish. Their loving outreach to my son and myself has shown me again something which I started from the day of that first Agape Vespers four years ago: The love of Christ, the message of the Gospel, is universal. It becomes fairly apparent to me that the compassion of the faithful is, when exercised as I have seen in the Orthodox Church, close to universal as well. It should be, in any event, a love shown to all people, no matter the scenario.
It is this love and compassion which has helped to carry me through life, showing me that, even as a single mother with few resources, I can always know the mercy of God and the love of His people. To some people, I know it seems hard to relate to me. I am, however, merely human. Perhaps I am more in touch with my very real mortality and my very great and grievous errors than other women my age. I know my lawlessness, and my sin is always before me (Psalm 50:5, SAAS). I have told many people that we all have our baggage; mine just chases me around and calls me Mommy. My son is also my greatest blessing, and a profound miracle in my life. His mere existence brought me to the Church, and our lives will continue to be shaped by our faith forever. I am still physically disabled from the pregnancy, and I likely always will be. Yet God has used these constant reminders of my sin and my mortality to show me again and again his endless and unfathomable mercy – mercy which I know I did nothing to earn.