Another Understanding of Life

Author: Cody Lowe
Date Published: 01/19/2003

The tall man with a long, graying beard and flowing black cassock looks like a priest from another time and another place. Perhaps from turn-of-the-century Russia or Eastern Europe.

But here on North Mill Road in Salem, he climbs through doors built into the side of a former Frito-Lay delivery truck, walks through a display of dozens of icons of Christ and the saints, slips past racks of books on Eastern Orthodox Christianity and slides into the driver’s seat.

He flips a switch.

Gears turn under a golden painted cross atop a cupola built onto the truck’s roof. The cross tilts to the driver’s side, rotates 90 degrees toward the back, and lies flat.

“That’s how we’re able to drive it,” the Rev. Michael Furry says with obvious delight.

With the cross reclining, the truck is 13-feet, 5-inches high – 1 inch under the legal limit for such vehicles, Furry said.

Furry had been stumped by the problem of the too-tall cross for some time before praying for St. Innocent of Alaska, a Russian Orthodox missionary and clockmaker, to intercede for him.

Right away, Furry came up with the solution he’s now using. For him, it proved the effectiveness of prayer.

St. Innocent is the patron saint of Furry’s 7-month-old mission to bring an English-language version of Orthodox Christianity to the Roanoke Valley.

A former electrical engineering student at the University of Kentucky, Furry moved to the Roanoke Valley last June after starting a church in Charlottesville. He uses his eye-catching bookmobile to draw the curious on street corners, at county fairs and city markets.

Furry’s mission is under the auspices of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. It is a relatively small diocese, based in New York and recognized by the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in America.

Furry, 46, emphasizes that, “We’re not Bulgarian and our services are entirely in English.”

“It’s a tradition in Orthodoxy when missionaries go out the first thing they do is translate the prayers and services into the local languages. . . . The idea is for the church to be indigenous,” Furry said.

That’s what St. Innocent did in Alaska in the mid-19th century, translating the Scriptures and Russian Orthodox services into the Aleut and Tlinglit languages of the natives.

Those services are based on texts that date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches all trace their creation to the missionary work of the Apostles shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

A major rift came to a head in the 11th century, with the Eastern Orthodox churches giving their allegiance to the patriarch in Istanbul or Constantinople and the Catholic churches to the pope in Rome.

Although there continue to be many similarities between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths – veneration of Mary and the saints, for instance, a priesthood restricted to males and a view of the eucharist as truly the body and blood of Christ – there are some differences.

Orthodox priests can marry – although monks and nuns cannot. Many Orthodox services, including those held in the temporary chapel behind the Furry home, are longer than most Catholic or Protestant services, and the participants generally stand throughout.

For Furry, raised a Catholic, perhaps the most significant difference is the Orthodox emphasis on the mystical elements of Christianity.

As a priest, “my job is to serve the sacraments,” Furry said. “It doesn’t mean I’m more spiritual” than other believers, he said. “All of our theology is contained in the services. I’m not supposed to be an innovative theologian, but to transmit what has been handed down to us.”

The Western church, he said, has become “very rational,” downplaying what he sees as the role of “the other part of being” represented in a mystical spirituality.

The tradition’s prayers “transport us to another understanding of life,” Furry said. “When we say those words we begin to think like the holy men and women who wrote them, and they transform our minds.”

Orthodox churches are largely ethnically or nationally defined. In the United States, however, immigrant groups have tended to bring their own Orthodox priests and practices with them.

The largest Eastern Orthodox church in the United States is the Greek Orthodox church, represented by a long-standing congregation in the Roanoke Valley. Nationally, a recent independent study determined there are about 440,000 Greek Orthodox adherents.

By contrast, the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese with which Furry is affiliated has about 4,400 adherents nationwide.

A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicates that Orthodox churches generally are suffering membership losses from second-, third- and later-generation members who no longer have strong ties to the ethnic or national identification of their parents and grandparents – including their languages.

Furry believes the way to attract new members to the Orthodox faith is through churches such as his own that conduct services faithful in theology and style to the origins of Orthodoxy but in the dominant language of the culture.

“For me, it was the beauty of the prayers, the sense of holiness” that was striking as they began to study Orthodoxy 20 years ago, said Furry’s wife, Susan.

The two met in Richmond, where they both belonged to a parish of Christ the Savior Brotherhood. It was an Orthodox-leaning offshoot of a church called The Holy Order of MANS. Originally it was, as Michael Furry describes it, a “1970s, New Age” kind of church mixing a lot of different religious beliefs.

By the mid-1980s, however, when he and Susan met and married at the church in Richmond, it had become Eastern Orthodox in belief and practice.

A visiting Russian Orthodox priest planted a seed of missionary fervor in the couple. They bought the 1969 Chevrolet van that once had delivered potato chips and converted it into a bookmobile and mobile family chapel.

It took months to get the hulking vehicle converted and running. Michael continued to operate his own home-repair business and Susan to work as a registered nurse until their first child was born in 1986. She became a stay-at-home mom and has home-schooled all three of their children.

In the meantime, Michael Furry became a reader, then a sub-deacon and by 1993 was ordained a deacon in the church. In 1995, they moved to Charlottesville filled with the desire to start a new church.

By the time they left that congregation last year, Furry had been ordained a priest, and the church had grown to 25-30 regulars.

Michael Furry originally had expected to become the resident priest for an order of nuns planning to move from California to Virginia. When that move fell through, and the group stopped in Arizona, the Furry family decided to stay in Roanoke.

“We had scouted Roanoke” before deciding on Charlottesville, said Susan, 51. They discovered the Roanoke Valley had no English-speaking Eastern Orthodox congregation. In addition, they had friends in the Roanoke Valley and would be near Susan’s family in Chatham, where she grew up in the Church of Christ.

For now, the bookmobile stays mostly in the back yard while Michael Furry explores zoning and business licensing regulations for using it here.

The family also has a temporary chapel behind their house at 1407 North Mill Road in Salem, just off Kessler Mill Road.

“We feel like we’re just getting started,” Michael Furry said. He continues to be an independent home-repair contractor to pay the bills – much as the Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker to earn a livelihood – and conducts several services a week.

For now, the congregation is small. Perhaps only two or three visitors in addition to the five family members – except when oldest daughter Anna, 16, is away studying with the nuns in Arizona.

“We’re looking for a larger setting,” Michael Furry said, “but for now we don’t have enough people for it to be a problem.”

“Accessibility is a big issue for us,” Susan Furry said, and a desire to work with “people who for one reason or another have rejected or never heard of Christianity.

“They’ll find that Orthodoxy is very different from what they rejected.”

Information on the St. Innocent of Alaska Eastern Orthodox Mission, service times and directions are available online at www.saintinnocent.com or by calling 389-6226.

Cody Lowe can be reached

at 981-3425 or cody.lowe@roanoke.com.