It’s All a Joy: A Conversation with Fr. Alexis Baldwin on His Experiences as a Young Mission Priest in South Carolina

Fr Alexis Baldwin converted to the Holy Orthodox
Church in 2009. A graduate of St Tikhon’s Orthodox
Theological Seminary in 2013, he was ordained to the holy
priesthood on July 14 of that year on the feast of All
Saints of Britain and Ireland. He is currently the priest
in charge at Holy Resurrection Mission in North Augusta,
SC.

I had the joy of studying with Fr. Alexis in seminary
and getting to know him and his wife Matushka Veronica and
their children. Fr. Alexis was always approachable, in a
good mood, passionate about the Orthodox faith, and
hard-working, even pulling double duty as the seminary
cook while simultaneously taking classes.

I had the great pleasure of catching up with Fr.
Alexis recently in Kiev where he was on pilgrimage, and
especially of attending services together at the Kiev Caves
Lavra. While there we also found some time to chat
about his life, work, struggles, and joys as a young
priest serving in a small mission parish in the American
south.

Fr. Alexis Baldwin
Fr. Alexis Baldwin

Fr. Alexis, please tell us about your work as the
priest of a small mission parish.

Of course being a mission priest is a challenge because
the mission priest usually has a double task, meaning they
have to work and work at the mission at the same time, and
I think that’s the biggest challenge.
Anytime you work it divides up your time, and that’s
not good. As Fr. Atty1 used to say, a
priest has to give 100% to his family and 100% to the
Church.

How do you work that out?

You don’t. It doesn’t have to make any sense.
There are a lot of things in the spiritual life like that,
and I think we began to encounter them even in seminary.
Things don’t necessarily have to make sense on
paper, but by the grace of
God they work out and they make sense. If you put the
work in and you’re under the guidance of your bishop
and working with priests in your diocese then God provides
the fruit. But it’s a lot of work and it’s a
challenge.

That was a big concern. We didn’t move out to South
Carolina to work my secular job, which is roasting coffee.
It pays the bills and I’m happy that God has allowed
me to be in a place where I can have a job that not only
am I good at but I enjoy, but from the very beginning
there was an understanding with the secular job that the
reason I’m in South Carolina is to be a priest and
serve the Church, and there can never be a conflict in
those schedules.

It’s good that you found a place that is
understanding about that.

Thank God, they’re very understanding. From the very
beginning I was very open with my boss and manager about
who I am, what I do, and what’s important. I like
working there, but they understand that my priority lies
with the Church. They may not understand the Church but
they understand where the priority lies. That’s part
of the struggle, but of course, I have to tell you, Fr.
Atty used to say that every priest is a mission priest,
and because of that I think mission priests share in the
joy of the priesthood, period. It’s all joy. Even
the struggle is a joy. It may not feel like it sometimes,
but it’s all a joy.

Fr.
Athanasy2 once said
there’s nothing in the world even close to
standing in front of the altar.

I remember that.

Fr. Athanasy was very memorable. So there’s nothing
comparable—it’s all joy. Even the hardest
struggles are all worth it because you have the joy of
serving the Church as a priest in that sacred vocation. No
matter what hurdles come up, whether they’re
financial, or structural, or something in the community,
if you’re faithful God will not only increase the
blessings of your faithfulness, but He provides.

Could you give us some examples in which
you’ve seen this?

When we first got there one of the biggest challenges that
we had was to move the mission chapel from inside the
parsonage house to another separate building. In order to
do that we had to completely renovate it. It’s
fantastic that the community had saved money before I even
got there, so that aspect was particularly easy, but there
is a tendency in mission work that to think that when you
set a goal and you complete it then everything is going
well. But those baby steps are still only baby steps.

For us, something that we never thought was possible was
to have a brand new roof on the chapel.

I remember your Go Fund Me page about
that.

We had a Go Fund Me which was the idea of one of the
parish council members, and the Lord provided. We had some
money but we needed $6.000, and just like that, with the
help of some friends who helped organize everything
online, thank God, we were able to raise that money. The
roof was not only necessary, but it was a major step in
moving forward as a mission community—seeing that
these things are possible. That’s one example.

I think another example is to see the new people coming
into the mission in such a short period of time. Our
membership hasn’t quite yet doubled.

You went from twelve to twenty, right? Starting
from twelve, that’s a serious leap.

Of course twelve is a good, Biblical number, maybe we
shouldn’t have grown [laughs]. Twenty is a good
increase and we’ve only been there a year and a
half. So we thank God for that. But we see that, frankly,
Orthodoxy is hard. It’s not easy, and building a
mission is not easy. I’m not saying that because I
want sympathy, but the truth is that it takes constant
work in moving forward with the vision of growing the
parish, and doing outreach. We’ve written so many
articles for the local paper because of course no one else
is going to write an article on Orthodoxy and put it in
the paper in our area.

So you write about Orthodoxy in general or about
your parish?

Blessing of Water
Blessing of Water
I
write about our parish and our events, for example.
This past year I wanted to do something memorable for
the Blessing of the Water, so we chose a park
that’s close to the mission but is connected to
the local culture. No one is blessing the Savannah
River in our area, so I figured we’d do that.
During the Nativity season I wanted to run an article
in the paper the next city over, so I sent them one
on Nativity in the Orthodox Church. The lady called
me and said she didn’t really want to run an
article on Nativity but she said she had read on our
website about the Blessing of the Water and she asked
what that was about. I explained what we do, and when
we’re doing it. She said it sounded interesting
and that she’d come with a photographer, and
they showed up! They stayed for the service and did a
whole spread on the event. It was in the Augusta
Paper which about 30,000 people read. In our part of
the country the paper is good exposure because people
still read the actual, physical paper. They read it
online, but also on paper too. She did a nice big
write-up with great pictures and action shots. They
asked questions afterwards too and it all went in the
religion section. Nobody came to church because of
that, but at least a dozen people in different
scenarios talked to me and Matushka about that
article, including people at her work two towns over.
I know people read it.

I’ve had the blessing to have a number of great
mentors, including Fr. Damian Kuolt who brought us into
the Church, our spiritual fathers at seminary, spending a
year in Colorado Springs with Fr. Anthony Karbo, and then
coming to the Diocese of the South with many excellent
mentor priests in my deanery and diocese. It’s a
spiritual treasure. One of the things that all of them
have consistently encouraged is to take every opportunity
to evangelize. So I write these articles for the paper
because I want to take that opportunity and I want people
to know about our Nativity, and about our Pascha, and the
Blessing of the Water, and so on. We’ve had six or
seven articles in the paper since I’ve been in the
mission, and they print them all and they print what I
write.

They don’t change anything?

No, they don’t change anything—they just print
it. I thank God for that. No one has come to church
because they read an article in the paper but a few have
come because they found our site online. As a mission
priest you just keep doing all those outreach things.

You never know which one will work. You said
people are reading the articles, so although they
haven’t shown up yet, maybe it’s something
they’re thinking about. You never know.

In some ways that’s part of mission work.
You’re going in and working hard, not just for the
immediate result but for long-term results. You never know
what will touch people’s hearts. Only God knows.

You try to be all things for all men and leave it
up to God in the end.

Yes.

So you’ve mentioned St. Tikhon’s and
you’ve quoted Fr. Athanasy and Fr. Atty. How would
you say seminary really prepared you for being a priest,
and in what ways could it not prepare you—things you
just have to learn on the job?

One of the things I’ve talked about is all the joys
I have in life. Of course becoming Orthodox is a great
joy, then getting married in the Church is another great
joy. Every time we have another child, being ordained,
coming to the South—these are all great joys. But,
in a way what seminary prepares for you is that spiritual
life and structure which they emphasized, especially at
St. Tikhon’s with the monastic cycle of services. As
Fr. Atty exhorted us again and again, we go to the
services because we need them and they fill us up to do
that work. Seminary set that really firmly in my life. The
only thing that gets me through most times when there are
challenges is that solid spiritual life. But of course
seminary can’t prepare you for everything because
there’s so much that you can’t cover
everything. Also, you can’t actually create the
reality of being a priest in charge of a mission parish in
seminary, because you’re not that—you’re
a seminarian. Seminary prepares you for many things, but
it can’t really prepare you for taking over a
parish.

St Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary
St Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Of course every parish will have its particular
circumstances, but you’ve said seminary gave you a
foundation from which to deal with these things. I
remember when Dr.
Christopher Veniamin said that seminary gives us a
worldview, not just specific information. It forms how we
approach everything.

I stick with the prayers and the life and order of the
Church. That’s what’s always important to me.
What does the Church teach? What does my bishop say? And I
try to just stay inside of that. Outside of that all I can
say is that we really believe that what is lacking is made
up for in ordination. I don’t understand precisely
what that means but I can tell you that I don’t know
if I can explain to you how I got where I am, except that
it’s the grace of God. It’s certainly not me.
I have to work with the Holy Spirit. I have to work with
God. I’ve seen so many priests before me do that
that I just trust that God provides.

You were the second priest in Colorado
Springs?

I was an assistant priest there, and I completed
essentially a one-year internship. It’s an
interesting thing that they have set up in the deanery
there. Basically what I did was to travel around the
deanery …

I remember Fr. Andreas Blom and Fr. Benjamin
Huggins
3 doing
this.

Fr. Andreas kind of set the mold for the whole thing, and
Fr. Benjamin too. So I went around and served Liturgy and
gave a homily at the different parishes, and interviewed
the priests and got the history. I got to know the priests
and the people and talked with them. I kept a journal.
While I was there in Colorado Springs I worked at the Agia
Sophia Coffee House, and it was an amazing opportunity and
I think I was a good fit for that apprenticeship with my
experience in cooking and coffee. As you know, it would be
hard to argue that I’m somehow lacking sociable
skills. I think I’m pretty approachable.

So a coffee shop atmosphere is an easy place for me to be
in that sense, and because I have some experience.
I’m also grateful for the time in Agia Sophia which
taught me a lot about relating to people and presenting
the Church in a unique way. It’s named Agia Sophia,
there are icons on the wall, Orthodox chants on the radio,
there’s a priest in a cassock behind the counter
making your latte, and all the books on the shelf are
Orthodox, except for maybe a few philosophy books. Yet,
99.9% of the clientele are not Orthodox Christians. This
is a unique opportunity because you talk to a thousand
people a year or more who would never pick up the phone
and call you, but because you’re making a cappuccino
you’re approachable. I had so many conversations
sharing Orthodoxy with people.

Fr. Alexis Baldwin
Fr. Alexis Baldwin

I can’t tell you how many times people came up to me
and asked, “So how is Orthodoxy different from x, y,
and z?” It was a great experience and taught me a
lot about doing mission work, because it puts you in a
ready-made mission setting. People come into the coffee
shop disarmed, because for them it’s just a coffee
shop. It’s a neutral place. But it’s neutral
ground in which they experience Orthodoxy, essentially
being saturated in it, but because they feel disarmed they
don’t mind talking to the priest about Orthodoxy.
What it taught me about mission work, and taking every
opportunity to do mission, is that you have to find ways
in your city or town, in your immediate area to not only
connect with people but to bring them to an encounter with
Orthodoxy. That’s a huge challenge for a mission
priest, especially one in the middle of a Southern Baptist
area. Our town is 85% Southern Baptist. 20,000
people—85% Southern Baptist.

Have you had any opposition?

Oh, no. One thing that people are really good about in
South Carolina is that if they see the word
“church” they assume the best, so I’ve
never had any problems. It was interesting—I
mentioned to you that I’m constructing a hand-hewn
Cross. We fell a pine tree on the property and I asked the
guy to chop it into beams, and I spent a couple of weeks
shaping it into logs for a Cross. The guy that fell the
tree who owns the logging business actually made the
recommendation to turn it into a cross. This is just a guy
who logs trees, and he said they had made a few crosses
for their business and suggested that we do the same.
Those kinds of things happen all the time.

On the one hand you do get quite a bit of respect because
you’re a church. On the other hand people
don’t know what to make of us. We’re not
Catholic and we’re not Baptist so they don’t
know what we are. I’ve talked to a number of people,
giving them cards, inviting them to the church—I
haven’t seen a single one. To them Orthodoxy seems a
little foreign, so the struggle, again, of the mission
priest is to bring the Church to people in a way that they
come to the Church, that they receive the Church,
even if they’re not completely sure that they are
welcomed in a way that they feel comfortable to visit the
Church. It’s a big challenge—bigger than you
think.

We’re also on a main strip. Last year we had a state
of emergency declared in South Carolina because of
flooding, and the capital city, Columbia, was flooded very
badly in many areas, and the roads were shut down for a
day in our area. There were still cars on the road though
in front of our mission. We see a lot of traffic, people
know we’re there, they see our sign, they just
don’t know what to make of it. So we’re
working on, in the years to come, finding ways to invite
people into the Church, maybe with open houses or public
talks—something to bring them in. We did a couple of
yard sales and people came. The first time was in the
front yard and the second time was in the parish hall, so
that as they left they would have to walk by and see the
chapel. We’ve had a number of people come in and see
the church.

You just never know. It could have planted a seed
that’s just taking time to grow.

You never know, that’s true.

If you say “God, I really wish more people would
come to church and to Confession”—it’s
not a bad prayer but then when God gives you what you want
it’s scary, because you have to think,
“What’s next?” I hear their confession,
but what’s next? What’s next is usually the
Cross for you.

So He gives you a little sweetness to prepare you
for something bitter perhaps.

Right. It’s a terrible thing when God gives you what
you want. Seriously. It’s a double-edged sword. God
gives you what you want, but what if you get lazy, and
you’re more accountable?

So you asked Him for it, He gave it, and then you
just trampled on it?

Right. That’s one of the things I’ve come to
know. I shouldn’t say it’s scary but
it’s fearful, because it makes you realize the
awesomeness of God. You think this will never happen and
then it happens, and you think, “Oh this is serious,
because God made this happen.” I’ve
thought about that a lot. We can’t complain at the
mission. People are coming and it’s growing,
financially it’s growing, and we’re thanking
God. But when I think about that I think, “Alright,
things are happening …” It’s a blessing
but as a priest you think about it very severely.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain that to catechumens
because they don’t understand that principle. They
read something very severe that the Fathers write and
think, “Oh my goodness, I could never do that, this
is so terrifying.” But as a priest you expect
that—it should say that. It shouldn’t tell you
that everything is okay, don’t try hard, do the best
you can, good job. That’s not the Fathers. Who
respects a religion like that, where everything is easy?
It’s hard, because you don’t want people to
get the idea that God is punishing them. He gives as much
as you can bear, but as a priest you can’t say
“no.” This is the conundrum that you find
yourself in.

It goes back to what Fr. Atty said about giving 100% to
the Church and 100% to your family—you can’t
neglect anything. Of course the only consolation is the
Lord. You come to that conclusion very quickly. What do
you rely on? Pray to God and rely on the prayers of the
Church. It’s actually a very beautiful, joyful
thing. The emptiness in the world is a burden weighing you
down because there’s nothing to fill that emptiness.
But in the Church when that emptiness occurs the grace of
the Lord is there to fill it. You serve the services, you
say the prayers, read an Akathist. It’s easy to get
discouraged but there’s no experience like the grace
of the Holy Spirit after praying the prayers of the
Church, and asking the saints to pray for
you—there’s nothing like it! What begins to
develop in your heart is that longing for more of that
grace. Pretty soon those things that seem pretty important
in the world just don’t seem important anymore, and
hopefully you get to a point where, not only do they not
seem important, but they’re not attractive anymore.
It’s more of a burden to want to do them than to
not. They’re just not appealing anymore.

Christ says My yoke is easy
and My burden is light
. We often
think of how many things we have to give up, but if you
can begin to, you get a taste of how it’s so much
better.

There’s a real power in the crowd in our world, but
it’s a false, deluded power. Many of our Orthodox
Christians face this challenge of not wanting to stick out
too much in America—Orthodoxy is already too
foreign. But it’s a false power. People who are so
against Orthodoxy are scared of God coming to their hearts
and that’s a lie that Satan puts there to keep them
from coming to the Church. We can’t blame them and
judge them. We have to welcome them and pray and be at the
services and be faithful. If I could say one thing that
Matushka has taught me it’s faithfulness. It’s
very important.

In conclusion, we’re here in Ukraine, and of
course you have family connections, but besides that, why
have you come here, and what have you seen or learned that
you can apply to your mission?

Kiev is a beautiful city and a place of great spiritual
pilgrimage and life. I was happy to come here having had
family who visited here a number of times and told me
about visiting the Lavra,
the caves, and knowing the history of Kiev I wanted to
come on pilgrimage. I’ve always felt a little bit of
connection in some way to Ukraine and Russia and those
countries because my first exposure to Orthodoxy was
through the Byzantine Catholics who have a strong tie to
the Ukrainian region, so I knew many Ukrainians before I
even became Orthodox.

Of course there’s the family connection, with my
stepmother being Ukrainian Orthodox. I wanted to come to
that place of her spiritual home. She’s from Krivoi
Rog and she loves the Lavra. We had an interesting
encounter when we were walking by the Maidan (Liberty
Square) with a lady with pamphlets in English about
reading the Bible and the end times, and she invited us
and she was nice, but I feel that after Communism fell and
the Church has become more visible, some people have
aligned themselves with a more American sentimentality.
But Orthodoxy transcends culture and national identity. If
I’m Orthodox that’s a bond that connects me to
300 million believers that are cross-cultural: Romanian,
Kenyan, Russian, Alaskan, etc. This lady who approached us
was a Jehovah Witness I think, but as I told her, Ukraine
is Orthodox. Why did I want to come to Ukraine? Because
it’s Orthodox.

For us, who are so small in the United States, I think
there’s something inspiring, not only as a priest
but just as an Orthodox Christian, to come to a place
where Orthodoxy is now thriving, and also where it
historically has thrived, and such great spiritual giants
walked and prayed and lived and died. It’s a great
blessing to be able to do that, so I’m thanking God
for that.

Thank you for your time, Fr. Alexis, and for
sharing some of your inspiring experiences and thoughts
with us.

You’re very welcome.

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