My journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Jim Forest

An interview with Jim Forest made in mid-October 2007 by Elena Nazarova for Nikolaas in de Jordaan, the quarterly journal of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. For more about the parish, see its web site: www.orthodox.nl.

EN: Dear Jim, we know you for a long time as a member of our parish, so I suppose it is time to get acquainted once again. What I mean is that fifteen years ago, when our family first appeared in a little chapel in Utrechtsedwaarsstraat, our parish consisted of no more than 30 people. You and Nancy were one of the first to greet us, and let us feel at home in church, and to offer your help and assistance in difficult times. We are very grateful for this, and very happy to know you both. But since then our parish has grown very much, and it is difficult for church members to know everyone even though we are praying side by side every week. So that’s why this interview.

Please tell about yourself. What are you — an American — doing here, in a Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam? Let’s begin from the beginning. Where were you born and who were your parents? Were they believers? Tell us please about your childhood.

JF: I was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah, which is in the western part of the USA. It’s a city best known as the main center for the Mormons, a strange variety of Protestant Christianity that is based on what its founders regarded as a lost book of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. But it wasn’t because of the Mormons or their beliefs that we were there. My parents were people on the political left. My father had been sent to Utah to be the regional organizer of the Communist Party. I know I’m not the only member of our parish who grew up in such a home. Father Sergei is another, and I’m sure there are others.

EN: As the son of Communists growing during the Cold War, did you ever feel an outcast in America?

JF: Not exactly an outcast but certainly someone living under a shadow. While the interest of the FBI was focused in my parents, especially my father, there was one occasion when FBI agents finger-printed my brother and me. I think they did it just to alarm the family. Of course I never mentioned to friends anything about my parents ideological convictions, but the FBI had visited our neighbors and probably also spoke to teachers at the school my brother and I attended. I never felt I had lost a friend due to my parents’ activities and views, but it was a scary time. I recall the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted of passing on information about nuclear weapons to the USSR, and my having the feeling that they might not have done anything except belong to the Communist Party — though as an adult I began to wonder if they might not have been guilty of the charges that were made against them. There certainly were Americans in the Communist Party who felt a greater loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the US — people for whom the USSR was a kind of paradise in the making and Stalin a saintly leader.

EN: Did your parents have strong anti-religious views?

JF: Luckily, no. Though in principle both parents regarded themselves as atheists, neither was in fact personally hostile to religion. I was fortunate. My father had a Roman Catholic past — he had once thought seriously of becoming a priest — and my mother had grown up in a devout Protestant home. At least twice a year, Christmas and Easter, my mother took my brother and me to church.

EN: How did you get involved in Christianity?

When I was about eleven, thanks to the invitation of a friend, I visited a local Anglican church and found myself amazingly at home there. What attracted me was the Eucharistic service, in its main elements similar to our Orthodox Divine Liturgy, only not so long. This made me ask to be baptized — I wanted to be able to receive communion. It was as a catechumen being prepared for baptism that I began to understand such Greek words as Eucharist, meaning an act of thanksgiving, and liturgy, a public work. On the day of my baptism, the priest gave me what I now think of as a prophetic gift, an ancient Byzantine coin with the image of Christ Pantocrator on one side. This period of my life was the beginning of my complicated journey that finally led me, many years later, to the Orthodox Church.

As for other aspects of my childhood — well, it was in many ways amazingly normal, except that for about half of 1953 my father was in prison, as were many Communists in those days, while our family was being closely watched by the FBI. Even so, it is remarkable how normal one can be in such an abnormal situation. I was a Boy Scout, I delivered newspapers, I read a great deal, I enjoyed school, I was active in the church where I had been baptized, serving at the altar.

EN: What happened then? Have you met special people and was there some special experience in your youth? Tell please about your participation in anti-war struggle.

JF: For the latter part of my teen-age years I fell away from the church and described myself as an agnostic. I had acquired the idea that churches were for the simple-minded and that nature provided better places to worship. My religious life rekindled when I was in the Navy. I had quite a strong religious experience. As a result I returned to the Anglican Church.

Several of the big events of my life happened while I was in the military. I had been trained in meteorology and was part of a Navy meteorological unit working at the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau, just outside Washington, DC. It was fascinating work — it was the time when we had use of the first weather satellite. I did well in my work and was glad to be stationed in Washington.

While in Washington, my religious life was in a state of transition. The more aware I became of how deep the theological and liturgical divisions were among Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US), the more troubled I was. This led me finally to become Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church one met the same Liturgy in every parish church, and the same beliefs. Also I was impressed by how Catholics were responding to social issues — homelessness, hunger, violence. It seemed to me a church touching people’s lives more deeply — and also that it was not an elitist church. Perhaps, had I known about Orthodox Christianity at the time, I would have become Orthodox much earlier than I did, but my single Orthodox encounter at the time was with a Greek parish that was not welcoming to people who weren’t Greek. If you didn’t speak Greek, why were you there?

About the same time the peace aspect of my life began to come into focus. It was really the consequence of reading the Gospel. Despite my family background, I wasn’t politically minded, in fact someone who kept his distance from anything political, but I could see that there were certain qualities any Christian has to try to bring into his daily life. One of the major themes of the Gospel is forgiveness. Another is love, including love of enemies. I could see both these qualities not only in the words of Jesus but in the way he related to people around him. It struck me that he killed no one and that he gave no one a blessing to kill. Instead again and again he reached out to people who opposed him. Even when he was dying on the cross, he appealed to his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion.

About this time the US, through the CIA, arranged an invasion of Cuba — the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was in the early spring of 1961. I was shocked and ashamed both about the event itself and also the fact that, in the days following, it was claimed by President Kennedy that the US had nothing to do with the invasion. Then, when the press was ready to publish evidence that it was in fact a CIA operation, Kennedy admitted the truth. A few days later, when I read in The Washington Post about a small group of people who were praying in silence in front of a CIA building in Washington to protest to invasion, it seemed to me what they were doing was an appropriate response. After work and wearing civilian clothes, I went down to the place they were standing and joined them. I thought, as a US citizen, that anyone could engage in peaceful protest. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be getting into trouble, but in fact I got into a great deal of trouble. Photos had been taken. I was recognized. My commanding officer was outraged. I was threatened with prison. Luckily, thanks to help from others including several supportive people in the Navy, instead I received an early discharge as a conscientious objector. It was only later in life that I had some times in jail.

EN: What happened when you left the Navy?

JF: The next stop was to join a small Christian community in New York, the Catholic Worker, which was helping people who were living rough in the streets in what was an especially poor part of Manhattan. We ran a free kitchen and gave out clothing. It was led by a remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. She is likely in the coming years to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. One of my books is a biography of her.

EN: Maybe, it is very personal, but how did you find your way to God? I don’t mean joining the church yet, but just when was it possible for you to give a “yes” answer to a question of God’s existence? Was there a turning point?

JF: Even in those earlier times in my life when I was embarrassed to speak about belief in God, even then I had a sense of God’s existence and the fact that God was not distant. This may be partly due to my parents, especially my mother. I vividly remember, in my mother’s case, the sorrow in her voice when, answering my question about God, she said she didn’t think God existed. The answer was less important to me than the deep sorrow in her voice when she said it. Why was she so sad? Not many years later, while I was in the Navy, she managed to find her way back to her Christian roots. She had left the Communist Party some years earlier, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary. My father also eventually left the Communist Party, in his case late in his life.

EN: And the Orthodox Church? I suppose it was a long way before you found your way to the church. And as far as I know by this time you were looking for this way together with Nancy…

JF: Both Nancy and I were Catholics but not quite at home in any parish. By this time the Catholic Church, quite notably in Holland but in many other countries as well, was deeply divided. In its attempts to modernize, it had much too quickly changed its approach to worship. Practically everything that the Church had once taught was being challenged if not rejected. I envied what seemed to me the deeper roots and stability of Orthodox Christianity, but I still had the idea who had to be born in an Orthodox culture to be accepted as a fellow Orthodox.

EN: How did you make your living?

JF: After I left the Catholic Worker community, most of my jobs were in journalism. I worked for a time for a business magazine in New York, later for a daily newspaper, then for a news service, and later still edited a monthly magazine. I also did a lot of freelance writing. I also had what I joke about being my “sabbatical” — a year in prison in 1969-1970 for protest against the war in Vietnam. My life has been a mixture of writing, journalism, and also involvement in peace activities.

EN: Is the chaining-yourself-to-the-rails story true? I’ve heard you did something like this during the Vietnam war?

JF: I have never been chained to any rails! I was briefly in jail several times for acts of civil disobedience — for example in 1961 I was one of the people blocking the entrance to an office of the government agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. It was a protest against atmospheric tests of the H-bomb. I was jailed for about a month. It was quite an interesting experience.

Later on, in 1969, when I was about 27, I had a much longer time in prison, about thirteen months. It was during the Vietnam War. I was one of a group of fourteen people who removed files from a the military conscription center for the city of Milwaukee and then burned the files in a nearby park.

EN: Looking back on that experience, can you say it gave you some special inner experience?

JF: Definitely! It became part of my daily discipline to read at least a chapter of the New Testament. I spent more time praying. I was fortunate to be in a prison that not only had a library but a library that was part of the state university library system. If they didn’t have a book I wanted, they could always get it for me. I had always wanted to read Russian literature but hadn’t had time. Now I had both the time and the opportunity. I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then Anne Karenina, and went on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” were particularly important. I also owe a debt to Gorky, especially the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood, with its astonishing description of his very devout grandmother. All this reading eventually played a part in my finding mt way to the Orthodox Church.

EN: What brought you to Holland?

JF: I came here in 1977 to head the staff of a peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also edit its journal. It was a job I had for twelve years.

It was in connection with that work that I went to Russia the first time in 1983 to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I had intentionally come a few days early. During those days, with the help of an English-speaking member of the staff of the External Affairs Department, I visited most of the active parishes in Moscow as well as Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. What I saw surprised and impressed me. For all the obstacles church life was confronted with, it was clear to me that there was a strength and vitality in the Russian Church that was not only quite different than what I had been led to expect by western press reports, in fact a vitality unlike anything I had ever personally experienced before in any church in any country. I proposed to the Moscow Patriarchate that I write a book about the Church in Russia. In 1983, because of the political restraints imposed on the Church, it wasn’t possible, but by 1985, after the election of Gorbachev, things changed rapidly. I was given the permission that I had been seeking and began to travel widely in Russia, assisted by an English-speaking priest from Kiev, Fr. Boris Udovenko. In 1988 the book was published: Pilgrim to the Russian Church. That was followed a year later by a second book, Religion in the New Russia, which included a detailed description of the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Russia.

EN: Did you have contact at the time with the Orthodox parish in Amsterdam?

JF: It must have been about 1983 that I first met Fr Alexis Voogd and his wife Tatiana. Both of them were teaching at the University of Amsterdam. They loaned me books and gave me advice about people and places I should visit in Russia. But it wasn’t until the December 1987 that Fr. Alexis pointed out to me that, having visited so many Orthodox churches in Russia, wasn’t it time to visit the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam?

That did it! Nancy and I came to the parish for the first time in January 1988. It was a small community in those days but very strong. Once we started coming, it became impossible to be anywhere else on Sunday. A few months alter, on Palm Sunday, I was chrismated and the same happened to Nancy on Pentecost. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary as Orthodox Christians.

EN: Tell please about the people who influenced you most to make your choice, to become Orthodox, and about your spiritual teachers.

JF: Fr. Alexis [Voogd], of course. Thank God for all his advice and encouragement. Also Tatiana [Voogd]. Then there was Margot Muntz, another of the founders of the parish. She had come to Amsterdam from the USA just after the Second World War and never left. Her husband, Pierre, was Russian. Margot had an amazing gift for noticing strangers and making them feel at home. And then there was Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Nancy and I went year after year to the Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, partly just to hear him speak. I felt as if I had met one of the apostles — one of the people who had witnessed Christ’s miracles, someone who had seen the risen Christ.

EN: We know you as an editor of a magazine “In Communion”. Can you tell more about it and about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship? Also about your lectures in America and elsewhere.

JF: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an international association of Orthodox Christians who seek to practice the peace of Christ in everyday life. The group has its roots in the Amsterdam parish. Its existence has a lot to do both with Fr. Alexis Voogd and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. Both thought that to be Orthodox shaped the way you live your life, how you relate to other people, what kind of work you do, how you respond to conflict and enemies. It was especially Fr. Sergei who gave me the blessing to do this work. Another member of the parish, Michael Bakker, is the OPF president, and the treasurer is parish member Silouan Duetekom.

It was from Fr. Sergei — in those days he was still a theological student in St. Petersburg — I learned the Russian word miloserdia — the works of mercy. Miloserdia is what we do to translate of the Liturgy into daily life. There is a great deal on this topic in the writings of the Church Fathers, such saints as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, but also many others. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship journal, “In Communion”, is simply a means to explore these topics via the written word. “In Communion” also exists as a web site — www.incommunion.org — where all the articles in past issues are available as well as many other texts and resources. The lectures I sometimes give are just another means of doing the same thing, except in a way that permits dialogue. Also I’ve written a number of books. Books tend to generate invitations to speak.

EN: Books are in some way like children. You bear them, give them birth and care of them. Please tell us about your books for adults and books for children.

JF: Probably the most translated of the books is Praying with Icons — just this week we received the first copies of the Romanian edition. Ladder of the Beatitudes has also been widely read. There is a book on confession — Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.  There are two biographies, one of Thomas Merton, the other of Dorothy Day. The most recent book is The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life — a book that looks at pilgrimage both as a physical journey to sacred places but also as a way of being even if you living the most ordinary life and never crossing a border. Also just published is a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, which is about a recently canonized Russian saint, Maria Skobtsova, who rescued many people who were in danger when the Nazis occupied France. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. One of her main collaborators was Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, who also perished in a concentration camp. Fr. Dimitri’s granddaughter, Tania Bos, is a member of our parish, so we have a special tie.

EN: We all know that you and Nancy have to undergo a serious operation soon. You have already written about your experience of illness — there is a chapter about it in your pilgrimage book. Can you tell us something in this respect?

JF: I’ve had kidney illness the last few years. Since January 2006 this has meant I have to have sessions of dialysis three times a week. At the end of October I’m due to receive a new kidney — Nancy is the donor. If the operation is successful, it will make it a lot easier to work and travel. Say a prayer!

EN: We all wish you and Nancy a lot of courage for the forthcoming events, we love you both and wish you God’s help for every moment of your life.

* * *
published in the December 2007 issue of Nikolaas in de Jordaan
* * *